Looking Back

Photo from 1998 of the “Large Hangar” at the eastern edge of the airport. It originally had a control tower and was the center of flight line activity for Grenier Field during World War II. The building has since been demolished.

In 1926 the Manchester Board of Mayor and Aldermen authorized a study to determine the feasibility of establishing a municipal airfield. With preliminary financial data in hand, the city’s leaders determined that the idea was well worth pursuing. They envisioned that Manchester could become a competitor in the promising new field of civilian air transportation.

In 1927 the New Hampshire Legislature passed a bill to allow Manchester to “establish an aviation field and acquire such property and construct such buildings as might be necessary to accomplish that purpose.” The city appropriated $15,000 to launch the venture and Mayor Arthur Moreau formed the Board of Recreation and Aviation Trustees to provide oversight. Airfield designer and engineer Carl W. Keniston was hired to find the best location for the future airport. He reported that an 88-acre tract near Pine Island Pond in the south end of the city would be “the best natural site for an airport of any municipality in New England, bar none.” Much of this largely undeveloped land was owned by the city, and the acreage held by private owners was later acquired through various means, including eminent domain.

Keniston stayed on to design the airfield’s two runways and to supervise their construction. On Nov. 25, 1927 he and Concord attorney Horton L. Chandler were passengers aboard the first plane to land at the new airport. Two hundred spectators watched as the open cockpit Waco airplane landed on the grass strip. It was piloted by retired Army aviator Lt. Robert S. Fogg, Sr. The airport officially opened for business on Dec. 1, 1927.

In its early days Manchester Airport hosted local pilots who offered flying lessons and sight-seeing rides in their own private planes. The first commercial service to operate in Manchester was Northeast Airways, which began regular flights between Manchester, Concord, and Boston in 1928. During the 1930s the city worked with the Civil Works Administration (CWA) and its successor, the Works Progress Administration (WPA), in a series of projects to enlarge and modernize the airport. These agencies were part of the “New Deal” established by the Roosevelt Administration during the Great Depression to provide employment and improve infrastructure. Through this federal/municipal partnership the airport gained new roads, runways, buildings, lighting, fencing, utilities, navigation systems, and radio equipment.

By 1939 the U.S. Army Air Corps was scouting out locations for new air bases. The Japanese had embarked on a program of imperial expansion in 1937, and the rise of Nazism in Germany was a source of great alarm. The U.S. War Department was determined that the country be prepared for whatever may happen. Manchester officials were hopeful that the city’s airport would be chosen for conversion into a military base. Manchester citizens had endured the deprivations of the Great Depression since 1929, and the city was still recovering from the 1936 bankruptcy of its largest employer, the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company. An Army Air Corps base in Manchester would raise the city’s financial prospects. Not only would construction jobs become available for local civilian workers, but a good part of the projected annual payroll of $2 million slated for base personnel would be spent in Manchester.

At first the War Department bypassed Manchester and built a large air base in Chicopee Falls, Mass., which became Westover Field. But in October 1940 Manchester was chosen as the site of a smaller base. To meet its needs, the War Department acquired over 1,400 acres of land bordering the airport in Manchester and Londonderry. The expanded facility came under military control in December 1940.

The base’s construction, carried out by the WPA, the Army Corps of Engineers, and private contractors, was completed in spring 1941. Runways were extended and 18 miles of roads were built. Over 100 buildings were erected, including a chapel, a hospital, and a giant hangar. The base’s primary purpose was to function as a stopover and servicing facility for warplanes destined for Europe. It became the home of the 45th Bombardment Group and the 33rd Air Base Group. In 1942 the airbase was named Grenier Field in memory of Army Lt. Jean Grenier, a Manchester pilot who had died in a plane crash in Utah in 1934.

Next Week: Manchester citizens welcome the soldiers stationed at Grenier Field and embrace the mission of the United Service Organizations.

Aurore Eaton is a historian and writer in Manchester, contact her at auroreeaton@aol.com or at www.facebook.com/AuroreEatonWriter