A Tribute to the Unknown

One book among my air mail library, which is as good a collection as you’ll find, is “Rudder, Stick, and Throttle: Research and Reminiscences of Flying in Nebraska.” The author, Robert Adwers, was born in 1915, so lived through much of the metamorphosis between planes being a machine that could get off the ground and a common machine, seen every day without a thought. He does do research, particularly in the World Herald Newspaper (which has a lot of aviation information), but the basis of his book is his personal experience.

One item that he mentions is that when Jack Knight came through Omaha on his first night flight in 1921 is that “Mrs. Andrew Bahm, known as the mother of Omaha’s Air Mail Service and who lived across Center Street from Ak-Sar-Ben Field, served lunch and hot coffee to the pilots.” I have read a lot of magazine articles on air mail. I have read the available books that I know about. I have gone through most of the Omaha World-Herald newspapers from the 1920s. This is the only place that I have found that name. It is a bit curious that Adwers has this information, but she doesn’t hit the public records. Or maybe not. A good many of the people who keep the world turning don’t wind up in recorded history. I will continue my search, but for now consider her a person unknown.

A quick search of the World-Herald, along with a search of census records, did not find an Andrew Bahm, or anyone who I would place in that role with certainty. I could be dealing with a misspelling, someone who missed the census taker, a loner, someone who moved around, someone who moved to Omaha after the census in 1920 and had left by 1930. And being “mother of Omaha’s Air Mail Service” probably didn’t involve being the public face of the fundraising or managing the field, or doing anything else that would make her jump out.

My best guess, based on one line in a book, is that Mrs. Bahm, first name unknown which doesn’t help track her down, lived near the airport and was known to the pilots. The planes had a schedule. People knew when planes were supposed to come in and when they did come, people who lived nearby heard them. Maybe Mrs. Bahm spent a lot of time at the field with hot coffee and sandwiches. Maybe a pilot or two dropped into her kitchen before taking off. Maybe she was a tireless fundraiser, but didn’t get a lot of attention.

Although I will continue my search for Mrs. Bahm, as it stands she is a good representation of the barely named and unnamed people who contributed in countless ways to the survival of the service.

Iowa City–Another Example

I have attempted to locate primary resources regarding the Iowa City Airfield, both by contacting the airport itself and by reaching out to the Iowa State Historical Society.  Neither had any original information, but the historical society did send a 43 page history of the airport that was put together in 2007.  In large part the article relies on local newspapers which occasionally contain some degree of embellishment, but in large part are a good resource.  Especially since primary resources from the era are hard to come by.

The story of the Iowa City Airport contains many familiar themes.  When the USPS decided to build an airport, J.A. Jordan came to town and convinced the city to build an airfield.  In this case land was leased from local farmer W.J. Benjamin.  As in other cities, there was talk that if Iowa City did not jump on the bandwagon, another city might pick up the service.  In this case, it was a little bit hard to believe because the main competitors were Davenport and Des Moines.  Iowa City was much closer to being the midpoint between Chicago and Omaha, so it was the more logical choice.  This is in contrast to Omaha where Bellevue, Council Bluffs, and Lincoln, all of which were fairly close, were the competitors.

Iowa City’s Commercial Club, the precursor to the Chamber of Commerce, organized the lease for the Benjamin field, and had a canvas hangar built.  One reason that they got away with the cruder accommodations was that Iowa City was little more than a refueling stop, and typically only held one extra plane.  Hugh Long came to the city from Washington DC to manage the new field.

In the big picture, Iowa City was just one more link in the chain.  Like Bryan, Ohio, North Platte, Nebraska, and Elko, Nevada, it had the field, fuel, and services necessary to keep the mail flowing from New York to San Francisco.  It might not have been glamorous, but the mail couldn’t have gotten through without it.  Hugh Long had kept the lights on for him, allowing him to refuel and continue his epic journey.

