In the early decades of the 20th century, Eugene’s civic leaders, led by businessman Mahlon Sweet, imagined the advantage to the community if mail and deliveries could come into town via airplane. As a result, in 1919, they opened what came to be called the Eugene Airpark on Chambers Street.
At first, the park’s landing strip reached from what is now 18th Avenue north almost to W 11th, but over time the facility moved south, stretching from 24th north to 18th.
The Airpark was successful almost immediately. Not only did the expected mail and deliveries come in, but enterprising citizens opened flight-related businesses. Two men, R.A. McCully and R.H. Pierce, joined forces to purchase the first locally owned airplane, recovering their investment in only six weeks by taking people on 15-minute flights around the city for $15 each. They earned as much as $300 to $400 a day during major events in town such as county fairs. As late as 1953, a newspaper ad for Green Flying Service announced that “the average family can fly for a sightseeing tour of the Eugene-Springfield area, over the Coburg Hills, and out over the Weyerhaeuser Mill . . . with a veteran pilot at the controls . . . for only $4.25 . . . less than cab fare would be to cover the same area.”
The Airpark saw other action, too. Beginning in 1919, the U.S. Army dispatched a group to Eugene as Forest Patrol fliers, whose job it was to spot fires. The commanding officer of this group was Maj. H.H. “Hap” Arnold, who would go on to become a five-star general, commanding the Army Air Corps in World War II.
The Eugene Airpark boasts other claims to fame as well, including marking the start and end to the first aerial circumnavigation of the Earth. Officially, this 1924 feat began and ended in Seattle, but Eugeneans proudly pointed out that the group making the flight had fueled up in Eugene before leaving for Seattle to start the trip, and had landed in Eugene before their final leg to Seattle. So in truth, the circumnavigation was completed in Eugene before it was completed in Seattle. It was reported that 8,000 people welcomed the fliers as they touched down.
Major passenger service, however, could not use the Airpark and its relatively short and unpaved landing strips. In 1939, the city purchased a section of land northwest of town and built what came to be known as Mahlon Sweet Airport. This airport was dedicated and opened on May 1, 1943. United Airlines soon beginning regular passenger flights headed north and south.
During World War II, the city turned the Airpark over to the Army. When the war was over, a new booming business began teaching veterans to fly, with assistance from the GI Bill. By 1948, more than 500 veterans had taken flight training at the Airpark.
Over time, the city spread, and soon residential areas surrounded the Airpark. Neighbors started circulating a petition to close the field, complaining of noise and safety issues. In November 1954, their efforts forced a citywide vote on the closure of the Airpark. The closure measure passed, and the Eugene Airpark was forced to shut down in 1955.
The land was divided and much of it sold. Arts and Technology Academy, formerly Jefferson Middle School, sits on some, and the 18th Street Bi-Mart has some, too. A large open area lies between those buildings. Perhaps if you visit, you might imagine the things that took place there years ago, when the Eugene Airpark was the site of the city’s earliest adventures in aviation.