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Before there was a Casting Pond: Westmoreland's airfield


COURTESY OF JOHN FYRE - This is a picture of the first plane assembled and flown from what is now Westmoreland Park by the Aero Club of Oregon. Participants, from left to right: Noel B. Evans, Ralph Hedderly, Larry Hickman, Archie Roth, Danny Grecco, and Al Nehl. The photo was taken in June of 1920. On June 8th, 1912, Silas Christofferson attempted one of the most dynamic and daring flights in Pacific Northwest history when he launched his Curtis Pusher Biplane off the rooftop of Portland’s Multnomah Hotel.

It was daring because Silas was piloting a vehicle that was basically a box kite with a gas-powered engine. And it was dynamic because his runway consisted of 20-foot planks laid down loosely on the rooftop, and Christofferson had less than 150 yards of “runway” from which to take off.

This was the beginning of air flight and the age of air exhibitions in Oregon. Awe inspiring men and women began challenging each other with aerial stunts and cross country flights that had never been attempted before. While these courageous pilots knew the danger they faced each time they stepped into the seat of an untested plane, they continued for the benefit of improving technology, the thrill of the sport, or the prestige they received from the press and the spectators that attended each exhibition.

What happened to Christofferson? Rather astoundingly, he did not crash and burn; he completed his successful trip from the rooftop, as 50,000 cheering and awestruck spectators witnessed this first-ever attempted interstate flight. His Curtis Pusher touched down twelve minutes later in the open field at the Vancouver Washington Military Barracks, now known as the Pearson Airpark.

Not to be outdone, challenger Walter Edwards was hired by local officials to pilot the U.S. Mail over interstate lines. According to the Pearson Airport Museum records, a temporary post office was set up on the grounds of the Waverley Golf Course, south of Sellwood, and Edwards flew five flights from Sellwood to Vancouver, Washington, delivering over 5,000 pieces of mail, between August 10th and 11th in 1912.

Christofferson then countered his rival, flying his newly-acquired plane underneath three different bridges along the Willamette River, and stopping a professional baseball game being played at Portland’s famous Vaughn Street ballpark, when he buzzed the crowd in the stands.

After those accomplishments, Oaks Amusement Park announced that Christofferson would make flights in his “hydroaeroplane” from its wooden boardwalk three times daily during the summer of 1912.

The editor of the Sellwood Bee newspaper at the time failed to elaborate where the aircraft landed after the flight, as curious bystanders – crowded around the boardwalk – made it impossible to return and land back on the walkway. Christofferson might have landed his aircraft on the open plain in Westmoreland, or back at the Vancouver Barracks. Once his plane was safely grounded it could be towed by his mechanic and helpers back to the Oaks for his next performance. Since the paper said the aviator was flying what was then called a “hydroaeroplane”, he might have landed on the Willamette River near Oaks Park. However he landed, such stunts attracted huge crowds, and placed pilots in almost hero status at that time.

Flying exhibitions flourished around the United States and Europe, as untrained pilots competed in long distance races, acrobatic feats, and unheard-of flights. Isolated fields such as the one at the Vancouver Barracks along the Columbia River, or the Rose City Raceway (Rose City Golf Course), provided a safe haven for pilots to land safely. The Pearson Airpark was the first of its kind to open in the Northwest, and the Pearson Airpark museum has proclaimed itself to be one of the oldest operating airports in the country – since 1910.

As the popularity of flying increased in Oregon, Portland had yet to take seriously the idea of building a major airport. City officials were kept busy installing sewers, supplying clean drinking water, and paving roads. Also, pesky businessmen were enamored of the new king of transportation, the automobile – and big money was being spent on completing the Columbia Gorge Highway (1913-1922), and other roads to Mt. Hood and Astoria, putting flying contraptions on the civic back burner.

One tract of land favored by pilots, enthusiasts, and air mechanics, was a section of open grassland between the newly developed communities of Eastmoreland and Westmoreland, north of where the town of Willsburg once resided. As early as 1913, from accounts in the Sellwood Bee, a vacant field at the end of Nehalem Street in Westmoreland (now Sckavone Baseball Stadium, and the Westmoreland Park parking lot) was used by pilots as a landing field for their aircraft.

