Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Imeson: From Lindbergh to JFK to MLK

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Imeson: From Lindbergh to JFK to MLK

Article excerpt

Byline: Sandy Strickland

Dear Call Box: Tell me about the airfield that predated Jacksonville International Airport.

G.G., Southside

Dear G.G.: The city's original airport was built on what was once a 175-acre prison farm southeast of North Main Street and Busch Drive.

Before it was even finished, an illustrious aviator christened Jacksonville Municipal Airport's wings to the world. Charles Lindbergh, the first pilot to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean from New York to Paris, landed at the airfield on Oct. 10, 1927. The Lone Eagle and his Spirit of St. Louis monoplane were greeted by a crowd estimated at 150,000, an astonishing number considering that the city's official population was 129,500, according to Times-Union archives.

Lindbergh was "well-pleased with Jacksonville's flying field" and said it was in the path of what would be an airmail route from New York to Havana and probably the countries of South America, the newspaper reported.

In turn, Jacksonville was pleased with Lindbergh and tried to name its airport after him, but San Diego beat the city to it.

Airmail aside, an array of notables, including presidents, governors and high-ranking officials from President Fulgencio Batista's government in Cuba landed at Imeson. The Cuban top brass, fleeing Castro, came here by mistake because the pilot said he didn't know the way to New Orleans, where they were headed. Heavy weather kept the plane here seven hours on that New Year's Day in 1959, as many Cubans learned in news accounts of the flight that Castro had won the revolution.

In 1960 alone, John Kennedy, Richard Nixon and Rose Kennedy walked through its gates. Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. touched down at Imeson in 1964 on his way to St. Augustine. Later that year, the Beatles flew to Jacksonville just after Hurricane Dora in what the Times-Union described as a "secret arrival." Still, 150 fans were there to greet the Fab Four.

Despite its later success, it was an uphill struggle in the early 1920s to build a municipal airport when passenger travel still was novel, and airmail was just beginning to elevate aviation from the realm of sport, newspaper stories said.

Its birth is credited to Thomas Cole Imeson, first president of the Southeast Airmail Association and a city commissioner, who saw its promise. He helped persuade Jacksonville property owners to approve an airport bond issue that the state legislature authorized in 1925.

The first bonds were sold in 1927 and the first two runways built. A novel approach was used to attract Lindbergh to Jacksonville after his famous flight. Hotel owner Robert Kloeppel, a flying enthusiast, offered to add $1,000 to Lindbergh's $25,000 prize, newspaper stories said. Lindbergh was returning to the United States aboard the USS Memphis. …

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