restricted access 1. The Airlines Come to Las Vegas
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4 April 17, 1926, was a landmark day for the dusty little desert town of Las Vegas. At 10:05 a.m., after a two-hour, twenty-nine-minute flight from Los Angeles, Western Air Express World War I pilot Maury Graham landed his single-engine Douglas M-2 biplane on the freshly graded dirt airstrip at the new, officially designated Rockwell Field. Having completed the first leg of the inaugural airmail flight from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City, he stopped in Las Vegas just long enough to refuel and deliver and pick up mailbags, then took off to complete the last leg of his trip. Three hours later, fellow Western Air Express pilot Jimmie James landed at Rockwell Field after a bumpy fivehour , forty-minute flight from Salt Lake City.1 As planned, he also stopped to refuel and deliver and pick up mailbags, and then continued on to Los Angeles to finish the history-making eight-hour trip. Scheduled commercial aviation had finally come to Las Vegas. Mayor Fred Hess and excited townspeople turned out to greet both of the pilots as their M-2s arrived. Since 1918, Las Vegans had watched World War I pilots Randall Henderson and Emery Rogers arrive from Southern California in their small Curtiss JN-4 “Jennies” doing flybys and touch-and-gos to impress their desert onlookers with the wonders of this new machine called the aeroplane. Henderson, Rogers, and other pilots “just dropped in as if it were an everyday occurrence to hop across 300 miles of desert to call on friends.”2 Of course, an essential part of the promotion of aviation in Las Vegas was landing and parking the planes for public inspection, as well as offering flights to the daring, of which there always were a few. Most Las Vegans were left with “dislocated necks and sunburned tonsils” from watching the planes circle the valley. Army Air Corps pilots also frequently performed aerial maneuvers over the little town in their De Havilland DH-4s while scouting airmail routes. Being able to get a firsthand look at the M-2 biplanes, with The Airlines Come to Las Vegas ◀ c h a p t e r o n e The Airlines Come to Las Vegas ▶ 5 their mailbag compartments in the front and pilot seating in the back, was a big deal on this special occasion. Robert Griffith, then the postmaster of Las Vegas, recalled “the great day of April 17, 1926 when Jimmie James landed at Las Vegas. . . . Several hundred people watched as ‘Wild Bill’ Morgan, former Pony Express rider, delivered the first bag of mail on horseback ever to be sent from Las Vegas by air. . . . Jimmie was a well loved hero and the plane was the finest. The Douglas M-2 had a 450 hp engine, metal prop, droppable gas tanks, 145 mile per hour speed, many other up to the minute features, and cost a fabulous $18,000 dollars. . . . Las Vegas, for sure was on the map now.”3 This level of excitement for a pair of airmail pilots delivering a few bags of letters may seem overblown (671 letters to Las Vegas and 2,246 letters to Los Angeles and Salt Lake City), but Postmaster Griffith was correct: Las Vegas was literally on the national aviation map now. As a fuel stop on the Los Angeles–to–Salt Lake City feeder route, Las Vegas became a part of the highly coveted San Francisco–to–New York transcontinental airmail system, which opened the door to passenger travel and tourism. And with the guidance and financial support of the federal government, during the next eight decades commercial airlines enabled Las Vegas to become a world-class travel and tourism destination. Using aviation to transform Las Vegas was a massive undertaking, but it started simply enough, with the airmail. At the end of World War I, many Americans wondered about the complex shift from combat to peace. Questions about the shape of the American economy, the role of the federal government in private life, and the place of the military in a peacetime society headlined contemporary debates. Several of these concerns telescoped into the issue of aviation. Near the conclusion of World War I, the federal government began experimenting with transporting mail by air because of the speed of delivery. Army Air Corps pilots were the best trained and the most experienced at flying, and after the war there was an abundance of them. So the U...


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Subject Headings

  • Las Vegas (Nev.) -- History.
  • Las Vegas (Nev.) -- Economic conditions.
  • Tourism -- Nevada -- Las Vegas -- History.
  • Airlines -- Nevada -- Las Vegas -- History.
  • Aeronautics, Commercial -- Nevada -- Las Vegas -- History.
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