I had way too much fun putting together this story – Sloths, speedways and grave sites: Before they were Airports – for my February At the Airport column on USA Today, which ran along with a slide show of these and other “before” photos.
(Be sure to look for the photo of an early LAX – with rabbits.)
Many of today’s airports stretch across vast tracts of acreage that don’t hold much interest for anyone but plane-spotters and aviation geeks. But before they housed commercial airports, some of these lands had colorful, non-aeronautical pasts.
Sloths, palm trees, farms and military bases
Going way back to the last ice age, there’s evidence that large creatures roamed the land now occupied by Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
In February, 1961 a construction crew working in a bog along an airport runway discovered the bones of a 12-foot long sloth, or Megalonyx, that was determined to be more than 12,500 years old. Only the sloth’s skull and some neck and limb bones were missing, so with casts taken from another Megalonyx specimen, a complete Sea-Tac sloth skeleton was created and remains on display at Seattle’s Burke Museum.
In 1992, workers digging up earth to make way for Concourse B at Denver International Airport came across fossils of palm leaves, indicating that long before the area became a prairie, it had a subtropical climate.
“In the historical timeline, the prairie where Denver International Airport was built was most recently farmland,” said airport spokesperson Laura Coale. “Some original homesteading families still cultivated winter wheat, sunflowers and other crops,” and today some airport-owned land is still used for farming.
Many other airports, including Fresno Yosemite, Dulles and Miami International Airports sprouted on undeveloped agricultural or scrub land. Some, like San Jose International Airport, which was built on a former onion field and Los Angeles International Airport (former bean fields), grew up on land that had already been used for farming.
“Farmland was ideal for airports because the land had already been tilled and cleared of trees and, in the very early days of aviation, you didn’t need such a long runway to take off,” said F. Robert Van Der Linden, chair of the aeronautics department of the National Air and Space Museum at the Smithsonian Institution.
World War II also paved the way for Orlando International and many other modern-day airports. “We covered the country in airfields for military training purposes,” said Van Der Linden, and many of those airfields were later turned over to local governments, which transformed them into commercial airports.
Race tracks and a river
Washington Reagan National Airport “was constructed on landfill” and near the former site of Abingdon, a colonial plantation, said Rob Yingling, Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority spokesperson. “But before it was an airport, it was the Potomac River.”
Several airports have links to former speedways:
What is now Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport was built on the site of an auto race track called Snelling Speedway. “The airport was initially known as Speedway Field in reference to its auto racing history,” said airport spokesperson Patrick Hogan, “and in early photos you can still see the oval outlines of the former auto raceway surrounding the airport.”
The history of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport reaches back to at least 1925, when the mayor signed a lease committing to the city to developing an airfield on an abandoned auto racetrack. “The infield of the old racetrack had been used as a landing site for many years prior to 1925,” notes the ATL website.
California’s Orange County Airport, now known as John Wayne Airport (SNA), has its roots in a private landing strip established in the 1920s by aviation pioneer Eddie Martin. But each Sunday from 1950 to 1959 the airport runway doubled as a speedway for the Santa Ana Drag Races.
Golf courses give way to airports
Named for the World War I aviator who started a flying service Fort Lauderdale in the 1920s, the Merle L. Fogg Airport – later Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport – opened in 1929 on the site of a municipal golf course that had closed a year earlier. The history section of the FLL website notes that, “only a minimal amount of work was needed to convert it into an airport. Trees and bushes were cleared from the perimeter of the course and its bunkers were leveled. Its unpaved runways were the former fairways suitable for the planes of the day.”
Norfolk International Airport (ORF), which is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, moved in 1938 to the former Truxton Manor golf course. The airports first terminal building “had either been the pro shop or the caddy shack at the golf course,” said Charles Braden, director of market development for the Norfolk Airport Authority.
Until 1929, there was an amusement park on the land that ultimately became New York’s LaGuardia Airport and in 1942 New York City turned Idlewild Golf Course into Idlewild Airport, which was renamed John F. Kennedy Airport in 1963.
Gone but not forgotten
And then there’s Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport, where pilots and passengers are sometimes alarmed when they spot grave markers alongside the runway.
In the 1970s, the graves of some Dotson family members who had been buried in the late 1800s in a remote, private clearing in the woods ended up in the path of a planned airport runway expansion.
The wooden caskets and their contents had rotted away a long time ago and only the grave markers remained. “The airport had power of eminent domain [to take the land and move the markers], but there could have been a court battle,” said Patrick Graham, the executive director of the Savannah airport commission.
Instead the airport and the Dotson family descendants agreed that the grave markers for Richard and Catherine Dotson would be surveyed, removed during runway construction, and placed back in their original spots when the work was done.
Luckily, that those spots are on the side and not right in the center of the runway. “Planes aren’t rolling over them,” said Graham, but passengers and pilots can see them when a plane taxis by.
“We are probably the only airport with gravesites that close to the runway,” said Graham. “But it is in keeping with and respectful of the family’s wishes.”