The Pacific Northwest Forum
Volume I, Number 3, Pages 23-28
Summer, 1976

The City That Bought An Air Force Base

by John L. Poole

John L. Poole is the base historian at Fairchild Air Force Base. In this article he discusses one of the many factors that have contributed to the development of the cities in the Northwest-the economic advantages of a military presence. His article is based on research in newspapers and manuscripts deposited in Spokane and Washington, D.C.

The city of Spokane was facing a bright economic future in late 1941 despite the imminent approach of a world war. She had just taken some daring steps in an effort to reverse the fiscal downtrend that had begun over a decade before. Just west of the city two army air corps bombardment wings and several support units were occupying the newly completed Geiger Field. Seven miles further west farmers were sowing their last crop of winter wheat on 2400 acres of land that just been given to the War Department to serve as a site for an aircraft maintenance and supply depot. In the span of little more than a year the civic leaders of Spokane had introduced a substantial military input to the economy of the community while simultaneously assuring the city's position as the air traffic center of the Inland Empire. The program was so successful that by the end of 1943 there were three military installations in Spokane employing over 15,000 civilians with a payroll of more than $30,000,000.

The city leaders of the 1930s knew that Spokane needed to be made more attractive to military interests. Their first step in this direction was to offer the small city airfield, known as Felts Field, for use as an army air installation. The offer was made in letters from James A. Ford, the managing secretary of the chamber of commerce and Frank Sutherlin, the mayor of Spokane. The War Department sent a board of officers to Spokane to evaluate the field. Their report noted that there were no paved runways and a number of flying schools held operational leases against the field. Despite these detractions the board recommended acceptance of the offer. General Arnold, now Chief of the Army Air Corps, did not agree with the report and advised disapproval to the Army Adjutant General. By the end of September 1940 the city learned that Felts Field was not acceptable.

The city, however, was not disappointed. The War Department accepted their alternate plan. The city had just completed a survey of 1280 acres west of the city in preparation for constructing a "superairport." A Works Progress Administration program had been approved for the [24] project and some construction had begun on the city's new Sunset Airport. Once again the city offered the field for military use and once again a board of officers recommended acceptance. This time the government was in agreement and arranged in December and January to assume control of the construction. The army would have a field to fit its specification and the city would gain a large military installation and the accompanying economic benefits, not the least of which was a promise of $200,000 from the Federal Aviation Administration to improve Felts Field for commercial use. So intent was the city on obtaining a military presence in Spokane they leased the airfield to the government for $1 a year after purchasing the property themselves. During the war the army quickly doubled the acreage of the field after receiving full title to the land from the city, again for $l.

This action on the part of the citizens of Spokane was in addition a wise investment. Three years after the war ended, the War Department returned the field to the city with improved runways and aircraft control equipment. The property added after the sale remained under the control of the government and was later to house a variety of Air National Guard units. These units were a significant contribution to the Spokane economy. In 1948 the 60th Air National Guard Wing alone spent nearly $700,000 in Spokane in the form of wages and local contracts. Geiger Field served as a home to a number of naval and army units during the post war years all of which added to the military contribution to the economic welfare of the Spokane community.

Inspired by the success of Geiger Field, the chamber of commerce sought in addition to secure an army air corps supply depot. Information from Representative Leavy in early 1941 indicated that the War Department was considering the placement of a depot in the northwest. From his description of the government plans the depot would certainly be worth the effort to obtain and the chamber set about to obtain it.

To the community of Spokane in the summer of 1941 a decision by the U.S. War Department to locate a 20 million dollar aircraft maintenance and supply depot in their city promised enormous benefits. The installation was expected to produce over 8 million dollars a year in wages by employing nearly 7,000 civilians to perform maintenance and handle supply items. The construction of the facility and nearby housing required for the military personnel assigned would be a significant boost to the local economy. Such an installation would also attract new families to the Spokane area and offer educational opportunities for those interested in skilled labor. The many advantages of the depot complex, which would affect every segment of the community, were made very clear to the town's citizenry, and they worked through the chamber of commerce to obtain a favorable decision from the War Department.

