• Paul Soprano

A Visit to Cleveland Airport in the 1930s


The 1929 "airway station" consisting of the administration building with the raised control tower and terminal with the waiting room addition from 1935 at left. (jwhshd via flickr.com)

By the middle of the 1930s, Cleveland Municipal Airport (CLE) was over a decade old and remained a leader in the pioneering early days of commercial aviation, not only in the United States, but around the world.


The relative importance of the Cleveland area during this period may be surprising to those only familiar with its more recent history of population decline and poverty, industrial decay, and the loss of several airline hubs, including United's, twice (this is an aviation blog, after all), In the 1930 US Census, Cleveland had a bit over 900,000 residents and was the "Sixth City," ranking just after Los Angeles in terms of population!


Northeast Ohio had become an industrial powerhouse, a center for the steel, machinery, auto parts, and rubber (if you include neighboring Akron) industries, with busy railways and a bustling maritime port, as well as all the financial and legal services needed by those businesses.


It also was a center of the nascent aeronautical industry. The Cleveland Plain Dealer (April 21, 1929) noted, "An increase in aircraft manufacturing (including the Glenn L. Martin Airplane Co., [which soon moved to Baltimore, but was replaced by the less successful Great Lakes Aircraft Corp.], air lines operated, aerial services offered, the number of airports, airplane sales, private and business flying, the training of student pilots and the making of parts and accessories," as well as the soon-to-be-held National Air Races, all supported the contention that aviation was soon to take on a similarly important role as the city's other, more traditional industries.


These industries also attracted talent from around the world, both skilled and unskilled, particularly from the "Old Country" in Europe. Immigrants from Poland, Hungary, Italy, Slovakia, Slovenia and many more countries flocked to the vibrant metropolis on the shores of Lake Erie for economic opportunities and political freedom. A boom town like Cleveland required a fitting airport that kept pace with the technological and cultural changes that aviation was starting to bring about in the US.


Aerial view of the 1929 terminal airside under construction. (Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection)

View of the bullpen area with gates in front of the 1929 terminal at CLE. (jwhshd via flickr.com)

Cleveland Municipal Airport, opened on July 1, 1925, continued to grow in importance and prominence. The airport opened its modern administration building and terminal in fall 1929. Air traffic had grown tremendously at Cleveland. In the Aircraft Yearbook for 1932 published by the Aeronautical Chamber of Commerce, Cleveland ranked only after Newark and Philadelphia in the United States, and ahead of London, Berlin, and Paris in Europe, in terms of passenger traffic with over 72,000 passengers in 1931 (this represents about two-days' of passenger traffic today!). Cleveland was also the largest airport in the world by land area and had the greatest number of landings, too. with 54,750 in 1931. Over 2.9 million pounds of air mail were handled at the airport, almost double that of New York!


Landscape plan for Cleveland Airport from 1934 that also shows the location of the varous hangars and the relatively small Administration Building/Terminal. (Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection)

Perspective view of the landscape plan for Cleveland Airport from 1934. (Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection)

But very soon, the terminal proved to be inadequate for the growing amount of air traffic at CLE. An additional waiting room was built toward the field-side of the terminal in 1935 (see picture at top of article), but even this proved insufficient for the expanding air traffic: A description of the "airway station" (terminal) from Airports: Some Elements of Design and Future Development (by John Walter Wood, 1940), stated:


"The substantially built airway station, faced with a light-colored buff-brick and gray-stone trim, consists of a two-story block with one-story end wings, measuring overall 120 by 46 feet, to which a 60-by-50-foot addition has been built on the field side of the structure, which increases the cubic contents to about 250,000 cubic feet. The 60-by-36-foot waiting room is in the new wing, and the airport manager's office overlooking the field is on the floor above. The ticket offices and the small but well-appointed restaurant open off the old waiting room, which is now used as an entrance hall. The weather bureau, teletype office, radio room, and six small bedrooms are situated on the second floor of the main block, with the octagonal glass-enclosed control room located on the roof above. No well-worked-out separation of incoming and outgoing passengers and of baggage has been provided in the station, all passengers using a common semicircular "bull pen" facing the field, which has seven [or eight?] access gates to planes. The recent additions to the station can only be looked at as a temporary expedient to gain much-needed extra space, since the station is already too small for the heavy air traffic of the Cleveland Airport."


To handle continued growth, a $3.3 million Works Progress Administration (WPA) airfield expansion project was begun in November 1935, to increase the landing area and hard surfaces of the field and to install a much-needed drainage system. Also, in 1935, the air traffic control system, instituted a few years earlier by pioneering airport director, Major John Berry, was adopted by the US Department of Commerce and the airlines as the uniform control system for the entire country. By 1936, Cleveland handled 184,017 passengers, a more than tenfold increase from the 15,825 passengers served in 1929, when the terminal opened.


Americal Airlines Curtiss AT-32D Condor (NC12399) parked at Gate 3, The Condor carried 15 passengers up to 700 miles at 167 MPH. WPA employees can be seen working on paving the airport mat in 1936. (Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection)

The new airfield mat was completed in 1937. It was built by more than 5,000 WPA workers over the course of a year and a few months. Used instead of traditional runways, the all-direction hard-surfaced landing mat measured approximately 1,800 feet by 1,300 feet and was constructed of 9-inch-thick asphalt and concrete.


Cleveland Airport's new paved airfield mat, constructed through the Depression-era WPA in 1935-37, permitted simultaneous take-offs and landings in any direction. (jwhshd via flickr.com)

With the expanded and greatly improved airfield of 1,040 acres, and a more spacious and modern terminal, 86 arrivals and departures of "huge transport planes" daily, as well as construction of several new and up-to-date hangars for airlines and corporations, and relocated grandstands for the very popular National Air Races on the western edge of the airport, Cleveland Municipal Airport was acclaimed as the largest commercial flying field in the world.


