Early History of the Grand Rapids Airport
A Grand Rapids First -- Daily Inter-City Airplane Passenger Service
Yes, agreed William B. Stout in 1926, the open spaces where Madison Avenue dead-ends south of the city provided a logical site for an airport, but the improved portion of it wasnít large enough. Not large enough, that is, to serve as a port for big Ford-Stout airplanes.
Mr. Stout was being shown about the site by a committee headed by Grover C Good,
then President of the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce, Stout, in Grand Rapids to
address the Rotary club, had told about the huge all-metal plane he was about to introduce
in collaboration with the Ford Motor Company and he also had dropped the statement
that he planned to inaugurate an inter-city daily airplane passenger service.
It would be the first one of its kind in the United States.
Mr. Good, never being slow at scenting an opportunity to keep Grand Rapids on the
map, immediately suggested that inasmuch as the Ford-Stout people hadnít decided on
the two cities they would have as terminals for their service, why not make it a Detroit-
Grand Rapids run? He gave Mr. Stout many good reasons why linking the two largest
cities in Michigan was logical.
So, it followed that Mr. Good and his C. and C. committee escorted Mr. Stout, who
was a noted inventor of airplanes and automobiles, about the airport. The latter was
struck with the possibilities of the Detroit-Grand Rapids run. But, he pointed out, the
big planes would need more room in which to land and take off. That would mean
removal of a lot of stumps and considerable grading. And there should be a building
put up that would serve as a combination office building and depot.
That would cost about $25,000, but it didnít worry Mr. Good. Just give him
assurances that the Detroit-Grand Rapids run would become a reality and he would
see to it that the airminded citizens and officials of Grand Rapids and Kent County
would raise the needed cash.
* * * *
The city boasted a Grand Rapids Aero Club at that time, of which the late Pen-
clubber Dudley E. Waters and Fred Z. Pantlind were leading spirits and they got
busy on the fund-raising. They came up with $20,000 and the Kent County Board
of Supervisors which, even at that early stage, could see a possible air age of the
future, added the remaining $5,000 needed.
Stout, in the meantime, had convinced capitalists of the feasibility of trying out
the Detroit-Grand Rapids run on an experimental basis, to demonstrate the
practicability of a daily scheduled airplane passenger service. The run was to be continued for a year.
And it came about that on Aug. 2, 1926, the service was inaugurated.
* * * *
Many years have passed since that inaugurated run and much has transpired in
the aviation industry. So amazingly has it grown, that with the Grand Rapids
Airport it has been a repetition of Mr. Stoutís statement when he first looked over the land in 1926 -- logical site, but more room needed. Thus, we have a new airport at Cascade.
Early aviation fans here recall the many interesting steps which have been taken
and which have made Grand Rapids one of the most airminded cities in the country.
Older ones recall that the original airport site had been used for years as a fairgrounds
by Kent County Agricultural Society. There were exhibited prize horses and cattle and
for extra excitement, harness races were staged on the half-mile track. But the fair dis-
banded and later the track was used principally for bicycle races. In 1916 Kent County
acquired the land.
The Board of Supervisors didnít know exactly what they would do with the land.
Some favored using it for nursery purpose.
First airplane to fly here were based at the Comstock Park Fair Grounds and later
there was some flying boat activity at Reeds Lake. The Russell Field on Plainfield, N.E.,
and a site at Breton Road and Hall also were used.
But in 1919 the Madison avenue tract was established as a flying field and the Grand
Rapids Aero Club, forerunner of the Grand Rapids Flying Club, was organized
to promote aviation and was given a five-year lease on the field at a nominal fee. In
that year the Roseswift Airplane company was formed by the late Arthur Rosenthal (one
of the founders of the Rose Patch and Label Co.), Tom Swift, a vaudeville artist with
whom Rosenthal had become acquainted when the latter toured the world as a daredevil
motor bike rider, and others.
They purchased five Curtiss OX-5 planes, latest type of that day, and carried on a passenger-express business until 1921. But they were ahead of their time and lack of business caused them to cease operations
Between 1921 and 1925 there were only two airplanes based at the airport and the Board of Supervisors had a good mind to revert to its original thought of transforming
the land into a nursery. These opeerators, Byron D. Coats and Ralph Reed, however, still had faith in aviation and induced the supervisors to permit them to continue.
