Old hangar mystery reveals layers of Northwest aviation history

Oct 21, 2022, 8:39 AM | Updated: Oct 25, 2022, 4:18 pm
An old hangar which once stood at Sand Point in Seattle (upper photo) has an amazing history, and the circa 1918 building is still in use at an airport in Port Townsend where it was moved in 1931 (lower photo). (Courtesy Lee Corbin)
(Courtesy Lee Corbin)

From San Diego to Seattle to Port Townsend, a non-descript sheet metal building might be the oldest, most historic – and most well-traveled – airplane hangar in the Evergreen State.

This breaking history news – and All Over The Map exclusive – comes from Lee Corbin, military and aviation historian, and great friend of Seattle’s Morning News.

Corbin recently started a deep dive into Sand Point history in advance of the centennial of the “Around the World Flight,” which began and ended in 1924 at what’s now Magnuson Park. The original airfield there was called Sand Point, and in the early 1920s, it was home to both Army and Navy aircraft and was, in many ways, the cradle of aviation history for Seattle.

Visible in many of the old photos from the 1920s that Corbin has been studying is a large hangar – or specialized aviation garage – in the form of a steel-framed structure covered in sheet metal, with a big door and big windows to let in natural light. The hangar, Corbin has determined, measured 64 feet by 140 feet, thus being the most prominent structure at Sand Point for most of the 1920s.

Corbin had also determined that the hangar was already second-hand when it was reassembled at Sand Point in early 1923. It had originally been used by the Army in San Diego, perhaps at a place called Rockwell Field, during World War I.

Once it was rebuilt and put into regular use at Sand Point, Corbin says it probably housed the four “Around the World Flight” Army planes – the Douglas World Cruisers – for several weeks in 1924. And thanks to some old silent film footage in the University of Washington’s collection which he viewed earlier this week, Corbin is convinced that a very famous aviator parked his equally famous airplane in that hangar Sept. 13, 1927.

“If you watch for just about three or four seconds, there’s a portion of it where they’re pushing the Spirit of St. Louis into this hangar,” Corbin told All Over The Map. “I mean, the windows match up and everything like that to what the current hangar looks like.”

Charles Lindbergh, after flying solo across the Atlantic in May 1927, toured all over the United States, including Seattle, and, as it turns out, Lucky Lindy parked the Spirit of St. Louis in the Sand Point hangar.

Corbin also figured out that in March 1931, the old hangar was dismantled by troops from Fort Lawton, and then put on a barge and taken to Fort Warden near Port Townsend. It was then shipped several miles south of town to a military installation called old Fort Townsend (a portion of which is now a state park), where a new emergency airstrip had been built and a hangar was needed. By 1931, the Army had moved its aviation operations to Boeing Field south of downtown Seattle and the Navy was poised to build out and expand its footprint at Sand Point.

It’s likely that not many people have heard of the emergency airstrip at old Fort Townsend, because in February 1947, the Army gave it to Jefferson County and it became what’s now the Jefferson County International Airport. The airport is still there and still in operation, south of Port Townsend, right on the edge of the main highway.

Corbin did some further digging, and it turns out that the hangar – which is at least 100 years old – is still standing, still in good shape, and still in near-daily use at the Jefferson County Airport, where it houses an aviation maintenance business called Tailspin Tommy’s.

Michael Houser is a state architectural historian for the Washington State Department of Archaeology & Historic Preservation. Reached by email Thursday, Houser wrote to All Over The Map that he thinks the hangar is likely eligible for listing on the state or even the National Register of Historic Places.

“Based on the history that Lee presented to me, it looks eligible for the State and [National Register],” Houser wrote. “Intact pre-WWII hangars are a rare resource in Washington, and its connection to Sand Point and Charles Lindbergh only enhances its history.”

Eric Toews is deputy director of the Port of Port Townsend, the public entity which operates the airport as well as the harbor in the charming Victorian community. Toews clearly loves Port Townsend’s history and was excited to learn more about the hangar, but his feelings about the potential historic register listings are a little mixed.

“Excited, yes,” Toews told All Over The Map, “but very much cognizant of the challenges that historic structures present” in terms of potential extra layers of regulation when it comes to repairs or replacement.

Corbin says more research is required to fully understand the history of the hangar. Late Thursday evening, he determined that what Port Townsend has is called a “United States All-Steel Hangar,” which, according to a report about a similar hangar in Hawaii, was “developed in 1918 as a standard hangar design for WWI airfields and aviation training stations.” Corbin says there also appears to be a similar structure at Pearson Airfield, which was originally part of the old Army base next to Fort Vancouver in Clark County.

This All Over The Map exclusive is a developing story that will be updated.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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Old hangar mystery reveals layers of Northwest aviation history