The new United Airlines Hangar with a Boeing 247 parked outside. (jwhshd via flickr.com)

The Cleveland Plain Dealer documented the daily activities at CLE in a photo series on August 1, 1937. The newspaper stated, "The Cleveland Airport is a pioneer in the national movement of super-flying fields that can accommodate leviathans of the air now under construction." Most of the photos from that series are shared below, many with their quaint original captions (in quotation marks), along with several additional photos from 1936-37. These all come from the Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection. Enjoy!


A panoramic view of the airport grounds from above. The Pennsylvania Airlines hangar is on the left of the photo, while the airfield comprises the remainder of the photo. (Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection)

Interior view of airport catering area with staff preparing a table full of meals for an airline, including coffee and desserts. The shelves are well stocked with canned items. (Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection)

Three pilots sitting and reading in the waiting room with a radio on a table. (Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection)

A view of the ticket office, as customers wait for service at airline desks for United, American, and others. "The ticket office in the Administration Building. A place patronized by people from all quarters of the globe." (Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection)(Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection)

A man working on a map inside the U.S. Department of Agriculture Weather Bureau Airport Station. (Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection)

"Looking north along a row of hangars that line the east side of Cleveland Airport." (Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection)

"Administration Building at the airport. The section at left is a new addition and contains the waiting room and executive offices. The cupola over the lower section houses the 5000,000,000-candlepower floodlight that overlooks the 85-acre landing mat." The tail of plane NC14282, an American Airlines DC-2, is to the left, and the nose of an American Airlines DC-3 is on the right. (Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection)

"Section of the waiting room-The room is ultra modern and displaces one that growing passenger traffic made inadequate." (Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection)

"A gate to the "Bull Pen." It is one of eight gates to passenger planes. The promenade seen in the lower part of the picture affords passengers a chance to exercise while waiting for planes." United Air Lines Mainliner DC-3 (NC 16088) is awaiting its passengers. (Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection)

"Thousands of people gather at the airport on Sundays to watch the ships come in, go out." American Airlines DC-2 NC14277 taxies for departure. (Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection)

"Lighted landings are assured when night flying sky craft come down to Cleveland Airport. This picture shows part of the 85-acre landing mat illuminated by the 500,000,000-candlepower atop the Administration Building. Under normal weather conditions, one can read a newspaper at a distance of more than a mile from the floodlight." (Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection)

"Airport Postoffice [sic.]-Twenty-four hours a day, men working in shifts handle incoming and outgoing mail . Mail passing through Cleveland must be sorted and transferred to pouches bound for many destinations. Mail sent from Cleveland must be placed speedily into the proper pouches. Mail addressed to Cleveland is rushed downtown to the main postoffice for city distribution. In course of the year 1936, 579,941 pounds passed through Cleveland Airport postoffice." (Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection)

"Inside the control tower at Cleveland Airport. The tower operated by the city, is the traffic cop of the port. The man in the tower directs radio-equipped ships into and out of the port. He informs pilots of wind direction, wind velocity, and of any traffic that may be on (or around) the field. To airliners he gives this information when they are 15 to 30 miles from the airport. In the case of traffic congestion, the tower may tell a pilot to remain in the air or hold a ship on the ground until traffic has ceased to be a problem." This photo might actually be of a flight dispatcher. (Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection)

United Air Lines ticket office in April 1937. "One of the three ticket reservation offices at the Cleveland Airport where trips are planned for those travelling by air. When this picture was taken (April 16, 1937), they were busy taking care of people coming for the air races." (Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection)

Passengers deplane from a United Air Lines DC-3 Mainliner. (Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection)

A United Air Lines DC-3 Mainliner. "Passengers from New York arriving at Cleveland Airport two and one-half hours after leaving Newark Airport, Newark, N.J." (Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection)

United Air Lines DC-3 NC16087 with an air conditioning truck. (Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection)

A Pennsylvania Central Airlines Boeing 247 prepares for departure. (Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection)

A wide view of the airport grounds. Buildings in the background include the Administration Building and the Sundorph Aeronautical Corp. hangar. (Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection)

An American Airlines Douglas aircraft with a hangar in the background. (Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection)

Two American Airlines Curtis Condors and three United Air Lines Boeing 247s await their passengers in front of the terminal in 1936. (Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection)

Three uniformed passenger agents working inside a small room at the airport. Note the American, Northwest and United timetables in the background. Interestingly, NWA did not yet serve CLE at the time. (Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection)

A stewardess on the phone while parked at Cleveland Airport. (Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection)

"A part of the central reserved-seat section of the National Air Races stands. The seating capacity of reserved and unreserved sections was 60,000." (Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection)

"Ohio National Guard Hangar. This building at the southern end of the airport, is the home of the 112th Observation Squadron. Eight planes are housed here. The squadron is composed of 123 men."(Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection)

Below is a drawing of the airfield at Cleveland Municipal Airport around 1940, from Airports: Some Elements of Design and Future Development by John Walter Wood. The new landing mat is clearly marked, and the relocated Air Race stands can be seen at the far west (left) of the field (likely in the approximate location of today's UPS facility). The Administration Building and gate bullpen is marked A, while the main row of hangars is clearly visible along the eastern (right) edge of the airport and the US Air Mail facility and Ohio National Guard hangar is at the southern edge of the airfield. The airport's light beacon is marked with an asterisk next to the Administration Building.



Eventually, the paved landing mat gave way to more traditional runways in the 1940s, but the outdated terminal continued in service for two more decades until 1956 (with another temporary extension tacked on to the front by American and Eastern in 1952), until the new terminal was opened.



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