But Spokane was not the only area contending for the installation. The town of Everett, Washington, located on the west coast, was also interested in obtaining the facility. Competition between the industrial and commercial west and the agricultural east had long been an element in the growth picture of the state of Washington. The location of this defense complex would be yet another area in which the interest of the two factions would conflict. Both communities possessed certain characteristics that favored locating the depot in their regions. Everett was situated near the army air [25] corps installation of McChord Field which allowed for easy transportation of damaged and repaired aircraft between locations. The proximity of coastal ports made it easier to transport aircraft by ship to and from Alaska. Another plus for Everett was the Boeing Aircraft Plant in Seattle, which would facilitate shipment of parts and provide an abundant, skilled labor force. Spokane boasted the same strategic factor of being located in the northwest but stressed the security of being 300 miles inland, safe from possible enemy air attacks. To overcome the distance from the coast Spokane gained the support of the Great Northern Railroad in providing priority shipping schedules and equipment as well as full cooperation in constructing new rail lines to meet the needs of the depot. Spokane claimed better climatic conditions by having considerably fewer overcast or fogbound days than the coast.

Each city had its own advocate in Washington D.C. presenting its respective claims to the War Department. Everett had the third youngest U.S. Representative, just recently elected to Congress, in the person of Henry M. Jackson. During the spring of 1941 Jackson, along with Snohomish County Commissioners, suggested to the War Department that Everett was the best location for the depot.

The competition was keen; but on September 12, 1941 the long awaited [26] decision was announced. Spokane was to get the depot and construction would begin as soon as the War Department gained title to the land. As the announcement was made, the chamber of commerce began a fund drive among the citizens and businessmen of the city that would raise the money needed to purchase the farm land that composed parts of 12 individual farms that bordered the Galena railroad station and would help to transform the economic future of the city of Spokane.

But one further problem remained for the city. In the fall of 1941 the Spokane Chamber of Commerce was faced with one of its greatest challenges since its beginning in 1898. Thanks to the efforts of men like James Ford the city was now about to embark on the "largest single development project in Spokane's history." The city had met nearly all of the requirements of the War Department. There was enough land, it was strategically located, a plentiful labor force was readily available, materials were easily obtainable, and the climate was favorable. There was, however, one requirement left to be fulfilled. The War Department specified that the land for the depot would have to be given to the government cost free. This meant that the city of Spokane would have to supply the necessary funds to purchase the property from donations by businesses and private citizens.

The chamber set a goal of raising $110,000 to cover the cost of the land and any unforeseen contingencies. This sum was based on a proposed purchase of 1,500 acres. This proved to be a wise decision because the army almost immediately requested an additional 900 acres "to meet the needs of the rapidly expanding air corps." This request increased the sum needed to over $115,000, and in the eyes of the chamber that was a sizeable investment for a community of less than 150,000 people. In order to raise this money the chamber of commerce would have to "sell" the depot to the city. A brochure extolling the advantages of acquiring the proposed installation and requesting the whole hearted support of the town's citizenry was circulated. Increased population, wages, jobs and tax revenues were highlighted, and while all of the economic advantages of this endeavor were certainly stressed, the fact was not overlooked that this installation would become an important addition to the defenses of the nation, and contributing to it would be considered a patriotic act.

By the very nature of its organization the chamber of commerce was the only group capable of accomplishing the rapid fund raising project. The members of the chamber were made keenly aware of the business opportunities available in establishing the depot. The army installation was accurately presented as an attractive investment that promised both short and long term returns. The board of trustees selected three chamber members to direct the fund raising campaign. The men, William H. Ude, Winfred S. Gilbert and Charles Hebberd, were chosen partly because each had at one time been president of the chamber and more importantly because they had worked together in 1923 to raise over $200,000 for the city's first Community Chest. This was considered valuable experience to be used in collecting a similiar sum in 1941. These men divided the membership of the chamber into "divisions", each with a "colonel" who led his men in their effort to raise a portion of the sum. The divisions more or less followed the [27] pattern of the chamber's membership drive committees which were formed annually to increase the ranks of civic supporters. Once selected the members were asked to contact businesses and individuals throughout the city and surrounding region and seek their contributions.

