Archive for the ‘Minneapolis Airport’ Category

The Park Board that Operated an Airport

The Minneapolis-St.Paul International Airport was once the site of the Snelling Racetrack, a two-mile concrete race track that was built to hold car races similar to the Indianapolis 500. It failed — and became an airport instead. The airport was developed and operated by the Minneapolis park board for nearly two decades. You can read the story of the Snelling Racetrack here, another of my earlier posts that I have restored to this site.

The two-mile oval adjacent to Fort Snelling included a grandstand that was built to hold 100,000 fans, although the few races held there never attracted nearly that many people.

The Park Board eventually built the runways, hangars, terminal and control tower that were taken over in the 1940s when the Minnesota legislature created the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC). The last major renovation of the airport runways by the park board — before ceding control to MAC — took place as a Works Progress Adminstration (WPA) project. The rubble from the old runways was used as fill in Pearl Lake, now Pearl Park — without a lake.

David C. Smith

A Racetrack Before It Became a Park — and an Airport

Not many people would recognize this Minneapolis park property, which lies outside city limits and was acquired in 1928, twelve years after this photo was taken. There is some uncertainty about how much of this property is still technically owned by the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, but the property is administered by another agency.

The Snelling Speedway in 1916. (Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board.)

Four-wide racing at the Snelling Speedway, 1916. (Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board.)

This is the famous Twin City Motor Speedway, or Snelling Speedway, in 1916, the second year of its three-year life. The speedway was named informally for its location adjacent to Fort Snelling. The infield of the two-mile concrete track was later used as a landing field for airplanes — and eventually became Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. The Minneapolis Board of Park Commissioners acquired the land in 1928 to develop it as an airport for the city. The task fell to the park board because it was the only agency of Minneapolis city government that could own land outside of city limits. (The law that permitted the park board to own land outside city limits was passed by the Minnesota legislature in 1885 to permit the park board to purchase land in Golden Valley for part of what eventually became Glenwood (Wirth) Park .) The park board built and ran the airport from 1928 until the Metropolitan Airports Commission was created in 1943, at which time the park board turned over administration of the airport. The park board had spent a significant percentage of its meager resources in those years developing the airport.

The enormous grandstands pictured left and center were built in 1915 to hold 100,000 people. The problem was that far, far fewer attended the few races held there. The first major race in 1915, a 500-mile race patterned after the Indianapolis 500, was widely promoted by the newspapers for weeks. The weekend of the race — the first weekend in September, just before the State Fair opened — the Minneapolis Tribune wrote that hotel rooms were impossible to find in the Twin Cities; hoteliers were referring unaccommodated visitors to private homes for a place to sleep. It was said to be the busiest weekend in the history of Minneapolis hotels with guests arriving from around the country. The Twin City Rapid Transit Company built a special spur track to the speedway to transport the crowds.

Unfortunately for the promoters, drivers, and the legions of workers who constructed the track and were not paid, attendance was much smaller than hoped. Society columns in the Tribune covered the rich and famous who attended the races and trumpeted this “innovation in divertisement” for the social elite, but the paper reported race attendance at only 28,000.

The 1915 race was a disappointment in every respect. The banked concrete track, heralded as the fastest and safest track in the world, was in fact extremely rough. The cars vibrated to pieces and the drivers didn’t fare much better.  The champion Italian driver, Dario Resta, was reported to have denounced the roughness of the track “vociferously” after his first test drive during race week. If you know any Italian curse words, you could probably translate the “vociferously”. He was prescient, because his car didn’t survive much more than 100 miles on race day. But potential race fans didn’t know that ahead of time.

Neither could they have imagined the snoozefest that the race became. It only takes a glance at the race results to understand how tedious the day must have been for spectators. With only twenty cars starting the race and most of them falling apart or dropping out for mechanical reasons early on — having a “mechanician” riding along, the second person visible in the cars, didn’t prevent mechanical failures — there wasn’t much action despite the nail-biting finish of the race, which was won by 1/5 of a second. The Tribune, which had promoted the race so breathlessly, could hardly contain its excitement proclaiming in its headline Sept. 5, 1914, “Cooper Wins Closest Finish in History.”

