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News / Life / Clark County Life

Clark County History: Varney airmail

By Martin Middlewood, Columbian freelance contributor
Published: July 29, 2023, 6:05am

Portland and Vancouver fought a tug-of-war to wrangle airmail service. One would lose out. Neither city was the headquarters for Varney Airlines or Pacific Air Transport, but their planes often flew in and out of Pearson Field when the Swan Island airport in Oregon was fogged in or unavailable.

Varney Airlines founder Walter Varney flew for the U.S. Signal Corps Aviation Section during World War I. After the war, he opened an aviation school and air taxi service in Northern California. He bought six Swallow biplanes, each capable of holding 600 pounds of mail, to establish Varney Airlines in Boise, Idaho. He contracted for an airmail route from Pasco via his Boise headquarters, ending in Elko, Nev. Some said the 460-mile path went from “nowhere to nowhere,” but Varney expanded his airline up and down the West Coast.

Mail from Vancouver arrived at Pasco by train and was held at the railroad mail hub to travel by Varney’s plane on April 6, 1926. Leon “Lee” Cuddleback loaded six mailbags weighing over 400 pounds in his Swallow biplane, then flew the first contract air postal run in the Northwest from Pasco to Elko. Lt. Oakley Kelly and a contingent of Pearson Field aviators flew off to participate in the take-off celebration. Cuddleback returned the next day.

Varney announced in September 1929 that his airmail service planned to use Pearson Field for morning flights and Swan Island for evening ones. A newspaper editorial on Sept. 4, 1928, headlined “On the Air Map,” revealed the Vancouver-Portland competition for air service and its economic benefit. The Columbian editorial characterized Portland’s Chamber of Commerce as overpowering Vancouver’s smaller one while reminding readers about Pearson Field’s history. The editorial also blamed Tex Rankin for moving his airplanes from Pearson Field to Portland as a cause for Portland’s success.

The area’s first airmail flight for Varney Airlines from Portland’s Swan Island to Vancouver was scheduled for Sept. 15, 1929. The airmail would be carried in a 1,600-pound Stearman Speedmail plane capable of flying 145 mph. But “swathed in smoke,” it remained grounded. The next day The Columbian poked fun at the Oregon airport, noting with sarcasm, “the Vancouver port was bathed in sunshine.” Despite the jibe, the local weather was overcast, with the sun poking out occasionally.

Government contracts won by Varney Airlines and Pacific Air Transport meant the competitors had to work together if one of their planes was grounded or forced to land. In 1927, Pacific Air Transport pilot Vern Bookwalter took off from Pearson Field with mail from a Varney airplane forced to land and flew a “special delivery” from Vancouver to Seattle.

Varney sold out to the nation’s first scheduled air passenger service operator, United Airlines, in 1930, then soon founded Varney Speed Lines with Louis Mueller. Mueller gained control of Varney’s company in 1936 and renamed it Continental Airlines, which merged with United in 2012. The joining of Varney Air Lines and Pacific Air Transport into United Airlines directly connects Pearson Field to the lineage of the nation’s largest airline. Currently, United Airlines makes about 5,000 flights a day to 342 countries.

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Columbian freelance contributor