The article does make a point of noting that Knight had not flown the mail over this stretch of ground before.  While that is true, Knight had tackled numerous other routes, and given that he was from Michigan, I just can’t imagine that he was completely unfamiliar with the terrain.  I wouldn’t be surprised if he had flown over it before in some capacity.  Which, by the way, does not make the accomplishment of this flight any less remarkable.

In 1922, the Post Office and Commercial Club combined forces to build a new brick and mortar hangar.  At least the article says that the Post Office was to cover part of it.  Given the difficulty other cities had in obtaining reimbursement from the Post Office, it is not outside the realm of possibility that the promise was not kept.  In 1923, the field was lighted as the Post Office continued to advance the boundary of aviation by flying the mail overnight.

As in other cities, changes occurred in Iowa City in the mid 1920s, as commercial airlines took over mail transportation duties from the Post Office.  Boeing took over flying duties in 1927.  Although mail also went to Cedar Rapids, only 30 miles north, Boeing and United Airlines, which came out of Boeing, continued flying the mail into Iowa City into the 1950s.  A smaller commercial airline ceased service in 1972.

Unlike many small towns, the Iowa City airport today continues to thrive.  Although the commercial traffic has been directed to Iowa City, the airport is very busy with general aviation.  It brings in many charter flights, and it is also, according to its Facebook page, home to Jet Air Inc, Care Ambulance.  Much of this activity is connecting with the University of Iowa.

Although it is a much different place now than it was in 1920, Iowa City’s humble beginnings put it on the front lines of the take off of commercial aviation.

Year End Review and Looking Ahead

Overall, it’s been a good year.  I’ve been busy, so haven’t blogged as regularly as I’d like.  My goal is to get back to every other week, but I may or may not get there this year.  being said, I think I’ve covered a lot of territory this year.  I’ve explored on line resources and found articles by Edmund Allen and Tex Marshall which shed light on the realities of flying the mail.  I got lucky tracking down Walter Hunter and tales of his setting aviation records.  I also learned that the Iowa City Airport doesn’t have much in the way of old records, but the historical society does have a magazine with some of that information.  All in all, I covered quite a bit of territory.

I also tracked down the site of the airport in Robbins, Illinois…the first one in the country that trained black pilots.  I also tracked down the records of Herbert Hoover, both from his days as Secretary of Commerce and as President.  His library also contains the records of William Crackin, the first Assistant Secretary of Commerce who oversaw aviation.  The records cover a critical era where aviation was growing.  More regulation was required and competition was increasing.

So what’s up for this year.  I’d like to get back to blogging every other week, but we’ll see how that goes.  Also, there are a couple of places I’d like to go.  The Harold Washington Library in downtown Chicago has an archival collection.  It may or may not have information on air mail, but it is worth checking out.  Also, I would like to take a trip to Bryan, Ohio, the stop between Chicago and Cleveland.  Other than that, I should check into more pilots, more wrecks, and more civilians who made the service possible.  I should also review my small but growing collection of books to see what other avenues I might want to explore.

Tracking the aviators of the early Post Office is always an adventure.  And I hope to have many more this year.



Herbert Hoover–The Presidential Mail

When I was at the Hoover Presidential Library, I was grateful for the archivist who knew more about the collection and where information was located than I did.  He said that my perspective was somewhat unique because I was looking a the day to day operations as opposed to the scandal that caused Franklin Roosevelt to pull the commercial contracts and order the army to deliver the mail in 1934.  (https://midwestairmail.wordpress.com/2017/02/06/backsliding-the-fiasco-of-1934/)

While I understand the significance of this event, scandals don’t make the world go ’round.  It’s the people who day in and day out do whatever it is they do.  In my case this includes flying planes, fueling planes, sending radio transmissions, manning light beacons, driving mail into town (either as a job or when coming across a downed pilot).  In this quest, the archivist suggested that I check on Hoover’s Presidential files, in his secretary’s notes.  These document the day to day mail received by the President.  For the most part, it shows that in the late 1920s and early 1930s, people were interested in extending air mail service, both nationally and internationally.