Here's the problem! (Minneapolis Tribune September 5, 1915)

Here’s part of the problem! 1915 500-mile race results. (Minneapolis Tribune, September 5, 1915)

An exciting finish didn’t make up for the rest of the race. The slow pace of the race, only 86 mph, dragged it out for nearly six hours, and the third place car was more than a half-hour behind the leaders. The Tribune blamed the pace on the fact that the cars of so many of the “most daring” drivers — “speed demons” — were incapacitated. Those drivers included the famous Italians Resta and Ralph De Palma and the American “Wild” Bob Burman.  Picture only eight cars spread over a two-mile track, none of them travelling much faster, and some not as fast as, ordinary traffic on 35W and think of what you’d be doing to amuse yourself as a spectator. As stirring as the finish must have been with Cooper and Anderson pushing their matching Stutzes to the finish (the Stutz company dropped racing the next year anyway), most of the barely awake spectators headed for the exits before O’Donnell’s Duesenberg, manufactured in Minneapolis, came anywhere near the finish lap in third place.

Chandler and the great Barney Oldfield were still on the track — with no one in the stands and the sun about to set — plodding along more than an hour from finishing when they were mercifully flagged off the track in the dusk. The most notable thing about the Oldfield performance was that his relief driver — the drivers took breaks during the race — was the later World War I flying ace, Eddie Rickenbacker.

It’s no wonder that the Tribune concluded the next day, in a heroic effort at understatement:

“The crowd could not be called enthusiastic, the length of the grind and the heat probably preventing continuous hilarity.”

Prospective ticket buyers probably didn’t imagine the downside of what was then endurance racing. The greater problem was the cost of the tickets. Ticket prices were widely acknowledged as being much too high — the lowest ticket price was $2 and that didn’t include a seat, which cost another $2.50, the equivalent of what the park board paid workers for an 8-hour workday then.

(For more detail on the 1915 race, go here.  Noel Allard reconstructs the race, and the era in racing.)

Lower Prices, More Hilarity

The speedway’s promoters realized that they had to reduce prices as well as the tedium of a 500-mile race the next year. For the 1916 Fourth of July race, admission to the bleachers was cut to $1.00 and prices for seats in the grandstand began at $2.00. In hopes of more hilarity, even if not continuous, the race was shortened to 150 miles. A full day of racing was also to feature races of 50, 20 and 10 miles.

The roster of drivers was much the same as 1915: Resta chose to race in Omaha and Burman had crashed and died two months earlier in a California race. Oldfield returned, but only in capacity of referee, while his former relief driver, “Rick” Rickenbacker, had his own car to drive. (I’m no expert on race cars of the era, but it’s possible that Rickenbacker’s white Maxwell is on the far left in the photo above.) St. Paul’s own Tommy Milton, known then for his success at state fair races, but who would win two Indy 500s in the 1920s, entered in a Duesenberg. The Tribune predicted the largest race crowd in Minnesota history.

It was not to be. While I haven’t found an attendance figure for the race, there couldn’t have been many fans buying tickets because the total gate was only $8,000. We know that because at the time the flag was supposed to drop on the first race, the promoters had not yet posted the $20,000 in prize money for the races and the drivers, obviously noting the sparse crowd, refused to race until the prize money was in trustworthy hands. After a two-hour delay that caused the 50-, 20-, and 10-mile races to be scrubbed, the promoter turned over the entire gate receipts of about $8,000 and wrote a $12,000 personal check to cover the rest of the prize money for the 150-mile race. And off they went down the stilll-rough concrete track, bouncing like the promoter’s check.

Ralph De Palma won the race by a 12-minute margin in a time of just under an hour and a half, or an average speed of  a bit over 91 mph. He was one of only seven finishers, with Tom Milton finishing fourth.

