It’s a mighty pretty sight: Block Island Ushers Rhode Island into the “Air Age”

Sat, 01/21/2023 - 10:30am

Buzzing sounds from aircraft engines and locals speculating over cups of coffee were heard well before the official dedication of the Block Island State Airport. The “Air Age” arrived in the Ocean State when Rhode Island Governor John
O. Pastore landed at the new state-funded airport on July 15, 1950, for the official dedication event. But the completed paved runway, resulting from $250,000 of funding from the state, had been in use since early July. This was more than a simple airstrip, as this represented the completion of Phase One of a $4 million statewide bond effort to remake Rhode Island for the “Air Age.” Thus, this airstrip, and the dedication by the governor, who arrived by aircraft of course, was much bigger than just Block Island. The 2,000-foot-long paved runway was 100-feet wide and included taxiways, gasoline storage facilities and an administration building equipped with a nearby wind cone and lighted beacon.
At the dedication, the airstrip represented nothing short of the most advanced airport in the Ocean State as it was equipped with the only “sonic microphone,” which reporters subsequently referred to as a “sonic ear.” This unmanned device atop the newly constructed airport building could detect the engine noise of an approaching aircraft in the dark skies above, and automatically turn on the landing lights surrounding the airstrip. While today the concept of a machine being given instructions and carrying out an assigned task independently of human involvement is mundane, for any small American town circa 1950, with less than 1,000 people, this was a radical concept one only read about in such comics as “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.”
The new “sonic ear” would in fact do its job even before the official dedication. In early July, a violently ill hotel employee sparked a phone call to the mainland requesting medical advice. The new airfield, and sonic ear, ushered in the concept of someone needing serious medical attention on Block Island, in the middle of the night no less, and being transported via air to a mainland hospital. Shortly after the phone call, a Coast Guard aircraft was heard circling above the island, and the new sonic ear did its job and turned on the lights. While planes had been landing on open Block Island grazing fields for decades, the state’s investment of manpower and money ushered in the “Air Age” to Block Island. This not only expedited care in medical emergencies but also greatly reduced the amount of time required of “summer colonists” to reach Block Island.
Architects of airports at this time included observation decks as the “Air Age” resulted in people arriving at airports not to fly, but to observe with fascination, passenger planes simply taking off and landing. It must be remembered that adult Americans had experienced over a decade of economic depression in the 1930s, and then four years of a world-altering conflict. The bountifulness of the 1950s still had that new car smell, which included the exciting concept that
the average person could fly to a destination just for fun. This concept is clearly seen in one reporter speaking with a Block Island resident found at the State Airport. The lifelong resident said, “We’ve been going out there to watch the planes come in most of the day.” This reporter was not depicting Block Islanders as mere slack-jawed bumpkins. If you were 50 years old in 1950, you were born before the invention of the airplane by the Wright Brothers. For any American community of under 1,000 residents, the “Air Age” represented nothing less than the shortening of time. Whether the Dakotas or Block Island, locations that required days to reach 50 years in the past, either by vessel, teams of horses or the simplest of automobiles, could now be reached in minutes. The surveyed Block Islander, when asked by the reporter for his concluding thoughts stated, as he looked to the sky with his nearby family: “It’s a mighty pretty sight.”
On July 15, 1950, over 500 people gathered at the Block Island State Airport for the arrival of the Governor’s flight at 2:30 p.m. This was an impressive gathering considering that the winter population for the island in 1949/1950 was just over 700 residents. Parked in parallel lines across the airfield were 40 aircraft. Again, people had been seeing aircraft land on the fields of Block Island before, most notably the Minister’s Lot on the eastern side of Corn Neck
Road for decades, but even in the peak of summer this would only have averaged four flights a day. Now, a 2,000-foot paved runway, involving a maze of engineering and logistical construction never seen before on the island, connected Block Island to mainland life. One writer described the impact of the airport as, “the advent of the air age to insular New Shoreham.”