In 1929, several people voiced their support for an international route from the southwest to Mexico and South America.  This got into an area where air service was potentially several days faster than any of the other methods on transportation.

Interest could be found nationally as well.  In October 1930, Frank Hitchcock of Tuscon expressed his gratitude for the new air mail service to that city.  In March of 1931, American Legion Commander WA Laraway of Jamestown, North Dakota requested air mail service between Fargo and Bismark via Valley City and Jamestown.  In February of 1933 CJ Rogers, Wyoming’s Deputy Secretary of State, asked if the Post Office could determine the feasibility of a route from Denver, Colorado to Billings, Montana with a possible extension to Great Falls.

Aviation was in the minds of average people trying to figure out how to improve communication and transportation in these remote areas.  Air mail between Fargo and Bismark may not be as earthshattering as the initial route between New York, Chicago, and San Francisco.  However, it is important to the people who live in those areas.  Access to air transportation is a topic today, and was then.  And the mail directed to the leader of the country reflected its importance to the average citizen of the United States.

Day and Night and Night and Day

Herbert Hoover was the Secretary of Commerce during the 1920s, and a trip to his Presidential Library yielded some interesting finds.  I didn’t find, nor did I expect to, anything revolutionary about the air mail service.  The archives are the day to day paperwork regarding a story that I already know.  It adds, it augments, it colors the story.  But, especially with my topic, I don’t expect it to find anything shocking.

I did find a couple of interesting tidbits.  Hoover’s Secretary of Commerce files had a copy of the Air Mail schedule effective May 1, 1925.  It took over 8 hours to get from New York to Chicago.  They left Chicago at 6pm, lost daylight sometime between there and Iowa City, and picked up daylight again somewhere in Wyoming.  Going east, the mail left San Francisco at 845am, pilots found darkness over Wyoming, and found daylight right before heading into Chicago.

The night service, which was just under a year old, had eliminated several hours off of the early tactic of switching the mail to trains overnight.  But the night flying occurred over Great Plains.  From a technological standpoint, this made the most sense…the terrain was flat creating fewer obstacles.  From a business standpoint, the Post Office wanted to do better.  A mail leaving New York in the morning might get to Cleveland in time for a late afternoon delivery.  It would get to Chicago after business hours, so it was really next day service.  Mail leaving Chicago at 6pm would et to Cheyenne, Wyoming in time for delivery the next morning.  Omaha, Nebraska would also benefit.

But the great challenge was to connect New York and Chicago.  This meant flying over the Appalachian Mountains…far more treacherous for a pilot than the Great Plains.  But the Post Office was able to set up light beacons, and on July 1st, 1925 pilots tested the new night flying route.  This meant that the two largest cities in the countries could now receive next day service…a letter dropped in a New York mailbox at two in the afternoon could reach its recipient in Chicago the next morning.  This also provided service for Cleveland, the 5th or 6th largest city in the country at the time.

Hoover’s papers contained a letter from the WHT radio station in Chicago which was airing a special program including a band and speeches, as well as information on when the planes landed and took off.  Being able to reach Chicago overnight was a huge deal.  It would give air mail a more notable advantage over train delivery, and it could also replace the more expensive telegraph.  The letter from WHT was written at 645pm Central time, and an attached letter indicated that the Department of Commerce office in New York received it just before 9am the following morning.

New York to Chicago overnight was just another step in the improvement of aviation.  In today’s world of instantaneous communication, its easy to forget just how critical and revolutionary that step was.


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Seeking Hoover, Finding MacCracken

At last!!  I got a couple of days off and had time to to stop into President Herbert Hoover’s Presidential Library in West Branch Missouri.  The museum itself is a wonderful stop, with several good exhibits on the incredibly diverse life of our 31st President.  Behind it is a small historic district with several structures, including the house Hoover was born in and a traditional Quaker meeting house.  Behind that its the small downtown with a couple of bars, and a couple of places to grab a bit to eat.

