by Paul R. Spitzzeri
The 1920s was a decade of much transformation and innovation, so that much of the broad template for how we live now, nearly a century later, was laid out during the period. In burgeoning Los Angeles, we grew by enormous leaps and bounds, punctuated by the occasional economic depression or recession that hindered rather than retarded growth, the conditions were ripe in several ways for its importance in the development of that template.
One was the nearly ideal climate which allowed for so many elements of agriculture and industry to flourish here. Another was a large area for expansion of the city and its hinterlands in a more horizontal, rather than vertical as found in most cities, direction. Naturally, the rapidly rising population meant that there was a ready labor force for industrial and agricultural expansion.
One of the newer industries to benefit from all these conditions and more was aviation, which was birthed by the Wright brothers in North Carolina in the first years of the century. Within seven years, however, Los Angeles (more specifically the Dominguez Ranch to the south) was host to the first international aviation meet, an extravaganza in January 1910 that, it seems obvious, could not have happened in many other areas of the United States covered in snow and drenched in heavy rains.
In succeeding years, aviation development in the region grew at a rapid pace as did the industry as a whole in the country. Because of the weather, open spaces and labor force, however, greater Los Angeles became especially important in the growth of the industry. One manifestation of this, by the mid-Twenties, was the creation of the first commercial airline in the region: Western Air Express.
The firm was headed by Harris Hanshue, born in 1881 in Michigan and who came to Los Angeles in the first years of the new century. Hanshue was involved in another early development in the area: automobile racing. In 1909, he won a noted car race in Santa Monica, though he soon left for Salt Lake City to try his hand as an auto salesman.
He quickly returned to the City of Angels, however, and did well as an auto dealer, including for the Apperson Brothers Auto Company, where he became a manager for the Pacific coast. From there, he moved into aviation, establishing Western Air Express with a group of partners and investors, including William May Garland, a real estate developer with ties in so many industries in Los Angeles.
Incorporated in 1925, Western Air Express quickly went into operation as a carrier of mail, thanks to a new federal regulation that allowed for the private carrying of mail, to and from Los Angeles and made its name in that business after its first flight took place in April of the following year. Passenger service, though, was started shortly afterward, though on a very modest scale at the outset.
By 1928, however, Western Air’s passenger business began to grow markedly, especially after it contracted with the Fokker corporation which had its plant in New Jersey. Lines of travel included the Agua Caliente casino and hotel, which opened in June 1928 in Tijuana, with the Baja California border town becoming a bigger draw for locals and tourists (in no small part due to the fact that drinking alcohol, prohibited in the U.S., was naturally legal in Mexico); San Francisco; Denver; and, in an innovation, through amphibian aircraft to Santa Catalina Island.
Passenger air travel was expensive, so it was hardly surprising to find references in the media to early travelers being business leaders, the politically well-connected, film stars and other well-to-do members of local society. Still, Western Air, which could afford to offer passenger service because of its growing success in mail transport, marketed this service very heavily in those last years of the Roaring Twenties.
The airline operated first out of Vail Field, which was situated on the north side of Telegraph Road and west of the later extension of Garfield Avenue, which then terminated at Telegraph. Western Air built the airport and named it after the well-known Vail family, which had ranching operations throughout California and the Southwest.
For mail transfer, the company used Douglas M-2 planes and then expanded to the larger Fokker craft (Hanshue, by 1928, became president of that firm) for passenger service. Not only did Vail Field serve as the Western Air Express airport, but it was the site of the landing of Charles Lindbergh when he brought his “Spirit of St. Louis” to Los Angeles in September 1927, four months after he completed his legendary solo crossing of the Atlantic. Other aircraft were built and operated out of the field, including Bryant and Ryan, the latter operating passenger service in the late 1920s, as well.
As Western Air Express grew, with its fleet expanding, mail volume increasing and passenger service also on an upward trend, the company decided to build a new and much larger and fancier airport. It acquired 188 acres from the City of Pasadena in spring 1929 along Valley Boulevard in Alhambra and devoted most of that to its new facility, which was opened in early 1930. Among the notable features of what became known later as Alhambra Airport was the very distinctive hexagonal shape of the hangar, which definitely drew attention to the field and the company.
Shortly afterward, however, Western Air Express, which was integrated through shifting ownership of the majority of its stock with Fokker by New York banking interests, was merged with a bankrupt airline, called Transcontinental Air Transport, and reconstituted in 1930 as Trans World Airlines, or TWA. The new airline was the first to provide coast-to-coast service, but the merger failed to last more than a few years.
In 1934, Western Air Express returned as an independent and changed its name to Western Air Lines. The company survived the rough years of the depression and became a major presence in commercial aviation in the western United States. Hanshue died in 1937, but the company he shepherded through its early years survived for another half-century. In 1987, Western Air Lines was acquired by the massive Delta Air Lines and absorbed into the new firm, the storied name disappearing into history.
Tonight’s highlighted artifact is a very interesting keepsake created by Western Air Express to celebrate its third anniversary in April 1929. The object has a colorful cartoon showing the firm as a three-year old with a mailbag on his or her back racing around the globe. A statement is that, at that age, the firm’s flights flew enough miles to circumnavigate the planet one hundred times.
A short statement added that Western Air Express craft “have flown 2,500,000 miles—100 time around the world—between Southern California and Eastern point, with a performance 99.6% perfect (meaning there’d only been a couple of crashes).
On the reverse is the printed start of a letter the owner could sent, with faux handwriting stating, “Dear [space for name], You are now but a day or so from California—you can fly out and have almost your entire vacation to spend by the Pacific.” The rest of the panel left plenty of room to personalize the message.
It should be added that, for many Americans, the concept of safe passenger air travel was still one of uncertainty, but concerted efforts were made by the industry, government and others of influence to convince people that traveling by airplane was indeed safe. This is partly why Western Air’s anniversary pamphlet emphasized its safety record, an issue that it pursued in advertisements and other media content.
The document’s centerfold is the coolest part of the item. When opened, two cuts at the center of the covers reveal a space for a large image of an airplane to pop up over the top of a “cartograph” or illustrated map of Southern California. The map is a very colorful one with place names shown with symbols, so that Hollywood, for examples, is represented by a film shoot, while three aircraft nearby show the power couple of actors Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and others who could be Clara Bow and William S. Hart.
Other places shown are Santa Barbara with a dancing señorita representing its Spanish Colonial architectural heritage; the piers at the popular beach communities of Santa Monica, Ocean Park and Venice; Riverside with its famed Mission Inn; and Laguna with an artist showing that element of its fame.
Five routes offered by Western Air Express are indicated: to Agua Caliente/Tijuana (spelled as “Tia Juana”) in an hour’s time; the amphibian jump to Catalina in a half-hour; the three-hour jaunt to San Francisco; the Salt Lake City route made in six hours; and the longest of them all, the Kansas City flyway entailing twelve hours of travel. All radiate from the the airport at Vail Field, though that facility had only a year left as the Western Air Express location.
Drawn by Ruth T. White, who did another similar pop-up cartograph for travel to Hawaii in the 1930s, the item has a statement that indicates the cartograph was “showing how the Land of Sunshine had become so air-minded that everybody flies hither and yon and yon and hither.”
As a representation of how far the airline industry progressed in just a few short years at the end of the 1920s, the pamphlet is particularly notable. Of course, for most Americans cheap airline travel did not become readily available until after the Great Depression and World War II years, but the formative stages were at hand when Western Air Express pioneered passenger air service in Los Angeles between 1926 and 1930.