Friday, June 3, 2016

Barkley Regional (KPAH): How a Vice President Helped Bring an Airport to Paducah, McCracken County, Kentucky

Kathryn's Report:

Barkley Regional Airport in Paducah is celebrating 70 years of service this year. Vice President, and western Kentucky native, Alben Barkley was instrumental in its foundation. On Sounds Good, Matt Markgraf and Special Collections & Exhibits Librarian Sarah Hopley of Murray State University's Pogue Library explore the special collection documenting the correspondence between the Vice President and community leaders and a detailed account of what the early days looked like for the airport. 

Anyone who has gone through Barkley Regional Airport may have wondered why it's named after Vice President Alben Barkley. One one hand, it seems obvious that a prominent political figure from western Kentucky gets the namesake, but what may not be so widely known is just how instrumental Barkley was in bringing an airport to Paducah. At the time, the closest airport was in Nashville.

The airport was established in this region as part of a federal effort to put airports in rural communities. Barkley and community leaders worked in bringing this funding to Paducah. Shortly after the funding was secured, WWII started and they had trouble bringing in commercial flights. The land was then leased to the government for military use.

After WWII, the local airport commission tried to secure local flights and documents show complaints that the military didn't take very good care of the airport or do any further work on it in the time they operated it. Blueprints show a very simple airport at this time, where an administrative building was in an old farm house, the runway was unpaved, lighting was minimal or nonexistent.

Correspondence in the special collection between president of the Paducah Airport Corporation Ed Paxton and Barkley describe the efforts in securing early funding. One letter from 1950 requests $100,000 for a new plane parking space and new passenger and administrative building.

Another document outlines wages paid to those who worked on the airport's construction. Minimum wage at the time was 75 cents, Hopley says, and many of the jobs paid two or three times this, suggesting that it was a fairly good job to have.

The first commercial flight was on April 1, 1946. Former governor Keen Johnson came to speak. The Chicago and Southern Airlines were the first to fly in and out of Paducah along the Memphis to Detroit line. Flights from Chicago to Paducah were 2 hours and 39 minutes.

Hopley says there was a boom in flying to small towns in the 1950s. A route map from the early part of the decade shows flights from Paducah to Cairo (30 minutes) or Evansville (90 minutes) and several small communities in Illinois and Indiana.

Paducah was part of Ozark Airlines in the mid 50s. A brochure advertises flights to Fort Campbell, Clarksville, Nashville, Cairo, Marion and East St. Louis.

Airlines came and went through Paducah's history fairly quickly, Hopley says. Some documents show an average of 1.4 passengers per day from Chicago to Paducah, which seems to suggest why these airlines weren't always profitable. Paducah serviced flights from American, Eastern and eventually United.

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