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MailTribune.com
  • 'Railroad of the Future'

  • Oregon's first municipal airport grew out of the choice between two alfalfa fields in Jackson County.
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  • Oregon's first municipal airport grew out of the choice between two alfalfa fields in Jackson County.
    It wasn't the state's first airport, but it was the first ever owned by a city and, for a while, the most important airfield in Oregon.
    Early in 1918, the outcome of World War I was still in doubt. The Army was planning aviation training camps and had its eyes on Oregon.
    Oregon's U.S. senators recommended a camp at either Hermiston in Eastern Oregon or in Medford.
    Airplanes already had sailed in Rogue Valley skies before the war, but they'd flown from farmer's fields and not from runways.
    Medford's Commercial Club, forerunner of the chamber of commerce, received a telegram from Washington in April 1918, asking it to suggest valley locations for a military airfield.
    The war ended before a site was selected, and the search was put on hold until planning began for Portland's 1919 "Victory" Rose Festival — the "victory" to commemorate the end of World War I.
    The military would fly six airplanes from its Sacramento airbase, over the Siskiyou Mountains and on to a temporary airfield in Portland.
    At each of 12 stops in the state, the planes would land, take on fuel and perform a brief "aerial circus" before moving on.
    The Commercial Club narrowed its search to two alfalfa fields, one about a mile south of downtown Medford (where the South Gateway Center is today) and one on the Gore Ranch, just west of town.
    The Gores agreed to donate the land and clear the high growth of alfalfa for a landing strip.
    On June 9, 1919, nearly everyone in Jackson County rushed to the ranch to see the Army fliers do their tricks.
    A few months later, the Forest Service announced it would form an aerial forest patrol to look for fires and wanted to put its southern headquarters in Medford. They needed a "permanent airfield" no later than April 1920.
    Although the Commercial Club talked of improving the Gore Ranch landing strip, if it could be purchased, time was just too short.
    Jackson County recently had acquired the alfalfa field that had been the club's other airstrip choice. Officials planned a fairground, but with no money allocated, they agreed to let the Commercial Club use the land to build the government's runway.
    The field was named for Newell Barber, a Medford boy who had lost his life in France while flying during the war.
    Fire patrols began regular flights in July 1920 but moved their headquarters to Eugene a year later.
    In 1922, the airfield was finally surrounded by the county's fair buildings, and because the Medford Commercial Club had spent $1,000 to build the runway, the county let Medford own it.
    Oregon's first municipal airport was also Oregon's only stop on the Los Angeles-Seattle airmail flights of the late 1920s. Portland hadn't established an airport yet and its mail landed across the Columbia River in Washington.
    For nearly 10 years, the airport that had grown out of an alfalfa field remained one of the finest on the West Coast, but by 1930 it was too small for the larger airplanes of the day. The doors were closed, the buildings moved and its runway disappeared.
    Thanks to a $120,000 bond measure approved by Medford voters in 1928, a new facility off Biddle Road was dedicated in 1930. After several major improvements, including a new tower and terminal building dedicated in January 2009, it continues to this day as the Rogue Valley International Medford Airport.
    Writer Bill Miller lives in Shady Cove. Reach him at newsmiller@yahoo.com.
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