The Early Days of Commercial Aviation in Cleveland I: Before CLE & Aeromarine Airways
Updated: Aug 1, 2021
Who knew that the first regularly scheduled passenger air service from Cleveland did not take off or land from Cleveland Municipal Airport, which was officially dedicated 96 years ago on July 1, 1925, with over 100,000 people in attendance? (See my previous article on 95 Years of Historic Firsts at CLE.) Prior to the opening of the region's primary airport, various other places, including Cleveland Harbor in Lake Erie, served the needs of the nascent aviation industry in Cleveland, then the nation’s fifth largest city.
The first heavier-than-air flight in Cleveland took place on June 28, 1910, with the flight of a French-built Demoiselle monoplane owned by a group of Cleveland investors. The flight took place at the Country Club in Bratenahl.
World War I interrupted the development of commercial aviation, but the war also led to developments in technology and aeronautical expertise. Thousands of surplus aircraft and skilled aviators needed to find new uses, the first of which was the carrying of mail. Passenger flights, particularly in the United States, were a secondary concern. A vast network of luxurious and reliable intercity trains traveling at 75 MPH, compared very favorably to the newfangled, noisy, open-air, rickety, and uncomfortable flying machines cruising at about 100 MPH.
Cleveland featured prominently in the early airmail system due to its size, economic prominence, and location between New York City and Chicago. On December 16, 1918, Cleveland’s first regular airmail service began, when planes piloted by seasoned pilots, many veterans from the U.S. Army, landed in Cleveland at a section of Woodland Hills Park (now known as Luke Easter Park).
A small airport had been quickly built at what today is near E. 93rd Street and Kinsman Road. The first proposed landing field was an area downtown on the lakefront. However, the site required $40,000 in improvements, significantly more than Woodland Hills location, where $10,000 was spent on the construction of a new hangar.
Several of the early flights had trouble locating the airfield and landed in other fields around the area, including in Elyria, Painesville, Ravenna, and Highland Park Cemetery! Problems with aircraft and weather temporarily ended these flights soon after they had started.
On May 15, 1919, regular airmail service was re-established between Cleveland and Chicago (a landing field in Grant Park) including an intermediate stop in Bryan, Ohio. On July 1, 1919, the New York to Cleveland segment was added with a stop in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania. Through airmail service between New York and Chicago via Cleveland began on September 5, 1919, while the far western end of the new service opened from San Francisco to Sacramento on July 31, 1919.
Planes on these flights carried up to 850 pounds of mail (letters cost $.06 each to send), but no passengers, and the flights experienced few difficulties. However, the trees which surrounded the "postage stamp airport" at Woodland Hills Park did not appeal to pilots in the daytime, let alone at night, and Cleveland officials were advised that they could lose their place in the airmail system.
Also in 1919, the first non-stop flight between Cleveland and Washington, DC occurred. The flight lasted two hours and fifty-eight minutes with the aircraft traveling at an average airspeed of 117.5 miles-per-hour. The plane was built at the Glenn L. Martin Co. plant in Cleveland and delivered to the federal government.
The following year, extensions to the route were made connecting the two segments between Chicago and Omaha on May 15, 1920. Finally, with links over the difficult Rocky Mountain section of the route completed, the first transcontinental airmail service was inaugurated on September 8, 1920. The initial westbound trip averaged 80 MPH, carried 16,000 letters, and saved 22 hours. The entire trip took three days between New York and San Francisco with stops for a change of aircraft and crew at Cleveland, Chicago, Omaha, Cheyenne, Salt Lake City and Reno.
The first service on this transcontinental route at Cleveland was operated from a new location, the Glenn L. Martin Co. Field, a private airport at 16800 St. Clair Avenue, owned and operated by the aircraft corporation of the same name, which provided the landing field as a courtesy to the Post Office Department. Martin Field was located about 10 miles northeast of Public Square and had two cinder runways: 1,900' northeast/southwest & 1,500' northwest/southeast, as well as an airmail hangar in the southwest corner of the field. The company would later move to Baltimore in 1929 and go on to produce many important aircraft for the U.S. Military.
In early July 1922, the US aerial mail service experimented with service from Cleveland to Detroit with a series of flights carrying 500 pounds of mail each. Flights used Martin Field in Cleveland and Selfridge Field, a government aerodrome in Mt. Clemens, Michigan. By 1922, regular airmail service was also in operation on a regular basis between Cleveland and Cincinnati and other points in the area. These services also operated from the Martin Field. However, up to this time, no passenger service had been flown to/from Cleveland.
Aeromarine Brings Passenger Service to Cleveland
The first passenger flights in the United States (and the world) took place between St. Petersburg and Tampa, Florida on New Year’s Day 1914. This 18-mile flight over Tampa Bay in a St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line Benoist Type XIV flying boat, took 23 minutes and the first passenger, the ex-mayor of St. Petersburg, paid $400 (equivalent to $10,768 today) for the privilege, quite a sum! Subsequent passengers on the twice-daily flights paid only $5 ($134.60 today) one-way, and $5 for 100 pounds of freight.
