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From Woodward Field to Salt Lake City International, airport marks 100 years

It evolved from air mail service in 1920 to a new international hub in 2020

The Salt Lake International Airport’s Administration Building is seen in this 1957 photo.
The Salt Lake International Airport’s Administration Building is seen in this 1957 photo.
Utah State Historical Society

SALT LAKE CITY — The area that is now the Salt Lake City International Airport is host to a lot of firsts in its history, a rich fabric of milestones that celebrate the 100th anniversary that is being commemorated this year and marked Monday by airport officials.

Salt Lake City was among the first in the country selected as a home for new airmail stations after the U.S. Postal Service in 1918 established an overnight mail service.

The inaugural flight took place on Sept. 8, 1920, departing from New Jersey that morning and, after a series of relays, the mail reached Salt Lake City by 5:03 p.m. that afternoon.

Five years later, Western Air Express emerged to deliver mail between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles and seized on an idea to generate more revenue — flying not just letters but people, according to a Deseret News story probing local aviation history.

The first person to make a down payment on the $90 one-way ticket was a prominent Salt Lake businessman and aviation enthusiast Ben F. Redman. He was among the first four passengers who made the trip. Then, by the end of 1926, the airline had carried 209 passengers, establishing a stellar safety record — despite 38 forced landings along the rugged route.

It made a net profit that year of $1,029.21.

If you move the clock forward to nearly a century later, the Salt Lake City International Airport saw a record-breaking number of more than 26 million passengers last year, with more than 370 flights departing daily to 99 nonstop destinations, including Paris, London and Amsterdam.

It recently added a major milestone to the airport’s timeline by opening Phase I of The New SLC — the first new large hub airport to be built in the United States in the 21st century.

“Over our airport’s 100-year history, it has contributed to many life stories,” said Bill Wyatt, executive director of the Salt Lake City Department of Airports. “As we embark on the next 100 years, it is our hope that travelers and staff will continue to make rich memories, just as the millions of people over the past century did before them.”

Wyatt has led the airport through the challenges of enduring the coronavirus pandemic and the pain it has inflicted on the industry.

“In many years, having your 100-year anniversary in a year like this is appropriate because it shows nothing is going to get in our way,” he said.

Wyatt was an airport director during 9/11, through the financial crisis and now this pandemic.

“It has been interesting to see how the industry has been able to survive and adapt in each instance,” he said.

To commemorate its centennial, Salt Lake City has released an airport history book titled, “From Air Mail Outpost to International Hub,” written by Salt Lake researcher and writer Bim Oliver. The book captures the history of the airport from its early beginnings in 1920 through the current day, including 2020 when the airport made history with the opening of Phase I of the new Salt Lake airport. Details on the book and video are on a website, slcairport.com/100thanniversary, created by the airport to observe the anniversary.

“I think the fact that the industry is still so robust is testimony to the incredible role it plays in the life of this nation and the world, frankly,” Wyatt said.

“It is great to be able to take a moment and look back in time and recognize those who had such prominent roles in the development of this airport,” he added.

The airport, inaugurated as Woodward Field, came into being after Salt Lake City purchased 100 acres at $40 an acre in 1920.

Lights were installed at Woodward Field in 1926 — but radio signals were not yet a thing. Because pilots flew using visual landmarks, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints allowed the words, “Salt Lake Airport,” to be painted on the roof of the Tabernacle in 30 foot high white letters.

That gesture had Salt Lake City as the first city in the West to have an official air-highway sign, which pilots reported being able to see for miles. The sign reportedly stayed in place until the late 1940s.

In recognition of the centennial, Gov. Gary Herbert has proclaimed Monday as Aviation Day in Utah. As noted in the proclamation, Woodward Field’s dedication “marked the development of an important epoch in our history.”

Correction: A photo accompanying this story incorrectly spelled Pete Harman’s last name as Marman.