In September of 1920, a hundred years ago, this month, the Post Office began flying mail from New York to San Francisco. Although the feat was revolutionary at the time, in some ways it felt closer to the Wright Brothers bouncing along a beach in 1903 than it did to the five hour coast to coast flight that we see today.
I’ve mentioned before just how critical this route was to aviation’s development. It wasn’t until 1930 that another cross country route, from New York to Los Angeles, through Kansas City, was created. So practically everything going east, west, north, or south touched this single artery. Of course it helped that New York, Chicago, Cleveland, and San Francisco (the 1st, 2nd, 5th, and 12th most populous cities in the US respectively), had been linked together. Flights began between Minneapolis, Chicago, and St. Louis, which later extended into Texas. Planes flew south out of New York to Philadelphia, and later Atlanta. Salt Lake City, became a jumping off point for planes flying northwest to Seattle. In 1927, Calvin Coolidge spent the summer in the Black Hills and army pilots flew his mail from North Platte, Nebraska to Rapid City, South Dakota.
Much of the route was through rural America, and stopped in towns few people outside of those who live there see a need to pay much attention to…Bryan, Ohio; North Platte, Nebraska; Rock Springs, Wyoming; and Elko, Nevada. Even towns like Omaha, Cheyenne, and Salt Lake City did not compare to the larger population centers. But without them, the visionary route of the Post Office could not have happened.
Our history is a mosaic of stories…and the story of the Post Office is no exception. Pilots, crashes, field managers, telephone operators, fundraisers, community leaders, and random farmers all play their role. The crashes and near misses stand next to the spectacular successes. The brilliant ideas and the “what were they thinking” moments stand side by side. Radio, navigation, aerial photography, air traffic control, and other fields were all profoundly impacted by the goal of a determined Post Office.
So let’s celebrate a century of coast to coast flight…and here’s to 100 more years.