But I wasn’t there for all of the trimmings, I went to West Branch in search of the archives.  According to the archivist, I was not the first seeking aviation information.  The Hoover Library has several collections in addition to Hoover’s, including that of William P MacCracken Jr., a Chicago lawyer who had joined the Army Air Service in World War I.  After the war, MacCracken became instrumental in aviation development.  He helped to write the air commerce act of 1926, and he became the first Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Aeronautics, reporting to Hoover, then Secretarcy of Commerce.

MacCracken was key to improving aviation laws, such as air traffic control and regulations.  The main reason that people look through MacCracken’s papers is because of his role in the 1932 air mail fiasco, where the federal government pulled all commercial airmail contracts and had woefully unready Army Air Corps planes take over the mail routes.  MacCracken, Postmaster General Walter Brown, and the largest flying companies of the time, including Boeing, Transcontinental, and Robertson had met in 1930, after the passage of the Watres Act.  These companies were awarded the majority of the routes, a move which many smaller airlines considered unfair.

MacCracken’s papers on this subject, including legal briefings, take up several boxes at the Hoover Library, and are the ones most requested by those interested in aviation.  I passed them over for two reasons.  First, much as I find the topic fascinating, a variety of people have looked at it and written about it.  Given the time I had, I wanted to focus on my subject, which is about the more day to day aviation information.

MacCracken’s papers did have some information on that as well.  There were people congratulating him on his new appointment in the Commerce Department.  There were copies of several newspaper articles and publications about items ranging from the Watres Act to the Smithsonian adding an Air Mail display, and an article written by Ruben Fleet in 1968 on the 50th anniversary of the first air mail flight.  Fleet was the army officer who put together the first air mail flights in 1918.

One thing that interested me was a program from the 1911 air races in Chicago.  Specifics of the first flying field in Chicago are still a little blurry.  I know that these races, out of Grant Park, made that area essentially the first airfield in Chicago.  From 1918 to 1920, the air mail would fly in and out of Grant Park.  The advertisements in this program are very interesting.  The Chicago Blackstone hotel specifically says that it is directly across from the flying field.  Given the size of Grant Park, that is useful information.  A company is also advertising a small flying field at 50th Avenue and 22nd street, and another company advertises that it is setting up the stadium seating.

MacCracken’s papers also mention some of his chores, such as giving a speech in Cleveland to open the Cleveland to Washington DC air mail route in 1929.

The MacCracken papers are a find.  I appreciate the help of the staff at the Hoover Museum who pointed me in that direction, and who were very helpful with providing the finding aids and pulling boxes for my perusal.  So where does it all fit in?  I honestly think the item most relevant to my story was the Chicago Air Race program from 1911.  Although this predates the air mail service, it says a lot about aviation in Chicago, and provides clues about the specific location where planes were taking off and landing.

Searching through archives is not usually about finding something earth shattering.  This is the humdrum paperwork of working people.  This is especially true when it comes to Hoover’s papers, but I will leave that until later.

The Story and the Facts

If you are a good historian, you know that history is about the stories. The ups and downs of a person or societies or countries. Its about the emotional power of a war ending and soldiers coming home. Its about the ideology behind hanging 19 people at Salem in the 1600s. Its about the everyday life…communication whether through letter or telephone or computer. Its about sewing and baking and building.

However, defining history does involve a lot of facts…names, dates, places, etc. Explaining the novelty of a telegraph is a lot different when the year is 1850 than it is when the year is 2019. Given the abundance of information, it is not surprising that, from time to time, the facts get jumbled a bit. In other words, sometimes you get the facts wrong. It was recently brought to my attention that, when referring to those delivering the mail between May and August of 1918, I frequently mention the “Army Air Corps.” The truth is that when the first Air Mail flights occurred in May of 1918, the aviators had just gone from being the Aviation Section of the US Signal Corps (the Army’s communication and information division) to being called the Air Service. They were not referred to as the Air Corps until 1926.

