Peculiar Pittsburgh

A push for innovation, Amelia Earhart and crash landings: The story of Pittsburgh’s first airport

Rodgers Field in Fox Chapel was open for just more than a decade.

Volunteers inspect Amelia Earhart's plan after she crash landed at Rodgers Field.

Volunteers inspect Amelia Earhart's plan after she crash landed at Rodgers Field.

Courtesy of Detre Library and Archives, Heinz History Center / Beckwith Family Photographs
MJ Slaby

Even in the 1920s, Pittsburgh was pushing to be a leader in innovation — and to be on par with, if not better than, Cleveland.

At that time, the latest innovation was flight, and more specifically, using airplanes to deliver mail. So as lawmakers discussed the idea, the Pittsburgh Post wrote in June 1923, “… [Pittsburgh] lacks even the most modest sort of air service for the carrying of mails and passengers, though Cleveland, Detroit and other places still less pretentious are stations on regularly operated airways.”

The first airport serving the city, Rodgers Field in Fox Chapel, closed more than seven decades ago and part of the former site is now the Fox Chapel Area High School campus. An anonymous reader was curious about local aviation and turned to Peculiar Pittsburgh, where readers ask questions and The Incline staff searches for answers. (Ask us here.)

What is the history of the airport that used to be located at the present site of Fox Chapel high school?

The story behind Rodgers Field is not unlike the sagas of today’s development: Lawmakers got involved. There was a public push for innovation, arguments that would make you do a double take and celebrity appearances.

Opening an airport in the early 1920s, which would allow air mail and passenger flights in Pittsburgh “was considered to be a big move and be the very newest in modern innovation,” said Marilyn Holt, library services manager for the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s Pennsylvania department.

But it didn’t last long.

‘Is it worth that much to be a modern city?’

In the early 1920s, the Aero Club of Pittsburgh and the U.S. Army opened an airfield on what was then the McRoberts farm and is now the area of Yorkshire Drive and Fox Chapel Area High School.

The field, which was leased by the club, was used by its members and the government as a reserve air service field for the army, per The Pittsburgh Gazette. Pittsburgh had about 700 former air servicemen who were eager to resume the training they started during World War I, according to B.H. Mulvihill, vice-president of the club at the time.

Around the same time, air mail was becoming popular. The Gazette noted that mail could go from New York to Cleveland in 2 hours and 40 minutes, meaning mail from New York could arrive in Pittsburgh in 2 hours and 10 minutes. The federal government wanted Pittsburgh to be a stop on the air mail route — but didn’t want to pay for a landing field.

So Pa. state Sen. John P. Harris (R) introduced bills in April 1923 that would allow Pittsburgh and Allegheny County to purchase a site for a public airport. The airfield, later Rodgers Field, wasn’t in Harris’s district — he represented southern Allegheny County and part of Westmoreland — but he was a forward-thinking businessman interested in innovation, Holt said. Harris also had the backing of U.S. Congressman M. Clyde Kelly, a Republican representing western Pa. who was known as the “father of the air mail,” Holt said.

Adding an airmail stop in Pittsburgh was viewed as a sign of progress and local newspapers pushed for Pittsburghers to show their support. An April 1923 column in The Pittsburgh Press had the headline: “Is Pittsburgh to be on the map?” and noted that many cities had airmail delivery.

“One way in which Pittsburgh may promote progress, especially the progress of Pittsburgh itself instead of the progress of its rivals, is by securing an up-to-date aviation field.” Per the column, the cost to the city would be $50,000 to $75000. “Is it worth that much to be a modern city?… It is up to council to answer.”

Early that summer, Harris’s proposed legislation was approved, clearing the way for the city and county to purchase the land together. Newspapers reported that the plan was for a more than 90-acre airfield that would include the existing airfield plus land from the Allegheny Workhouse, a low-security farm where prison inmates worked.

But workhouse officials opposed that plan and ended up keeping their land. So by December 1923, the city and county owned the airfield, but it was only 43-acres of the McRoberts’ property and not the land from the workhouse.

A few months later, in February 1924, opposition continued. This time, newspapers reported concerns including that it was too close to the Fox Chapel Golf Club, that prisoners would be distracted and that “airplanes might be a means of dropping dope, from the planes to inmates of the workhouse.” Yes, really.

Concerns aside, the airport was dedicated in 1925, Holt said. The field was named for Pittsburgher Calbraith Perry Rodgers, the first person to make a transcontinental flight across the U.S.

Rodgers learned to fly from the Wright Brothers and his plane was named the Vin Fiz, after a grape soda that sponsored his transcontinental flight, said Patty Everly, curator of historic exhibits at the Carnegie Science Center where a model of Rodgers Field is in the miniature railroad and village.

Mini Rodgers Field at the Carnegie Science Center

Mini Rodgers Field at the Carnegie Science Center

Courtesy of the Carnegie Science Center

A crash landing and the demise of Rodgers Field

Rodgers Field did become an airmail stop with two hangers.

One was for the Army and one was for Morris Air Service, which was largely a repair and teaching crew, said Tom Powers, who led the writing of “Portrait of an American Community: O’Hara Township, Pa.” The field was also a stop for many private planes — including famous aviators Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart in 1928.

While Earhart made multiple trips to Pittsburgh, her trip in late August 1928 did not go as planned. She was landing at Rodgers Field when she misjudged a ditch along the runway and her plane’s wheel got stuck in a rut.

The crash caused a “splintered propeller, broken wing, and wrecked landing gear,” Holt said, adding that Earhart and her passenger, George P. Putnam, who she would later marry, had to stay in Pittsburgh for several days as they waited for parts to come in from New York.

They stayed at the Hotel Schenley in Oakland, which was a very fashionable hotel at the time, as volunteers worked around the clock to fix Earhart’s plane, Holt said.

The same year that Earhart crash-landed at Rodgers Field, Pittsburgh voters approved $3 million for a new airport in West Mifflin, Holt said. The Allegheny County Airport opened there in September 1931.

By 1932, air mail was going through the new airport instead of Rodgers, she said, and by 1935, Rodgers was closed — less than 12 years after it opened.

The airfield just never seemed to take off.

It wasn’t set up for a lot of traffic, Holt added, saying the airfield was an innovation that quickly became outdated.

While Rodgers Field was on flat land, it was in a valley, meaning the crosswinds were dangerous for landing planes and the ditch on the side of the runway didn’t help either, Powers said.

Trees along the field were also a challenge for pilots, including Earhart, added Everly. However, she said, the trees created a border between the Fox Chapel Golf Club and the airfield, which argued over low flying planes, a noisy distraction for the golfers.

“It brought in a lot of traffic on what was a sleepy farm road and to the annoyance of Fox Chapel Golf Club,” Powers said.

“If anything [Rodgers Field] was more of a nuisance than anything.”

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