Salt Lake City International Airport celebrates its 100th birthday

Director says a centennial in 2020 is appropriate and shows nothing can stop the airport or its growth.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Salt Lake City International Airport commemorated its 100-year anniversary with a bust unveiling of Lawrence H. Lee, Dec. 21, 2020. Lee was the former CEO of Western Airlines, who was responsible for converting what had been a medium-sized airport in 1983 into the nationÕs 23rd busiest with 99 nonstop destinations.

Salt Lake City International Airport may have just finished its sparkling new first phase of a $4.1 billion rebuilding project, but it celebrated its 100th birthday on Monday.

Airport Executive Director Bill Wyatt says it’s probably appropriate for that centennial to happen in 2020, showing that nothing can stop the airport and its growth.

“We’ve survived here an earthquake, catastrophic loss of business, a pandemic. And you know what? We’re going strong. We had 15,000 people at the front door today, which is about half our normal load,” he said. “Salt Lake is one of the busiest airports in the United States right now, which is kind of crazy,” helped by its crossroads location and its Delta Air Lines hub.

The airport also unveiled a bust of the man it says is probably most responsible for converting what had been a medium-sized airport into the nation’s 23rd busiest (before the pandemic), with 99 nonstop destinations: former Western Airlines CEO Lawrence H. Lee. In 1982, he made Salt Lake City that airline’s hub (which Delta retained when it later merged with Western).

“I am often asked who had more influence on the Utah economy than anyone else,” said multimillionaire developer Kem C. Gardner at the Monday celebration. “Other than Brigham Young, Larry Lee was the most important.”

Lee’s daughter-in-law, Laura Lee, said her father-in-law was from Santaquin and worked up Western’s ranks beginning as a baggage handler.

“I was one of his employees during that time. And Denver was the hub that everybody wanted to go to. And they never thought Salt Lake could compete with that. They didn’t think that anybody would have any desire to go into Salt Lake and there would never be a big airport,” she said, adding he would be thrilled with the honors now.

Also at the centennial celebration, Wyatt announced that the airport has managed to salvage the iconic world map that was in the floor of the old Terminal 1 — a rendezvous place for decades. Officials earlier thought that would be impossible but found it could be saved as they were demolishing the old building.

Wyatt said it will be placed in the new Concourse B — but not for about three years as construction and expansion continues.

When Salt Lake City opened its first official airfield on the site back in 1920, World War I had recently ended, women had just won the right to vote, and the Wright Brothers had made their first flight just 17 years earlier.

Some highlights of the first 100 of so years of Salt Lake aviation history include:

1910: Before the airport opened, aviator Louis Paulhan amazed 8,900 spectators at the Utah State Fairgrounds by flying at 300 feet for about 10 minutes. It was the first test of an airplane at high elevation in the world.

1911: Salt Lake City hosted an aviation carnival called “The Greatest Aviation Meet Ever Held in the West” for five days featuring new aircraft designs. That included aviation pioneer Glen Curtiss showing off a “hydroplane” that took off from the waters of the Great Salt Lake.

1920: Salt Lake City opens its first airfield (at the present site) to serve as a hub of the national air mail service. It had nearly lost out to Ogden when the city had trouble raising money for it. It originally was called Woodward Field, named after air mail pilot J.P. Woodward, who had just died in a crash near Laramie, Wyo.

Woodward unfortunately had foretold just three months earlier that the “Intermountain stretch of the transcontinental route … [is] the worst of the entire trip from New York to San Francisco. Practically every forced landing can be counted upon to be a crash and there are hundreds of miles where no landing can be made without the danger of almost certain death.”

1926: The first passenger service comes as Ben Redman and J.C. Tomlinson don leather helmets, goggles and parachutes and ride among mail bags to Los Angeles. They pay $98 (equivalent to $1,450 today), and are given a box lunch and a tin-can toilet.

A few weeks later, Salt Lake resident Maude Campbell becomes “the first woman in the United States to buy a ticket and fly on a commercial airline.”

The airport is also then renamed the Salt Lake City Municipal Airport.

1929: Five airlines are then serving Salt Lake City: Boeing Air Transport, National Parks Airways, Seagull Airlines, Varney Airlines and Western Air Express (which would later become Western Airlines, and later would be bought by Delta Air Lines). Amelia Earhart is among aviators who fly in, and she says Utah’s “mountain scenery cannot be equaled anywhere in the world.”

1933: The airport builds its first terminal, called the Administration Building.

1961: The airport builds a modern replacement terminal, after raising the entire site by 7 feet because of groundwater issues.

1968: The airport is renamed Salt Lake City International Airport after Western Airlines starts flights to Calgary.

1978: A second terminal is built for the exclusive use of Western Airlines. Airline deregulation comes, which allows hub-and-spoke operations by airlines.

1982: Western Airlines makes Salt Lake City an operational hub.

2020: Salt Lake City completes the first phase of a $4.1 billion rebuild, and demolishes the old terminals.

The airport has published a history of the facility and produced a film about it. Both are available online at slcairport.com.