After the pause in passenger air service caused by the First World War, and while the nation’s airmail system was still under development, new passenger routes started to develop in 2019. Chaplin Air began a passenger route between San Pedro and Avalon on Santa Catalina Island in southern California, while Aeromarine Airways began various international services between Miami, Florida and Nassau in the Bahamas (December 20, 1919), and Key West, Florida and Havana, Cuba (November 1, 1921).
This little-known pioneering air carrier also was first to begin a regularly scheduled interstate passenger air route in the United States between Cleveland and Detroit, Michigan in the summer of 1922. Aeromarine instituted the clever scheduling practice of flying its fleet north in summer to mitigate the highly seasonal nature of its Florida traffic. It eventually established three operating divisions, Southern, New York, and Great Lakes.
Aeromarine brochure/timetable from Summer 1922 (Aeromarine Website).
The first Aeromarine commercial flight from Detroit landed in Cleveland Harbor on July 14, 1922, providing a shortcut across Lake Erie to avoid the circuitous journey via road or rail via Toledo, Ohio. Glenn L. Martin, the aircraft designer and manufacturer with a factory and airstrip in Cleveland, was in charge of the Welcoming Committee in Cleveland. Two aircraft inaugurated Detroit-Cleveland service, Wolverine and Santa Maria.
Aeromarine operated from a floating dock/terminal in Cleveland Harbor (I was unable to pinpoint its exact location, but it appears from old photos (see directly below) to be somewhere between City Hall and the Cuyahoga County Courthouse.). Passengers accessed the dock via motor launch from the foot of E. 9th Street next to the D & C Steamship dock.
Aeromarine experimented with radio entertainment onboard the Buckeye on August 10, 1922. Staff from the Detroit News added 150 pounds of radio receiving equipment to the rear cabin of the flying boat. Despite the roar of the motors and speed of the aircraft, the morning concert show of WWJ radio was received clearly during the 90-minute flight. The announcer sent greetings to the passengers and crew about the Buckeye, too. Plans were made to offer passengers individual headsets in addition to a loudspeaker. It is not clear whether this ever became a regular thing. It should be noted Aeromarine showed the first in-flight movie aboard an aircraft promoting Chicago (Howdy Chicago) to its passengers on a number of flights during that city's "Pageant of Progress" in 1921.
Aeromarine also contributed to another Cleveland aviation “first," the first U.S. airline ticket office at 2010 East 9th Street (July 1922). A ticket office was then located in the old Hollenden Hotel in summer 1923.
The Ninety Minute Line, as it billed itself, operated two daily roundtrip flights, taking one and a half hours for the 95 miles, carrying passengers and cargo only, as the airline did not have an airmail contract. The one-way fare was $25 ($400 today), compared with $9 ($144) by train, and $5 ($80) by steamer, both of which were significantly slower.
Aircraft used were the Aeromarine Model 75, a converted US Navy Curtiss F5L bi-wing flying boat with 2 Liberty engines, an open center cockpit and enclosed front/rear passenger compartments carrying eleven passengers, along with three crew (pilot, assistant pilot/mechanic and steward/bowman). For a fascinating first-person account of a journey on this early passenger route, read Ninety Minutes in Heaven, as related by Miss "Peggy" MacLean in The Detroit News (http://www.timetableimages.com/ttimages/aeromnar.htm).
So, what happened to this ground-breaking airline? It overextended itself. After three years of regularly scheduled passenger service, it ceased operations in September 1923. After carrying more than 17,000 passengers on scheduled services, with likely as many on sightseeing flights, and with a perfect safety record, it was simply too early for a scheduled airline to be financially successful, especially without regular government airmail subsidies for such a young industry.
Cleveland Builds a New Airport
After the demise of seasonal seaplane service, regular passenger service between Cleveland and Detroit did not resume until 1927, albeit with landplanes. However, before additional commercial air traffic could grow in Cleveland, a new permanent landing area needed to be developed. The U.S. government considered the makeshift airfields in Cleveland unsatisfactory, and in 1925, a site for a new municipal airport emerged when a team of city officials and Army Air Service personnel selected 1,040 acres at Brookpark and Riverside Dr.
Only about 100 acres of the site were initially used. Primitive early facilities consisted of little more than a cleared field and a single cement block building. Persons waiting for “aeroplanes” or mail deliveries stood around like people standing on a street corner waiting for a bus or trolley car.
On May 1, 1925, the first aircraft operation on the newly constructed 1,400-foot runway at the airport took place when pilot Shirley J. Short landed at the field in his de Havilland DH-4B airmail plane with a sack of mail from the west, and pilot Paul Collins took it on to New York City.
As noted above, the new Cleveland Municipal Airport was officially dedicated two months later. The much larger location reflected good long-term planning, although the administration and passenger terminal building did not open until four years later.
Sources information and photos for this article include:
The Cleveland Plain Dealer
The Aeromarine Website: http://www.timetableimages.com/ttimages/aerom.htm.
Airlines of the United States Since 1914, R.E.G. Davies, 1998.
Brief History of Aviation in Cleveland. The Story of Cleveland Hopkins and Burke Lakefront Airports. Department of Port Control, City of Cleveland, Unpublished draft from January 1997.