The Column About The Airport

Thu, 07/16/2020 - 5:15pm

This morning I was reminded by Bob Champagne Willis, Block Island Historical Society President, via a photo of a medallion, that it is not only 2020, that this day, July 15, marks, without fanfare, the seventieth anniversary of the ceremonial opening of our State Airport.

The fact the airport was built, and four years later, the beach pavilion, demonstrates that the State understood, perhaps at the urging of the Senator and Representative we then had in the General Assembly, the importance of Block Island and likely most of all its potential as a tax-generating vacation destination.

“Block Island Plane, Passenger Traffic Again Sets Records” is the headline on a clipping from the October 24, 1955 Providence Journal, from the days we received the paper in our mailboxes; the pink label, albeit faded, is still affixed to the reverse — and front — page, one filled with bits of cut-around news of a Syrian-Israeli skirmish and elections in Vietnam.

But of our little island and its still new airport, the ProJo reported:

“Passenger and plane traffic at the Block Island Airport, which has exceeded expectations since the first day it opened, continues to set new records.

“Figures just released by the state Division of Aeronautics show 2,756 airplanes and 6,472 passengers were checked in at the state owned and operated airport between May 15 and Sept. 15, 1955. While the number of flight movements is approximately the same for both years, the passenger total eclipses the record set last year by nearly 2,500.

“Attesting to the continuing popularity of airport and the island itself is the fact that the totals for the four month period exceed those for the entirety of 1953.

“Albert R. Tavern, division administrator, notes the 1955 figures would have been even higher except for the hurricane scare which resulted in drastically reduced travel in September. The usually fine weather the state enjoys in September has made that month traditionally the third busiest of the year at the airport.

“Formally opened July 1, 1952 (note: but apparently not formally dedicated until two weeks later), the airport now draws charter flights from more than 30 operators in the northeast and Atlantic coast states. The most frequent visitor among the out-of-staters is New London Flying Service which averaged more than 70 passengers a month during the four-month period.

“Biggest share of passengers flown from airports within the state was handled by Howard Airways of Westerly State Airport. That accounted for nearly half the 3,634 paying passengers to the island.

“Busiest month for William J. Murray, Sr., airport manager, and his small crew is July when the daily average is more than 30 aircraft movements. When good weather prevails on weekends or holidays, more than 75 planes may be tied down at the field at the same time.”

The photo run with the article shows three rows of aircraft parked on the grass in the area now largely occupied by the hanger and additional pavement and, beyond, across Center Road, a slash of the bare land, a wall of the long closed gravel pit.

The postcard image included here is of the airport in its early days, with traces of the original Center Road, which ran nearly straight from the top of Strip Gut to Isaac’s Corner. It was replaced by the relocated wide curve it is today. The acreage all around is largely clear, the Southeast Lighthouse a speck rising from the bluff. Some land was tended, still, the fields of Payne Farm wide and open, the silos of the Heinz Farm barn visible if one knows where to look. There is the big Hull house, burned to the ground now decades ago.

There have been changes over time, most recently the terminal, itself, after at least one addition and decades of hard wear, was completely demolished and re-built, the entrance road relocated, parking reconfigured. Earlier, the noted hanger and pavement had been added, but perhaps the biggest change is the runway extension added in the early 60s after this photo was taken, just a bit before the state invested in rebuilding the whole of the Neck Road and elevating the storm threatened section of it.

Today it would be deemed near to impossible and certainly cost prohibitive; then we went up and watched with fascination the progress of huge earthmoving machines.

The fact of that addition, involving the creation of the hill beneath the extension, explains why the taxiway built north of the east end of the runway stops where it does; there is no land, just a steep slope falling away from the grassy shoulders.