Much of this name changing had to do with an attempt to define the creation of the modern aviation technology and its relationship to the rest of the military. At the beginning of World War I, planes and balloons primarily served to scout out enemy positions and movements. As the war progressed, planes gained increasing attack power. By the war’s end in 1918, military aviation certainly showed signs of breaking out on its own. Of course it took until 1947 for the Air Force to become its own branch of the military.

So, what do I think of factual inaccuracies? They happen. When judging them, one should look at how many there are and how they impact the story being told. The Postal Museum website of the Smithsonian says that former Air Mail pilot Eddie Gardner died at a county fair in Kansas in 1921. While they have the other details correct, Gardner died at an airshow in Holdrege, Nebraska. Given that the general story is correct and that the Postal Museum is more focused on pilots flying the mail rather than their post flying careers (which I know from experience can be hard to trace), I can forgive them for not knowing exactly which Midwestern town he died in (no offense to Kansas or Nebraska).

Right now I am reading a book called “The Hello Girls” about the women telephone operators who served the army in France during World War I.  An early chapter in this book says that Jeanette Rankin is from Montana, which is correct, but a later chapter says that she is from Wyoming.  I am somewhat surprised that the error got through editing.  That being said, her status as the first female Congresswoman and one of the few votes against World War I is more important to the larger picture than which western state she was from.  Again, meaning no disrespect to either of the states involved.  This is particularly true given that she is a sidelight in the main topic of the book.  I am not going to let the error deprive me of some valuable information.

Despite my assertion that sometimes mistakes are made, it is good practice to get the facts right whenever possible. So I will endeavor to keep my pre-1947 aviation sectors straight. And if, by chance, you should hear me speak of the Army Air Corps before 1926, feel free to correct me.




Making Plans: Seeking Hoover’s Help

One of the great creations for research and history is the Presidential Library, which provides a place for Presidential papers both in and out of office.  Herbert Hoover’s least successful career was quite possibly the Presidency, coinciding as it did with the Great Depression.  Let’s just say that he was in a tough spot.  Prior to that he had gained worldwide renown for helping supply Europe with food in the aftermath of World War I.  Truman would call on him in a similar manner after World War II (when in doubt, find the expert).

Hoover served as the Secretary of Commerce between 1921 and 1928…years where Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge were serving as President.  Hoover took this task to heart, which is good for those of us seeking information about a new type of commerce…aviation…during this time frame.

I have wanted to take a trip to the Hoover Library for the past couple of years, and have now carved out the time to do it.  Before going on a research trip, it is best to do a bit of preplanning.  Given that I am only about 4 hours from West Branch, near Iowa City, travel is fairly easy.  Also, my parents live 4 hours in the other direction, so I will have some partners in crime.

Since this is a fall trip, checking the University of Iowa football schedule is a must.  Those documents are valuable, but not to the tune of what it costs to say in a University town on game day.  And we will have more fun without the crowd.  Also, the research library is closed on the weekend.  This is a good chance to explore the local area.  Part of the fun of researching anything is to let it take you to places that you wouldn’t think to go otherwise.

I did email ahead.  Most places of research have no problem with you showing up at random, but if you let them know you’re coming, they can have things ready for you, and double check their records to see if there is anything relevant that you haven’t thought of.  They know their records better than you do.  Also, if you are doing major research, they can tell you what they don’t have, so you don’t waste time and energy on a fruitless search.  I emailed the Iowa State Historical society to see if they had anything on the Iowa City airport, a stop on the initial route.  But they don’t seem to, so I will keep my focus on Hoover.

The Hoover Library is kind enough to have it’s inventory online, so I know that in Hoover’s papers there is a box with a folder labeled “air mail.”  What’s in it…who knows.  It could be two sheets of paper, it could be an inch thick.  Given that I consider myself a casual researcher…I’m blogging not writing a book after all…I don’t care, I just want to see it.  I’m looking for a small adventure and another piece of the story.


