First commercial airmail flight 90 years ago put Pasco in history books

Stores in the Tri-Cities closed and the townspeople turned out to welcome the arrival of the first Air Mail Service route linking Pasco and Elko, Nev., on April 6, 1926.
Stores in the Tri-Cities closed and the townspeople turned out to welcome the arrival of the first Air Mail Service route linking Pasco and Elko, Nev., on April 6, 1926.

Ninety years ago today, a Swallow biplane left the Pasco airfield with 9,285 pieces of mail weighing 207 pounds.

The 5  1/2 -hour flight, which ended in Elko, Nev., went into the history books as the first commercial U.S. Air Mail flight.

Varney Air Lines — awarded the first air freight contract that would link the Northwest to the government-operated Transcontinental Air Mail route — ultimately became United Airlines.

No celebrations are planned to mark the anniversary of the April 6, 1926, inaugural flight.

But Malin Bergstrom, president of Bergstrom Aircraft in Pasco, says it always is a great opportunity to educate people about the Tri-City’s significant role in aviation history.

“I think the Greatest Generation remembers and thinks about that history,” she said. “I’m afraid that the following generations, mine and the younger ones from there, have not heard these stories.”

That’s why Bergstrom is making sure to include a display about the first contract flight and airline owner Walter T. Varney in the future museum at the Old Tower. Last month, a group of volunteers dedicated to preserving the decommissioned air traffic control tower at the Tri-Cities Airport began constructing the museum on the building’s first floor.

Bergstrom, the nonprofit association’s volunteer board president, said there is no official name yet but for simplistic reasons she may start referring to it as the Pasco Aviation Museum.

“It’s an uphill battle to save and share what I think is very important aviation history,” she told the Herald. “It’s getting better, and having a location to do that is going to be a huge step in the right direction.”

In 1925, a bill was passed allowing private airlines to bid for providing airmail service. Varney didn’t have much competition for the bid to run the mountainous route from Pasco to Boise to Elko.

The morning of April 6, 1926, mail arrived in Pasco on train from Seattle and on stagecoach from Spokane.

The Varney Air Lines plane was loaded up with six sacks of mail and pilot Leon D. Cuddeback took off at 6:23 a.m. as thousands of people watched from the old airfield near Oregon Street.

The airmail flight was later made with a Stearman because the Swallow biplane reportedly was not fast enough and couldn’t carry the mounting bags of mail.

Traditionally, it took five days to send a letter coast-to-coast by train. The arrival of airmail allowed Washington residents to get a letter in the hands of relatives or friends on the East Coast in two days.

The Contract Air Mail (CAM) 5 Route was changed over the years to include Salt Lake City, Portland, Seattle and Spokane.

Varney Air Lines was obtained by United Air Transport in 1930, and four years later it merged with three other companies to form United Airlines.

During the inaugural flight’s 75th anniversary in 2001, a bronze bust known as “the airmail aviator” was unveiled in the Tri-Cities Airport terminal. The bust was sculpted by Tom McClelland of Columbia Basin College.

Bergstrom said once the aviation museum is built, volunteers are planning outreach programs including going into schools and explaining the history to kids.

Donations to the Old Tower and museum can be made at savetheoldtower.com.

Kristin M. Kraemer: 509-582-1531, @KristinMKraemer