With email, texting, Facebook and Twitter, it’s hard to imagine that at one time the fastest way to get a letter from someone was by air.
The United States Postal Service began experimenting with short airmail routes, mainly along the East Coast, at the end of World War I. The service tested various types of aircraft to see if they could carry heavy loads of mail for long distances. Gradually the routes were expanded.
By 1921, planes were flying mail between San Francisco and New York. Pilots flew only in daylight because determining direction was difficult at night or in cloud cover.
In 1921, Congress decided transcontinental airmail delivery was a failure. To save the service, seven volunteer pilots chose Washington’s birthday to attempt a day- and night-effort to fly the mail from San Francisco to New York. There were no beacons, landing lights or navigational aids used, other than railroad flares and bonfires lit by farmers along the route.
When pilot Jack Knight’s de Havilland DH-4 biplane neared Iowa City, he spotted railroad flares marking the landing field. He made a dramatic landing in a 25-mph wind during his flight from North Platte, Neb., to Chicago.
Knight should have completed his flight in Omaha, but when his relief pilot didn’t show, he decided to continue on in an open cockpit, fueled on coffee and with newspapers stuffed in his sleeves for warmth. He was supposed to land in Des Moines, but the runway was covered in snow.
He later told the New York Times: “If you ever want to worry your head, just try to find Iowa City on a dark night with a good snow and fog hanging around.”
The pilots’ 33 hours of flying proved to Congress that airmail would be a success.
Vying to get on the route
As early as 1918 a transcontinental route was being planned for airmail delivery in the United States.
The news that Cedar Rapids was supposed to be a permanent station on what was named the Woodrow Wilson Airway made the Nov. 25, 1918, front page.
Mayor J.F. Rall received a letter from Augustus Post, secretary of the Aerial League of America, reading: “As your city is on the transcontinental airway, it will undoubtedly become a landing place for future aerial mail lines. Therefore, you must begin to give the matter due consideration.”
The Cedar Rapids Chamber of Commerce was working to get on that line and had chosen Mound Farm, now Mount Mercy University, as the most accessible site for an airfield. Cedar Rapids, however, was bypassed when Iowa City’s Commercial Club signed a contract with the U.S. air service for an airmail landing field and hangar in 1920.
Iowans were disappointed when in September 1920, Otto Praeger, second assistant postmaster in charge of airmail, announced: “The landing field in Iowa, located at Iowa City, is merely for use in an emergency. It is contemplated by the department to make a non-stop flight from Chicago to Omaha and only to land at Iowa City when engine failure or other accidents happen.”
That wasn’t a permanent decision, because Iowa’s first commercial air passenger, Jane Eads, a reporter for the Chicago Herald, landed in Iowa City on a Boeing single-engine biplane full of mail in 1927.
Dan Hunter, local aviation authority, recommended that Cedar Rapids have a landing field at Ingleside, just outside the city limits, in 1924. He called it an ideal site. It was too late to establish a viable field for the east-west transcontinental mail service, but there still was an option to be a station on the north-south line.
Cedar Rapids finally was listed as a municipal, lighted airfield in a 1931 compilation of airfields by the U.S. Department of Commerce.
BEACONs point the way
Tall beacon towers were placed strategically along the airmail routes that pointed the way to the next beacon. The beacons and arrows were used as guides for the pilots.
In 1929, Marengo became a site for one of the beacons and was an intermediate airfield. Standard height for the towers was about 50 feet to 55 feet, but because Marengo sat between two ridges, the beacon was at 87 feet.
The station was built on a 55-acre plot just west of Marengo along Highway 32. The land was leased by the Marengo Commercial Club and subleased to the government. A 1,100-foot strip of tile and boundary lights was added.
A single manager was assigned to oversee the field, as well as fields in Grinnell and Newton. Another 85-plus-foot tower was built in Atlantic.
The arrows that accompanied each station were up to 70 feet long and pointed pilots in the direction of other airfields. Marengo’s two arrows pointed to Cedar Rapids and Iowa City.
In 1944, United Airlines applied to the Civil Aeronautics Board to make Cedar Rapids a stop on its transcontinental route. A new municipal airport guaranteed that the petition would be granted, placing the city within less than 10 hours of either coast and giving it direct access to mail, passenger and express air service.
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