“Tex” Marshall Looks Back

There comes a time when all of us face decisions regarding the future.  For many airline pilots, that decision came in 1927, when the Post Office transferred the remaining air mail routes to private corporations.  From Chicago to San Francisco, this was Boeing.  And RC “Tex” Marshall decided that rather than transfer to Boeing, which many of the pilots did, he would strike out on his own…and did rather successfully, but that’s another blog.

Marshall, one of the few pilots who was not in the Army Air Corps in World War I, began flying the mail in 1920 and at one time or another flew every route between Cleveland and San Francisco.  But from 1924 to 1927, he lived in Reno, flying between there and Salt Lake City.  And in February of 1958, Flying magazine featured an article where he describes flying over the old route on the way to a pilot’s reunion.  At the time he lived on a ranch near Milnesand, New Mexico.  By most people’s standards, this would qualify as “the middle of nowhere.”

Marshall’s article describes how times changed.  Instead of craning his head out of the window with a helmet and goggles he sat looking through “a bay window into heaven.”  The Great Salt Lake was getting smaller.  A control tower gave directions instead of a pilot just locating the wind sock and landing at will.  When landing at Elko he talks about the paved runways replacing the dirt strip with a wooden bridge in the middle.  

But the article also highlights how much these early pilots relied on their observations and how much they remained tied to the earth.  Marshall notes many specific landmarks learned over dozens of flights through the same terrain.  Like visiting an old friend he talks about a particular ravine in the Ruby Mountains that he flew through to avoid the worst of the wind and weather.  He once flew so close to the ground during a storm that he saw a woman come out of her house and watched him go by.  He spoke of scaring coyotes and shooting brown bears with the issued .45 (with no hope of actually hitting one).  He found the valley where he landed once, which was 70 or 80 miles by trail from the nearest community.  Only the heartiest souls lived out that way.  He also found a cave where an old man would sit and watch him fly by.

Marshall’s recollections are a tribute to the air mail pilots, both the survivors and those that he pays tribute to as he flies across the desolate landscape.




My Bird’s Eye View

Over vacation, I took the opportunity to take one of the commercial flights which connect outlying Montana communities to Billings, where a plane can be gotten to Denver or Minneapolis, and from there one can get anywhere.  The Cessna 402 had 8 seats, which were assigned according to weight.  In fact, according to one of my relations, if the plane is overweight whoever gets on last gets bumped.

Although this flight was not exactly the same as flying solo in a DeHaviland in 1925, the similarities are striking.  To start off with, the compartment for larger luggage is in the nose and smaller bags can be stored in the wings.  In some small way it reminded me of the days where the mail was stored in front of the pilot.

The seats were assigned according to weight, and because I was behind the pilot I could read the instruments.  We were flying at around 160 knots or 185 miles per hour.

We were much closer to the ground than you are in larger commercial airliners.  I don’t know exactly how high we were cruising, but I don’t think it was the 26,900 feet that Wikipedia lists as the service ceiling for that particular airplane.  Montana is different than most of the farm country that I usually fly over.  Square farm fields don’t dot the landscape.  And looking down, you understand the value of landmarks to the early pilots.  Below us lay ridges and rugged ground, but few trees, few rivers, few railroads.  It made it easier to imagine what could happen if a pilot got off course or had an emergency in desolate country.  It also made me think about how much luck played a factor in emergency situations…could they coast to a safe field, or would they hit a rough spot.

This route also reminded me of how much the early air service sped up communication and also connected communities to the greater world.  The trip which I took in a little over an hour would have been five hours by car.  This service give businessmen access to both communities that, while not often thought of in the grand scheme of things, are important in their regions.  It allows people in those smaller locals quick access to a hub which can take them anywhere.  It allows people access to big city hospitals, entertainment, and services.  Several people from western North Dakota took a flight to eastern Montana, from which they would find their way home.

As my journey ended, I was glad that I had the opportunity to take this trip.  For a brief moment, I had something akin to the perspective that the early pilots had.



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