First shipment of merchandise by air lands in a Minneapolis park

Another first for a Minneapolis park: The nation’s first commercial air shipment landed at The Parade near downtown Minneapolis on May 8, 1920.

This entry in the proceedings, or minutes, of the Minneapolis park board on May 5, 1920, had puzzled me from the time I first saw it a couple of years ago.

Petitions and Communications

From Dayton Company —

Requesting permission to have the two airplanes bringing freight from New York to overcome the embargo to land on The Parade Friday morning.

Commissioner Gross —

Moved that the request be granted under the supervision of the Superintendent of Parks.

Adopted

Dayton’s Express air merchandise shipments arrived from New York at The Parade, May 8, 1920 (Charles J. Hibbard, Minnesota Historical Society, HE1.21 p53)

Only recently did I look up newspapers from the time to see if the event was mentioned. When I read the coverage in the Minneapolis Tribune, I knew I had seen a photo of the event somewhere and went straight to the Minnesota Historical Society’s Photo Collection, one of the most interesting places on the Internet. Sure enough, there were two photos of the event recorded by the superb photographer Charles Hibbard.

Dayton’s air merchandise shipment was unloaded after the plane was towed, minus wings, from The Parade to Dayton’s store on Nicollet Ave., May 8, 1920. The man on the plane is likely Ray S. Miller, the pilot who flew from New York via Buffalo. (Charles J. Hibbard, Minnesota Historical Society, HE1.21 p52)

This is the story of a retail innovation by Dayton’s (now Target) and another small part in history played by Minneapolis parks.

In April 1920, a wildcat strike by railroad switchmen in Chicago eventually spread to railroads and rail yards throughout the country causing a near shutdown of national transportation. Even after the strike had ended goods had piled up around the country threatening food and fuel shortages in a kind of gridlock from New England to the Pacific Northwest. While the Interstate Commerce Commission, White House and Congress grappled with the problem and eventually reinstituted some World War I-era government controls on railroads, the department store of George Draper Dayton developed an innovative plan: it would ship goods from New York City to Minneapolis by airplane.

The Minneapolis Tribune announced Dayton’s intentions April 30, 1920 along with the news that two airplanes had already left the Curtiss airplane plant in Buffalo, New York bound for Roosevelt Field on Long Island. The planes would commence their journey west as soon as they were loaded. The Tribune also noted the interest in the flight by Minneapolis Postmaster E. A. Purdy, who asked the company to give him all particulars on the flight. United States airmail service from Chicago to Minneapolis was scheduled to begin two months later on July 1. And none too soon. The Minneapolis post office had just set a record on April 8: the first time it had handled 100,000 packages in one day.

Dear Target, Thank you. Yours Truly, FedEx and UPS

In the next day’s edition, the Tribune reported that the plan to fly merchandise to Minneapolis had attracted considerable attention. The New York American had carried a story of the flight by which a half-ton of goods was to be transported aboard two Curtiss Oriole airplanes. “The plan is described as a pioneer step in shipments of goods by plane,” the Tribune reported, “and is  declared to bear the possibilities of an extensive development of the use of aircraft for freight-carrying purposes.”

On May 2 the Tribune ran photos of the two dapper pilots, Ray Miller and Charles Keyes, who had traveled to New York to pilot the planes back to Minneapolis. In this edition the Tribune claimed that the effort by Dayton’s had attracted the attention of both New York and Chicago retailers.

Perhaps the weather was not good or it took a long time to load 1,000 pounds of merchandise, but the planes didn’t depart New York until May 6. The May 7 Tribune reported that the pilots had flown through a blinding snowstorm over the Mohawk Valley before arriving in Buffalo the night before and were expected to arrive in Minneapolis the morning of May 8.

“Permission for the airplanes to land on The Parade grounds has been granted by the Board of Park Commissioners,” the Tribune reported. “The wings will be removed and the airplanes will be towed through the streets to Dayton’s store.”

And they were — as Charles Hibbard showed us.

While Target’s history website portrays the air shipment as a response to empty shelves in Dayton’s store, and it may have been, it was also a carefully constructed publicity campaign — from the daily press coverage, including photos of the pilots, to painting “Dayton’s Express” on the fusilages. The planes could have landed at the Speedway Airport, later Wold-Chamberlain Field, and the merchandise trucked to the store. Landing the planes in a park in the center of the city and then hauling them wingless into downtown for unloading made a good story that much better. Very clever.

Of course, in later years the park board became heavily involved in aviation. In 1927 the park board acquired the land of the fledgling Wold-Chamberlain Field in Bloomington and built it into a world-class airport. The park board turned the airport over to the Metropolitan Airports Commission in 1944, but retained title to about 600 acres of land at the center of the airport.

This was not George Dayton’s first encounter with the park board. When the Street Railway Company’s pavilion on park land beside Lake Harriet burned down in the spring of 1903, George Dayton was on a committee for the Retailers Association that worked with the park board and Street Railway to build a new pavilion. The Street Railway Company decided not to build a new pavilion itself but to contribute the $15,000 it collected in insurance on the burned building to the park board. The remaining $15,000 the park board needed to build a new pavilion? It was loaned to the park board on attractive terms by Dayton and the other retailers.

(See earlier post on the original plans for The Parade by Warren Manning.)

David C. Smith

© David C. Smith

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