Historys Headlines

History's Headlines: Flying high at 90

“Anyone who buys a stock because the Marx Brothers recommended it deserves to lose $10,000.”

That was playwright George S. Kaufman commenting on the money he lost on a stock tip by his friend Harpo Marx in the 1929 stock market crash. As years go, 1929 gets no respect. Forever tied to the end of 1920s prosperity and the Great Depression of the 1930s, it will always bear that stigma. But before that awful October, there was something that the Lehigh Valley will celebrate this year that happened that year. For in 1929 what has become the Lehigh Valley International Airport was founded as the Allentown Airport. It owes its creation and growth over the years to community leaders and airport personnel who have encouraged it.

If anyone can be said to have fostered the airport’s creation, it is John Henry Leh and his first wife, Dorothea Backenstoe Leh. “In 1928,’’ notes the Lehigh County Historical Society’s 1987 Allentown history, “Leh had trained as a flyer at Pennsylvania Pitcairn Field near Willow Grove , Pennsylvania. His wife, a member of a prominent Emmaus family, had gotten her flyer’s license in 1925 at the same air field. They were only the second married couple in America to be licensed flyers. It was this link with early aviation that induced the Allentown Chamber of Commerce to give young Leh a seat on the airport’s search committee in 1928.” Dorothea Leh made her contribution through her friendship with Amelia Earhart, already famous as the first woman to cross the Atlantic by air. Leh was among those who helped Earhart to form the 99, made up of the first 99 female pilots in America. The great aviatrix gladly donated her name to the airport project.

Though there had been abortive efforts before, the final successful campaign to build an airport began on February 4, 1929. That evening Attorney John Cuttshall told the Allentown Real Estate Board that good roads, bridges and an airport were all tied together. The Morning Call reported that “Mr. Cuttshall recalled the phenomenal development of the automobile and predicted the same for the airplane. In order that Allentown may reap its share of the new business that will accrue from this new form of shipping and travel, he said it should hasten and acquire an airport.”

What the local airport backers had in mind was to take over a piece of land that was already used at times for airplane landings. In 1927 the Federal Bureau of Aviation of the U.S. Department of Commerce- then headed by a fellow named Herbert Hoover- rented fifty acres of land in the northwest corner of what today is the Lehigh Valley International Airport. It was a grass emergency field with a landing strip 1,500 feet long. The property was rented from a local farmer who also maintained it. To aid flyers the government erected a steel tower, beacon light and windsock. Below was a small frame structure.

“Although it is not known as the Allentown Airport,” wrote the Morning Call on February 19, 1929, “the site on which the Chamber of Commerce has options is known to aviators as the finest between New York and Chicago for emergency landing field purposes.” The paper went on to note that the beacon was, “a modern up to date search light automatically operated during the hours of darkness and fitted out with a mechanical device which automatically turn on a new light if the one in use burns out.” The newspaper added that it included a teletype machine for weather reports, red lights that flashed direction and a little “attendant’s cabin with a bed, stove, electric lights and a telephone.”

The next step was to raise the money to buy the entire 316-acre farm site. To do this the Allentown Aviation Corporation was created. Under the direction of the Chamber of Commerce, 20 teams were organized to sell shares of stock in the corporation at $50 a share. The goal was to raise $150,000 over a 3-day campaign. By doing, so it was hoped, the community would feel they were getting a share in the airport’s future. It began on April 7, 1929. According to the newspaper accounts the whole community was enthusiastic. Both Leh’s and Hess’s department stores had planes on display in front of the stores. Boys with model planes, who, at John Henry Leh’s encouragement, had formed a Junior Aviation Club naming him its president, were soon filling the parks with small models of Charles Lindbergh’s “Spirit of St Louis.” On April 8, 1929, the second day of the campaign, hundreds of cars flooded the emergency field site. The public had been invited in to look it over by the corporation, so sure that this was going to be the future airport’s location. The goal of $150,000 was reached on April 9 and announced on April 10th.

One of the airport’s most avid backers was General Harry C. Trexler, who was a member of the board of directors of the Allentown Aviation Corporation. Although the then-elderly Trexler almost certainly never took a ride in an open cock-pit type airplane of the day himself, after talking with Leh he is said to have been captivated by the idea of flight and what it could mean for Allentown. Trexler might also have been attracted by what was going on among New York banks on whose boards he also sat.  There was talk that some prominent financial figures, with Lindbergh as their advisor, were about to create the Transcontinental Air Transport Company. Airplane stocks were soaring on Wall Street.

At that time Bethlehem was also making plans for an airport. In 1928 the Bethlehem Rotary Club had gotten Earhart to be their guest at a hugely attended luncheon at the Hotel Bethlehem, where she encouraged the idea for Christmas City boosters. This naturally started a rivalry among the two municipalities- common in mid -size American cities in the 20’s.

On April 12th 1929, it was announced that the property had been purchased. The same day the state gave the Allentown Aviation Corporation a charter to run the airport. They would continue to do so until 1935. As a private company, the airport could not receive federal grants. So the city took title to the property and leased it back to the corporation for a dollar a year.

Like most of the rest of the country, the airport limped along during the roughest days of the Depression. That did not really change until September 16, 1935 when United Airlines made the Allentown Airport a stop on its transcontinental route.

As it became known as the Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton Airport (Bethlehem’s separate airport project failed, largely a victim of the Depression) and later as ABE, it welcomed the world to the Lehigh Valley from presidential candidates to tourists. And now it is 90 but looks to the future.

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