Port Columbus-America’s Greatest Air Harbor Part 1
by Douglas Terpstra
ASC Group, Inc. (ASC) has completed numerous projects at John Glenn Columbus International Airport (formerly Port Columbus International Airport) since 2002, including in almost all of the disciplines in which ASC is prequalified. The project types have included archaeological (Phase I and Phase II surveys, cemetery relocation, artifact curation, Memorandum of Agreement development), architectural history (reconnaissance surveys, National Register of Historic Places (NRHP)-eligibility evaluations, assessment of effects, Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS)-equivalent documentation), and environmental (threatened and endangered species survey, wetland delineations, waterway permits, and Phase I Environmental Site Assessments). More than just Columbus’ primary air travel hub, the airport has historical significance extending back more than 90 years. Much of the following historical information is derived from Robert F. Kirk’s book The Building of an Airport: Port Columbus, published in 2019.
Port Columbus was not the first airport in Columbus; however, the airports existing in 1927 were too small to accommodate the large transport aircraft that were then coming into use. A little more than a month after his historic 1927 New York-to-Paris solo flight, Charles Lindbergh announced that Columbus was planned to be a stop on what would become the route of the Transcontinental Air Transport Company (TAT), one of the nation’s first transcontinental passenger transportation routes utilizing aircraft. This announcement, in conjunction with growing concerns among city leaders that Columbus needed a large municipal airport to compete with other cities building such airports, led the City Council to submit a bond issue to voters in 1927 to fund a new airport. Although this initial bond issue failed, an extensive campaign of publicity and promotion lead to the passage of a bond issue the following year in a 5 to 1 majority. Proponents touted that landlocked Columbus had the opportunity to become a leading “port” for air transport and trade and used slogans such as “America’s Greatest Air Harbor.” “Port Columbus” caught on with the public and would become the name of the new airport.
Because commercial passenger travel by air was not authorized at the time, the TAT route included travel by passenger train overnight from New York City to Columbus, travel by air from Columbus to Waynoka, Oklahoma, by train from Waynoka to Clovis, New Mexico, and by plane from Clovis to Los Angeles, California. The eastern leg of the air trip also included stops in Indianapolis, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Wichita. TAT publicity claimed that the trip would take only 48 hours, a record speed for the time. In its first year, TAT made more than 3,000 trips and used Columbus as its eastern hub and main base of operations. In October 1930, TAT merged with Western Air, Inc., to form Transcontinental & Western Air (TWA) and that, along with the introduction of instruments for night flying, caused the railroad portion of the transcontinental flight to be discontinued; the trip was then made entirely by air.
Due to TAT’s plans to inaugurate service by the summer of 1929, construction of the airport had begun even before the passage of the 1928 bond issue. The dedication of the airport in July 1929 was a three-day affair culminating in the first airplane departure on July 8. The Pennsylvania Railroad’s “Airway Limited” arrived that day at a newly-built train station along Fifth Avenue across from the new airport terminal. Nineteen passengers, including Amelia Earhart, transferred to airplanes for the next stage of the transcontinental trip. Special guests at the airport opening included Henry and Edsel Ford, Harvey Firestone, and Charles Lindbergh. In November 1929, the original terminal building (NRHP-listed) and the TAT hangar (determined eligible for listing in the NRHP), both located in what is now the southeastern corner of the airport, were the only completed buildings at Port Columbus. By 1939, 15 scheduled flights left Port Columbus each day.
Port Columbus also became a manufacturing center. In October 1940, the Curtiss-Wright Corporation leased 83 acres of airport land to construct a manufacturing plant for military aircraft. These aircraft included SO3C-1 Seagull observation planes and SB2C Helldivers. In 1943, almost 10 percent of the nation’s warplane production came out of Columbus. Following the war, Carl Strandlund leased the plant from the government to construct his assembly-line-produced porcelain-enamel-paneled Lustron houses. With the failure of Lustron and the outbreak of the Korean War, the plant was converted back to military production in 1951, and North American Aviation began to produce jet aircraft for the military. The plant eventually employed 18,000 workers. In 1982, the plant was transferred from the Navy to the Air Force and was given the name Air Force Plant 85. Rockwell International used the plant primarily to build B-1 bombers, and McDonnell Douglas later built parts for civilian and military planes, but the Air Force shut down operations at the plant in 1994. The government sold the plant to private owners in 1997.