William Lewis, state senator from New Shoreham, who also owned the National Hotel, took to the microphone first and thanked Gov. Pastore for making the flight to the island. The American and Rhode Island flags were raised up the two new airport staffs by two high school students, Roberta Bodington and Mary Lou Lewis, assisted by two seven-year-olds named Marsha Phelan and Penelope Tripler. The invocation was given by Father Augustine F. Burns of St. Andrew Catholic Church and the benediction by the pastor of the First Baptist Church, Rev. Louis H. Hanson. In his remarks the governor called the new airport facility one of the finest small airports on the Atlantic seaboard and reiterated the modern features of the facility, including the sonic ear. These remarks were broadcast across the entire state on WERI radio.
Logistics involved in the construction started in September of 1949 when a small mechanical invasion force transported by barge, that consisted of bulldozers, scrapers, a variety of trucks and power shovels, landed on the island. Not only did centuries-old stonewalls need to be removed, but also an original section of Center Road, which the new runaway would bisect. As reported of the completed project, “Buried, too, is a long stretch of the old Center Road, which ran directly across the airport site, and now in view is a relocated Center Road that meant more cutting and filling, more drainage work, more gravel base.” The island had seen infrastructure projects before such as the construction of Old Harbor in the 1870s. However, the scale of this engineering endeavor had never been witnessed on the island before. For months, residents visited the site to watch the massive machines and an army of men shape the new facility.
Engineers, in drilling test holes around the island, had failed in locating suitable gravel. Thus, tons of gravel would be transported to the island by barge from the mainland. One local Block Islander working on site informed the engineering team, “I used to hear my father talk about gravel on our place over there beyond Beacon Hill. I don’t know whether it’s the right kind of gravel, but I do know there’s gravel there.” The test of the gravel, just 1.5 miles from the airfield, proved successful, thus the logistics of the construction were greatly reduced. Other difficulties surfaced in construction, namely intense periods of drought and mud. The drought, when combined with moving tons of earth, yielded dust storms of such scale that construction ceased. Then, in the spring, the rain bogged down machinery. However, the timeline of completion by July 1950 was maintained.
All progress includes, of course, unintended consequences. The summer of 1950 witnessed the first airplane crash on the island using the new airstrip, and while no passenger was killed, the aircraft was destroyed. The U.S. Weather Bureau on Beach Avenue would also shift to the new airfield, as the most important weather now needed to be connected to the location of those flying in. One reporter wrote of the unintended consequence with, “For the past 46 years the Block Island weather observation station has dispensed prophecy and storm warnings from a square, two-story building sited commandingly on a high knoll on Beach Avenue overlooking the sea, a structure now doomed to lose all
status as a temple to Boreas and fated to become just so much government surplus.”
Since the year 1904, the U.S. government had operated the weather station; however, with the new airport, the facilities were moved. Progress could not be helped. One reporter, lamenting on the change, wrote, “Until fairly recently, the little station on the knoll overlooking the sea supplied weather information regularly, directly and by mailing list, to a wide variety of addresses. Now its data filter through something called a Weather Processing Center at Chattanooga, Tenn., and they make it available to anybody who wants it.” It seems that the modern world not only included atomic weapons, but the impossibility of weather information directly from the source. Now all data related
to weather, including for those residents on Block Island, could only be reached via a national, centralized bureaucracy. While amazingly efficient, the reporter noted that the new system was far less personal and intimate.
As soon as this airport was dedicated on a summer day in 1950, placing Block Island within a two-hour flight of New York, Boston, and Washington, D.C., nothing would be the same. Visitors who had journeyed to the island before the war, which had required a range of logistics involving two-lane highways and a ferry, now could arrive, or return home, in just hours. One 1953 newspaper article commented on improved accessibility with, “There is a lot of empty land on Block Island, much of it picturesque and now within brief flying time of eastern urban centers.” Suddenly the prospect of a summer cottage on Block Island did not seem so remote. Irony soon followed. While new landowners sought
the peace and quiet of life on Block Island, the slower pace of construction as opposed to what was taking place in “America,” challenged their expectations. In response, some new summer residents flew in construction workers. In the early winter of 1957, one Connecticut builder, wanting his new six room ranch house completed by June, flew over carpenters daily during construction. Incremental metamorphosis resulting from postwar expectations had commenced on Block Island. This included individuals like the before-mentioned Connecticut builder needing a summer cottage with six rooms, what one reporter politely called, “a different kind of summer resident.”