The strategy of the campaign was twofold. First the patriotic need to better the nation's defenses was stressed. The significance of Spokane's strategic northwest location was used to emphasize the responsibility of the citizen to do what he could to protect his own as well as his neighbor's home. The second aspect of the appeal dealt with business, and this was by far the more successful approach. A full 75 percent of the contributors were business concerns. There can be little doubt that the majority of these were members of the chamber and therefore had an additional reason for contributing in the form of supporting the organization. But for some there was yet a stronger reason for helping to assure the establishment of the depot. One out of eight donors represented some aspect of the building trades. These businesses knew that material and labor used in constructing the depot would come from local sources and this was particularly good news for the recently depressed building trades economy of the Spokane region.

The wisdom of supporting the project can be seen in the cases of the Washington Water Power Company and the construction firm of Clifton & Applegate and Georg. The former made a substantial contribution of $10,000 to the fund drive. When the depot reached full operation it was estimated that the WWP was supplying 1,500,000 gallons of water a day to the depot at a cost of over $5,000 a month. This equaled a two month return on the initial investment not to mention the possibilities for future expansion. Clifton, Applegate and Georg made a contribution of $1,000 and, following in its own footsteps at Geiger Field, was chosen as one of the prime contractors for the construction of the depot. The business community of Spokane was eager for this much needed boost, and they were not about to let the opportunity of a lifetime slip through their fingers for lack of adequate funding. The official fund raising began at a chamber sponsored luncheon that was held in Spokane's Davenport Hotel on September 16th, just four days after the War Department had announced Spokane's selection as the depot site. There was an air of excitement and urgency at the luncheon. The money had to be collected as soon as possible and given to the War Department which in turn would purchase the land, using the right of eminent domain to keep the cost to a minimum. The need was for cash. Pledges could not buy property. Any delay in the purchasing of the land might alter the War Department's decision. Earlier that year the government had been forced to select an alternate site for a depot which was to be located in the deep south. The designated city was unable to deliver the ready cash in time for construction to begin in accordance with the army's schedule. Spokane did not want to repeat that mistake.

From the beginning there seemed little chance that Spokane would fail to raise the sum. The fund raisers had done their job well. By the end of the second day over $76,000 had been collected. Nearly 70 percent of the goal had been reached in two days and the chamber decided on a one week time limit for completion of the project. The response was spectacular and it [28] underscored the desire of the city's businessmen to make the depot a reality. William Ude, one of the organizers of the drive, displayed his faith in the project and his ability to raise money by securing the $10,000 donation from Washington Water Power. Mr. Ude was a board member of that corporation. Another large donor on that first day was former Washington Governor Clarence D. Martin. He gave $2,500 to the cause.

When viewed as a whole, the 571 donors to the fund created a representative cross section of the Spokane community. While the vast majority of the money came from businesses there were many individual contributors as well. The first unsolicited contribution was made by Charles d'Urbal a former French teacher at Lewis & Clark High School. His donation was $5. This lead was followed by his former school which donated a portion of its activity fund. There were several doctors and other professional people on the rolls as well as charitable groups such as the Hutton estate. There was even an owner of the land that made up the site who contributed to the selling of his own property. Approximately 3 percent of the contributors represented financial institutions such as banks and savings and loan corporations-perhaps they saw the value of an increased population that would come with the depot. Another 3 percent of the donors were from construction related unions who, like the companies that employed them, eagerly anticipated the opportunity for a long period of full time work.

Before the end of the week the city had succeeded in raising the required money and considerably more. On September 21st the chamber deposited $121,133 with the Washington Trust Company. By the end of the week the sum rose to $124,996.77. This amounted to nearly $10,000 in excess funds that would be made available to the. government should the need arise. At last the job was completed. The chamber had succeeded in having Spokane chosen as the depot site and it handily managed to raise the money needed to consumate the deal. Happily for the citizens of Spokane the chamber's work was not in vain. The expectations for the depot were overwhelmingly surpassed. The government spent over $25,000,000 in constructing the installation. The civilian work force was more than double the anticipated 5,000 level. The expected payroll of $8,000,000 a year was nearly tripled by the fall of 1943. The members of the chamber of commerce had just reason to be proud. Their accomplishment was a monumental asset to the city, and their expanded association with the military had only just begun.