While other makeshift landing fields existed in outer east Multnomah County and parts of Beaverton, Westmorelanders have the right to point to their own neighborhood as the site of the first municipal airfield in the Rose City.

Six years later, without a major airport in the works, newspaper articles declared 61 acres of the Ladd Estate in Westmoreland would be leased by the city for five years at $1,500 a year. A tract of land that measured over 3,000 feet long and 1,000 feet wide was already in use as a private landing field, and a mere $500 would upgrade the runway to flying standards. Members of the Aero Club of Oregon and the Sellwood Board of Trade enthusiastically supported the site, and suggested that the airfield could be used by military and mail planes besides commercial and private aircraft. Commissioner S.C. Peter, and M.R. Klepper, the President of the Aero Club, negotiated the five year lease from the Ladd Estate.

Before plans for an airport at Westmoreland were finalized, America’s attention was diverted to what became World War I, already underway in Europe. The United States joined its allies Britain and France in declaring war against Germany and the Austrian-Hungry forces in Europe on April 6th, 1917. Young men rushed to enlist in the Army, and a new fighting force – the American Aviation Corps – was established to turn boys into trained fighter pilots. Reed College played a pivotal part in support of the war effort, as 70 upper classmen volunteered for the cause. One of the students who is still remembered was Hugh Broomfield. He was trained and accepted a commission as First Lieutenant in the American Aviation Corps. On October 21st, 1918, while on a scouting expedition over German lines near France, he lost his life when the plane he was flying was shot down during the battle of Meuse-Argonne.

President Woodrow Wilson knew that aviation would play an important role in the war effort, and he immediately ordered over 20,000 planes to be manufactured. One of the first planes ever designed by American auto engineers, the Liberty DH-4, was manufactured specifically for the Army. When an armistice was signed, signaling the war’s end on November 11th, 1918, the government had a surplus of the Liberty planes. The Liberty DH-4’s were donated to the Postal Service for the delivery of the mail, while others were sent to vocational schools or sold to ex-pilots returning from their expeditionary forces in Europe. Hobbyists and wanna-be pilots were able to snatch up these planes, and learn to fly inexpensively.

When the Westmoreland airfield became a major landing filed for pilots, American Legion leaders lobbied to have the airport named after Oregon’s only aviator killed in action, Hugh Broomfield. In the summer of 1919, the Portland city council dedicated the Westmoreland flying field in his honor, to be registered as the Broomfield Aviation Field. During the following years, the Broomfield Aviation Field became Portland’s main aircraft landing field.

The Dundrey Aircraft Company announced plans to erect a two story building and lecture hall to house the students at its school of aeronautics at the airfield. School classes included a pilot’s course, airplane mechanics, and a ground mechanics course. The Oregonian proclaimed that Miss Gradelle Leigh was the first girl from Portland to be enrolled in the aviation course. The Forestry Department was considering the possibility of using Broomfield for their firefighting patrol planes, as did the Postal Department for its airmail planes.

On October 17th, 1924, a special contingent of Army flyers who had just completed a flight around the world arrived in Portland – and landed at Vancouver’s Barracks Field, to a hero’s welcome led by then-Mayor George L. Baker. Since Portland didn’t have an airport sufficient to accommodate all the pilots in the contingent, the Mayor was embarrassed to have to travel to the Vancouver Barracks’ field to bring the pilots back to Portland for special festivities. Mayor Baker vowed to build a major airport for Portland, and on September of 1927 the Swan Island Municipal Airport was officially dedicated by Charles Lindbergh, who flew the Spirit of St. Louis onto the new airstrip.

By the end of 1927, the Broomfield Aviation Field had been abandoned. Part of the field was converted into a section of the Eastmoreland Golf Course, and the remaining acres became a grazing dairy field. Contented cows could once again roam the grasslands as they had before it became a runway. The American Legion once again urged the Port of Portland to rename Swan Island the Broomfield Aviation Field, but their request was turned down, and the hero of Reed College is only commemorated in history books.

The remaining section of what had been an airport later became part of the new Westmoreland Park, and by the 1930’s McLoughlin Boulevard (“the super highway”, as it was then touted) was built along a stretch of the land where planes once took off.

The sounds of car engines on McLoughlin is all that remains to remind of the Westmoreland airstrip, as today cars and trucks speed by as fast as did the first airplanes that once roamed the skies from Westmoreland.