Airmail flight leaves Spokane for the first time on September 15, 1929.

  • By Laura Arksey
  • Posted 1/15/2008
  • Essay 8456

On September 15, 1929, Spokane's first airmail flight leaves Felts Field amid great festivity. Varney Airlines of Pasco, forerunner of United Airlines, is the carrier on a route from Spokane to Pasco, with connections to Salt Lake, Portland,  and Seattle. Varney uses two Stearman aircraft to carry the estimated 70,000 pieces of mail on the inaugural flight, including 10,000 wooden postcards designed just for the occasion.

Varney had been flying mail out of Pasco since 1926. According to aviation historian James McGoldrick:

"Spokane was envious of Pasco, and a drive was started to induce Varney to expand to Spokane. The Chamber [of Commerce] mounted a big publicity campaign ... . A pilot and plane were hired to survey the route. Then in 1928, Felix Warren [1852-1937], a pioneer stagecoach driver, was commissioned to haul a 'big bunch' of airmail to Pasco in an old Thorobrace Stagecoach to be loaded on the plane. Airmail stamps had been sold to practically every Spokane businessman"  (McGoldrick, 164).

The local boosters had a large number of wood postcards made from ponderosa pine cut at the McGoldrick Mill and produced by the White Pine Sash Company, the idea of its president, Henry Kloop. A young sawyer at his company, Fred Bartlett, improvised a way of mass-producing the cards so as to not show score marks. The cards were distributed through the Chamber of Commerce, local post offices, and the Hoo-Hoo Club, a lumbermen's fraternal organization. These postcards, now rare collectors' items, read:

"(name of sender) extends best wishes for your health, happiness and long life on the occasion of the first direct air mail flight from Spokane, lumber capital of the Inland Empire, September 15, 1929" (McGoldrick, 164).

These creative ploys finally paid off, the Post Office Department was convinced, and Varney added Spokane to its airmail route. Eric Anderson, a mill worker at McGoldrick Lumber in Spokane, remembered the occasion:

"On September 15, 1929 at 5:40 p.m. two planes left Felts Field for Pasco, one to continue to Portland and the other to Salt Lake City. More than 5,000 persons were at the airport to see the take-off ... . One of the first planes was piloted by Russ Owen [d. 1962], the other by L. D. Cuddeback. Exactly one year later passenger service to Chicago started (via Pasco) with planes leaving Spokane at 5:40 p.m. and arriving the next evening at 6 o'clock" (McGoldrick, 164, 166).

According to McGoldrick, initially the mail service arrived and departed only once a day in a Stearman "Mail Wing." Later Varney/United added a big Boeing biplane that carried four passengers in addition to the mail. Eric Anderson recalled that the daily mail and passenger service to Chicago via Pasco took 25 hours and that it had no food service.

Sources: James P. McGoldrick II, The Spokane Aviation Story, 1910-1941, rev. ed. (Spokane: Tornado Creek Publications, 2007) 162-166; Paul J. Viel, “Spokane’s Unique Inaugural Cover,” The Airpost Journal (October, 1980) 16-18.
Note:  This essay was corrected on April 22, 2011.

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