* * * *
Even with the Detroit-Grand Rapids line of the Ford-Stout service discontinued,
the Supervisors, at the behest of the Grand Rapids Flying club, appropriated another
$5,000 for further grading and improving the airport. The club bought two planes for
use of its members, and along about that time the late Penclubber John T. Byrne
financed operation of the furniture Capital Air Service, with his son, Jack, in charge.
They built a $20,000 hanger and remained in business for several yars, although at
a considerable loss. They, too, found they were ahead of the time.
The airport was given another shot in the arm July 17, 1928, when airmail service
operations were begun by the Thompson Airmail Corporation. The route was
from Muskegon to Grand Rapids to Kalamazoo. Waco biplanes were used.
At Kalamazoo connections were made with eastern and western points.
In the following year -1929 - the Kohler Aviation Corporation of Milwaukee
entered the local scene with a cross-lake service. They built their own hanger
and operated three amphibian planes daily between the two cities.
Michigan Air Express was formed in that year to carry passengers, express and
newspapers between Grand Rapids and Northern Michigan.
In October, 1929, that organization, which had a run from Lansing to Detroit,
was combined with Kohler corporation to give through service from Milwaukee to
In another year, city and county officials were beginning to really sense the
possibilities of air travel. A total of 72 acres at the port was graded, jail prisoners
doing much of he work. George W. Welsh, as City Manager, was interested and
worked closely with the aviation enthusiasts. The first north-and-south runway was
built at that time.
* * * *
By March, 1930, the Board of Supervisors definitely decided it was time to take
over the port. Thomas E. Walsh, chairman of the boardís aviation committee, was named
Manager. He enlisted the cooperation of the Grand Rapids Engineersí Club,
which recommended that runways 300 feet wide and at least 2,500 feet long be built
with hard surfaced strips down the middle of each runway. Three air services companies
and four flying schools were in operation and there were 26 daily takeoffs and landings,
Plus numerous sightseeing trips being made.
Soon the port began to operate at a profit with income from rentals and service
exceeding the actual operating expenses.
At the end of the year, Walsh, who had been an aviation "bug" since he was a small
boy (he played hookey to witness the first airplane flight at Comstock Park), proudly re-
ported that 20 airplanes were using the port as a home base with passengers-carrying
capacity of 82 people at one time. A total of 386 planes had visited the port during the
year, bringing 1,056 visitors with them. In addition, some 150,000 persons had visited
the place that year. He estimated the value of the ground and building at $79,500.
* * * *
Reported Manager Walsh to the Board of Supervvisors:
"Aviation has come to Grand Rapids to stay and the increased activities of the past
six months is only a forerunner of the great future along these lines in store for us."
Subsequent events showed how right Walsh was, and on Aug. 23, 1946, the Chamber
of Commerce sponsored a dinner commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the
first flight of the Ford-Stout plane from Grand Rapids to Detroit.
* * * *
Like cities which experience rapid growths, however, the "old" airport had its
Expansion problems. Millions were spent in increasing the size of the port and in
making improvements. Objections of nearby residents had to be contended with.
World War II, during which the airport was a beehive of activity focused attention
on the need for additional facilities. The Board of Supervisorsí airport committee
recommended a millon dollar improvement program and in 1949 engaged an inde-
pendent firm of experts to survey the situation. They spent 90 days compiling data
and came up with the recommendation that the port be expanded rather than re-located.
Penclubber John A. Collins, then chairman of the Finance committee of the Board of
Supervisors, agreed that expansion was so necessary for the people of the community
that the public should be given a chance to vote on a bond issue covering the cost.
"Grand Rapids cannot stand still," Collins declared in July, 1949.
The airport was declared inadequate for modern military planes, for jets and for
the larger type passenger-carrying planes which were coming into use.
Itís history now how the people voted favorably on the bond issue and as a result a
$2,500,000 expansion and improvement program was made possible with state and
federal governments joining with the county in sharing the costs. The new 6,000
feet runways that were called for were constructed and put in use early in 1951. The
port was called a "new" airport - a ten million dollar airport.
* * * *
But it was not "new" enough. And so today we have the beautiful Cascade airport.
This new facility is a tribute to the air-mindedness of this area that was evidenced back
in 1919 when the Board of Supervisors, with vision that was a credit to them, agreed
to continue the Madison avenue location as an airport and not turn it into a nursery.