Page 8, MARCH 2014
VMI Institute Report
Historian Re-evaluates Legacy of
Depression-Era Public Works
Maj. Houston Johnson, assistant professor of history, has traveled
across the country, delving into archives to research the Depression-era
public works initiatives that laid the foundations for America’s aviation
Among the many archives Johnson visited were the Roosevelt
Presidential Library, the Hoover Presidential Library, the National
Archives, and the University of Wyoming.
Johnson is presenting part of his research at the Organization of
American Historians’ annual conference April 10 in Atlanta, sharing
with fellow historians how New Deal public works programs were vital
to establishing municipal airfields in the infancy of commercial aviation.
Many airports still in use today trace their roots to airfields set up under
New Deal initiatives.
“They built just under 1,000 airports across the country, including
Charlottesville, Roanoke, and a lot of other local fields,” said Johnson.
“Without those federal expenditures, the commercial airline industry
would not have been able to provide national service.”
Johnson found that New Deal projects encouraged long-term economic
development through construction of not only airports, but also other
infrastructure, including roads, dams, and bridges.
“This goes against the prevailing historical interpretation of New Deal
public works, which is that they were make-work projects.” said Johnson.
“I’m arguing that they provided significant material benefit to the country
that had long lasting ramifications, particularly for the airline industry.
For that reason we have to re-evaluate their significance.”
Johnson discovered an unbridled excitement and optimism about
the potential of aviation within communities where airports were being
“On a local level, it’s really interesting,” said Johnson. “15,000 people
showed up on a really cold day to see the opening of the Knoxville airport.
They had stunt planes, parachute jumpers, and a bunch of speeches.
People embraced this with a lot of enthusiasm.”
The federal government spent hundreds of millions of dollars on
airport development, providing improvements that municipalities were
not capable of implementing because of the economic situation.
“By the mid 1930’s, American commercial flying had matured a
lot from a technological perspective,” said Johnson. “Planes like the
Douglas DC-3, which were really the first profitable commercial airliners,
had retractable landing gear and could carry 16-20 passengers in relative
high speed and comfort.”
Paved runways and passenger terminals were necessary to support the
new breed of aircraft being flown by the nation’s commercial airlines.
“That occurs at the very period when the Depression is making it
fiscally impossible for localities to spend money on airport development,”
said Johnson. “That’s where the federal government comes in.”
Johnson is looking to publish his research in an academic journal
later this year. The research will also form a chapter in a book Johnson
is writing on the development of aviation in America from 1918 to 1938.
“The book looks at how and why the federal government sought to
promote the development of commercial aviation in the U.S.,” said
Johnson. “That includes the origins of the airmail system, which develops
into the airlines that we still fly today.”
Maj. Houston Johnson reviews a 1926 map showing early privatization of U.S. Air Mail routes.
– VMI Photo by John Robertson IV.