Building an Airport in West Yellowstone

 

In the early 1930s, Montana’s airports flourished due to a nation-wide airport development initiative administered by the Department of Commerce’s Civil Works Act program (CWA) and the airport division of the Montana Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA).  As part of this depression-era rebuilding, the state FERA allocated over $50,000 in grants and labor toward the completion of 74 airport projects throughout Montana.  The work was overseen by several FERA officials and by Fred B. Sherriff, Montana State Commissioner of Aeronautics.

Several progressive West Yellowstone residents founded the West Yellowstone Commercial Club to start the initial research on building a local airport and to secure funds for construction.  The Commercial Club was headed by Postmaster and business owner Sam Eagle. It included Alex Stuart, H.G Bartlett, George Whitaker, and C.S. Peterson.  The Commercial Club filed a Special Use Application with the US Department of Agriculture in 1932. This Special Use Permit was reissued to Gallatin County in 1934, with Forest Service officer J.C. Whitham and Sam Eagle designated as project leaders.

Many different entities joined together to open the West Yellowstone airport, the first airport to service a National Park.  The Commercial Club secured $1,100 in donations from local individuals and businesses and from Scenic Airways to start the initial work.  The Forest Service contributed the airfield’s 130 acre tract directly west of the city limits, bounded by Iris Street.

Construction Begins

In the autumn of 1933, local Herklas Rightenour was contracted to begin the arduous task of cutting the standing timber.  Due to the mounting costs, Herk soon realized he had “bit off too big a bite.” Additional construction labor was secured through CWA and FERA to complete the project. Had private capital been required to build the landing field, it would have cost an estimated $10,000, which in today’s market translates to roughly $147,000.  

Indeed preparing the land was no easy job.  Under the direction of George Whitakker, over-half a million trees were ultimately cut. The downed timber was a considerable fire hazard and had to be removed.  The serviceable logs were trimmed and salvaged, the slash burned, and the stumps pulled out of the ground.  The runway was leveled using one thousand pounds of gravel removed from a large pit between the two runways. The runway was reported as “fixed” in a letter to Sam Eagle dated May 27, 1935.

The Airport Opens at Last
  
In early May 1935 a snowstorm delayed the work crews from putting the finishing touches on the runway. The grand opening dedication and special reception was held on June 22, 1935.

Sam Eagle sent out 500 invitations to airline executives, manufacturers, all the pilots in Montana and Idaho, and state and government officials from across the country.  Arrangements were made ffor a supply of aviation grade gasoline to accommodate the squadron of navy airplanes attending the event. Special airfare was set up for trips over Yellowstone, magazines and newspapers were contacted, and a sound truck was secured. Billings Airport Foreman Fred Bergman was solicited to control the considerable air traffic that was expected for the dedication weekend.  Fred Sherriff, who had been so instrumental in working with Sam Eagle, was also in attendance for what was called “a step in the program to establish closer relationships between the National Parks and the Nation.”

Though only one landing strip was ready for use at the inauguration, the final landing field was 500 feet wide by 5000 feet long in the shape of a block letter “V”.  The airport included a Scenic Airway’s private hangar, a gasoline pump, and an airplane repair shop.  Scenic Airways provided air tours and charter services over the Park. National Parks Airways provided the regular scheduled air and mail service until 1937 when they were purchased by Western Air Express. Western Air Express was renamed Western Airlines in the spring of 1941.  Shortly after that service to West Yellowstone was classified as “non-essential” due to the war effort.  Western Airlines resumed air service in 1946.  However, the trees at the end of the runway grew to be dangerously tall and for safety reasons Western ceased service in the fall of 1947.  Services to West Yellowstone would not resume until 1965 with the completion of the second (and current) airport.
 

West Yellowstone's First Pilot

 

Farold H. "Chris" Christensen was the first pilot to land in West Yellowstone October 21, 1934. He delivered the first winter mail service via air on December 25, 1934. He was greeted by a group of excited on-lookers as he perilously maneuvered his ski plane onto the yet unfinished runway. At that time West Yellowstone was isolated in winter for a number of months. Prior to air service, the delivery of goods and mail was a laborious three-day-plus task done through a combination of skis, snow shoes, dog sleds, and energetic local residents.

By January 1932 Chris had become acquainted with Dr. William W. Brothers, F. M. Bristline, and J. E. Tarr Jr., who were forming a company named Scenic Airways.  The stated purpose of the company was "to own and operate airplanes for the transportation of passengers for hire, to conduct and maintain flying schools, and to manufacture and deal in airplanes and accessories." On Feb. 9, 1932 Scenic Airways was officially incorporated in the State of Idaho and was ready to operate. The company purchased a Fokker Universal (N337N c/n 427) that was originally owned by Moscow Air Transportation Company. Dr. William W. Brothers became president, F.M. Bistline became secretary- treasurer, and Chris became general manager and chief pilot. This ambitious group marked the event by placing an announcement article in the Pocatello Tribune that same day. Chris then flew the Fokker and the Scenic Airways team to Salt Lake City for an overnight trip to get the plane certified and to obtain his passenger-carrying license.

The Scenic Airways group evaluated what needs they could serve with their aircraft and identified West Yellowstone as a community that could benefit from being linked to other places by air.  Sometime in 1933, the Scenic team initiated the first steps to reach West Yellowstone, including a sizeable donation of $300.00.  To quote Chris from a letter he wrote in 1957,

"In the course of my various activities and as a forerunner to the mail Contract, I developed a pattern of necessary airports and induced the various communities and local governments to acquire and build the airports, the biggest project of course being the West Yellowstone airport, which took the cooperation of the United States Forest Service, Federal Government through the Works Progress Administration, and contributions of the local townspeople and the various communities and my own company."  (Courtesy Craig Neumayer)

In August 1933, Scenic Airways secured a contract to deliver winter mail to the town of West Yellowstone three times per week for the fee of $300 a month. In a letter to Postmaster Sam Eagle dated August 1st, 1933, F.M. Bistline wrote, "I am glad to learn that you have applied for permit for an airport. If there is anything that we can do to help hurry this we will be glad to do so. With reference to a bid on mail service we no doubt could handle mail into West Yellowstone three times a week for $300.00 per month...We are very anxious to hear about this matter and would surely appreciate it if you would notify us just as soon as you get the permit granted. As to service two times a week stopping at McGinns and Island Park I do not believe a bid would exceed $250.00 a month."  (YHC Collections)

Indeed, Chris was famous in those days of West Yellowstone. He had the reputation of being an innovative sort, and a fearless pilot. He lived in West Yellowstone with his wife Edna and five children for a time in a log cabin he built from the timber that was cleared for the old airport's landing strip. Supposedly that cabin is still somewhere here in West Yellowstone, having been moved from its original location on Iris Street. Chris also built the Scenic Airways log hangar. Chris later became the airport manager at Weed, California, and was an honored guest at the grand opening of the new airport June 12, 1965. He donated the plane's skis, which he fashioned himself in the hangar of the old airport, to the Chamber, and they are now a part of the YHC Collection.