By 1930 the Minneapolis park board had begun the transformation of the old speedway into an airport, but a segment of the old 2-mile oval still remained. The Mendota Bridge is upper right. Note the NWA hangar among the airport buildings. The landing strip was not on the old concrete race track, which was too rough. The landing strip was on the grass in the infield of the old race track. (J. E. Quigley, Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board)

By 1930 the Minneapolis park board had begun the transformation of the old speedway into an airport, but a segment of the old 2-mile oval still remained. The Mendota Bridge is upper right. Note the NWA hangar among the airport buildings. The landing strip was not on the old concrete race track, which was too rough. Airplanes landed on the grass in the infield of the old race track. (J. E. Quigley, Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board)

That was essentially the end of the Twin City Motor Speedway. Within two days the speedway had declared bankruptcy and never recovered. The speedway that cost more than $800,000 to build went into foreclosure in August of 1916. The owner of the Indianapolis Speedway, who was also a stockholder in the Twin City Motor Speedway, declined to purchase the track.  By the spring of 1917 the track property was already being mentioned as a possible site for an airfield or training ground for the navy aviation corps. Both Dunwoody Institute and the University of Minnesota had proposed to begin training military aviators and a site was needed.

A group of race car drivers led by Louis Chevrolet — yes, that Chevrolet — organized a final race at the track in 1917, which the Tribune called a “revival” race. The patient was too far gone to be resuscitated, despite a victory by Ira Vail in the 100-mile race at the much-improved average speed of more than 96 mph. Less than three months later the Tribune reported that the receiver for the bankrupt speedway had rented a portion of the grounds to a hog farmer who was fattening 500 pigs by feeding them Fort Snelling garbage. The speedway was finished, but the land was about to be given over to the service of a whole different kind of speed — and eventually the Minneapolis park board.

David C. Smith

© 2013 David C . Smith

Is that a lake?

This photo illustrates the difficult history of Diamond Lake. It doesn’t look like a lake at all — and it might not have been. The 1938 annual report of the park board refers to “the dry lake bed at present.”

Diamond Lake, center, looking northwest. Pearl Park is upper right and the future Todd Park at center right. Lake Harriet and Lake Calhoun are near horizon. (Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board)

Diamond Lake, center, looking northwest. Pearl Park is upper right and the future Todd Park at center right. Lake Harriet and Lake Calhoun are near horizon. (Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board)

I recently received an email from a reader who lives near Diamond Lake who commented on the differences in how Diamond Lake is treated from other Minneapolis lakes in that there is no hiking or bicycle trail all the way around it. Many perceive the west shore to be private property. In fact, the entire lakeshore is park property. The photo above is undated, but I think it was shot in the 1940s. According to Hennepin County property records, the houses on the east side of Pearl Park were built in 1938.

At this time Todd Park — the dark area north of 57th Street at Portland — was referred to simply as the “east swamp.” It was dedicated as a “park” on the plat of the neighborhood, but it was, on average, 12 feet below the grades of surrounding streets.

Filling and grading Pearl Lake. View looking west near 54th St. (Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board)

Filling and grading Pearl Lake. View looking west from near 54th St. and Portland Avenue, likely taken about 1936. (Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board)

Pearl Lake was filled in 1936-37, with dirt from extensive runway excavation and construction at Minneapolis Municipal Airport, which the park board owned and operated at the time. The runway construction and lake filling were both WPA projects. About 200 men and 75 trucks were assigned to the project in 1936. About one foot of peat was peeled off the old lake bed, a couple feet of airport fill smoothed over the skinned landscape, and the peat reinstalled as a top coat.

In the 1938 annual report of the park board, superintendent Christian Bossen wrote that Diamond Lake had almost dried up in the 1920s due to development and low rainfall, but, “With the separation of the storm water drainage from the sanitary sewers, the City Engineer is now using and expects to use to a greater extent Diamond Lake as a storm water reservoir.”

The 1938 annual report contains a detailed description of what the park board hoped to accomplish around Diamond Lake. It  provides the details of an important chapter in the history of the lake and the neighborhood.

David C. Smith

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.


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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