Aviation in St. Joseph Missouri

1909 - 1946

By: Gary Chilcote

St. Joseph has had an interest in aviation, dating back to 1909 when the U.S. Army Military Tournament was held at Lake Contrary. It was there that the first airplane flew at St. Joseph. Lieutenant Tom Selfridge was to have been the pilot, but he died a few days earlier in a plane crash where Orville Wright was injured. Alexander Graham Bell attended the funeral.


The first designated landing strip at St. Joseph was at East Hills Country Club, now Stonecrest residential development. In 1922 Carl Wolfley warned St. Joseph "would miss the boat" if it didn't establish a municipal airport. He recommended a 73-acre tract south of the city near Lake Contrary racetrack. It wasn't until many years later that people noticed that Wolfley had never flown a plane.


The first airport was dedicated May 12, 1923, and on the recommendation of the Chamber of Commerce and the American Legion Post, it was named for Sgt. Guy Wallace Rosecrans, St. Joseph's only airman killed during World War I.


Rosecrans worked at Swift & Co. before joining the Army, and it hasn't been determined whether he was a flying sergeant or a member of the ground crew. He was killed in Western France, October 16, 1918, when he walked into an airplane propeller. He was buried at St. Jeans, France, but the body was later returned to St. Joseph and buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery in St. Joseph on October 17, 1920.


A memorial granite stone naming Rosecrans Field was followed the airport from Lake Contrary to French Bottoms, and finally to several locations around the present airport, surviving several devastating floods.


So strong was interest in aviation that the St. Joseph Aeronautical Association was formed October 9, 1923, and by December 28, 1924, it boasted 2,140 members, the largest such association in the world.


First Lieut. Russell Maugham refueled at Rosecrans June 23, 1924. On May 1, 1925, thousands were attracted to Lake Contrary for the National Elimination Balloon Race, presided over by Maj. Gen. Mason W. Patrick, Chief of the Army Air Service.


St. Joseph residents soon realized the Lake Contrary airfield was too small, so the city made its second mistake. It purchased 140 acres of French Bottoms at the foot of Chestnut Street, about where the Missouri River flows past St. Joseph today. A new hangar was built and lights added, but the airport was to serve only 10 years.


On September 30, 1925, St. Joseph was on the Commercial Airplane Reliability Tour, and the first air mail service started May 12, 1926. It is hard to believe today that more than 50 years ago there was two commercial flights each day from Rosecrans. We haven't had such service since 1959.


On August 19, 1927, just weeks after his New York to Paris flight, Charles Lindberg, A Missouri National Guard Colonel, landed at Rosecrans Field.


In 1927 the Bird Wing Aircraft Corp. built planes here, but went out of business in the depression. October 17, 1929 the Ford Reliability Tour sponsored by Henry and Edsel Ford stopped here.


A News-Press reporter who flew from Wichita to St. Joseph aboard one of the planes told of getting airsick as his pilot, a young man named Wiley Post, flew his Lockheed Vega at 170 miles an hour and at altitudes of 50 to 250 feet.


"There is no doubt this Post is a speed demon, and an excellent flyer, " the writer said. Six years later Post was to shock the world when he died at Point Barrow, Alaska, in a plane crash August 15, 1935, that also took the life of humorist Will Rogers.


The first flyer to lose his life in a local plane was Joseph Loudergen, who died July 19, 1930, at Creston, IA. Six months later three flyers died when their plane went into a power dive on Huntoon Road.


In 1931 the City Aviation Board was formed with John Wyeth as its president. The board immediately set new flight rules with the triple fatality still on their minds.


One rule said "all foreign pilots" were to report to the airport manager's office immediately upon landing. It also specified that "the carrying of passengers as ballast in test flights were prohibited."


H.C. Brasfield was named temporary airport manager October 6, 1931, the same day the dirigible, "Vigilant" made flights over the city.


Three years later, on November 16, 1934, Airport Manager Brasfield and another pilot were killed when their Ford Tri-Motor crashed and burned near Amazonia as they were returning in fog. It also destroyed 37 pounds of mail.


In 1935 the Commerce Department declared the old Rosecrans as "the most ridiculous location for an airport they had ever seen," noting the runway took off directly into the path of the cliff of Wyeth Hill. Airmail cancelled service here, and the city soon picked a swampy area west of French Bottoms as its third airport -- the site of today's Rosecrans Field.


The original hangar was dismantled and moved, a process that took the WPA almost two years. The hangar stood at the center of the airport until 1993, when another devastating flood forced its removal.


The "new" Rosecrans was finally finished, and the 400-acre field was dedicated May 25, 1940, and called "the nation's best." It cost $200,000. Of course, Rosecrans of that day was located around the center hangar.


By 1942, the Army Transport Command took over, and moved the airfield a half mile east, leaving the old center hangar isolated in the middle of the field.


During the war pilots were trained at the field, and it was an important depot with more than 225 building added. It set many records, including one of the highest VD rates in the country.

Well, that's how St. Joseph got involved in aviation. A lot has happened since 1946 when the Air Guard came to Rosecrans, but this will give you an idea how closely St. Joseph has been related to aviation.