In 1849 the U.S. Army built Vancouver Barracks north of Fort Vancouver and set up the headquarters of the Department of Oregon, which stretched from Montana to the Pacific. A nearby clearing, which was used as the Army's polo grounds, would eventually become an airfield that would host a few of the more interesting flights in aviation history.
In fact, it is the oldest operating airfield in the United States, dating from 1905 when Lincoln Beachey piloted the blimp, Gelatin, on the first aerial crossing of the Columbia River.
Airplanes, lumber mills, and famous aviators
The first airplane flight took off from the field in 1911. A few years later during World War I, the Army built and operated the world's largest cut-up mill on the site, producing lumber for Allied plane building efforts. Most planes used in the war were built with a frame of lightweight spruce wood and most of this came from Washington.
The Army Air Service began to fly planes from the field in 1921 and reserve fliers from the region trained with the 321st Observation Squadron from 1923 until 1941, when the unit was put on active duty.
Tex Rankin, Charles Lindberg, Jimmy Doolittle, Eddie Rickenbacker, T. Claude Ryan, and other famous aviators visited the field, which was also the last stopover of the Army's Round-the-World flight of 1924.
In 1925 the Army honored Lt. Alexander Pearson by naming the airfield after him. Pearson, who attended high school in Vancouver, won the speed contest in the first cross-country flying race in 1919. He beat 73 other pilots and made it from New York to San Francisco and back in a time of 48 hours, 14 minutes, and 8 seconds. He also made the first aerial survey of the Grand Canyon. Pearson was killed in 1924 when the wings of his plane collapsed during a practice run.
A commercial airfield was also started near the Army field in 1925. The military and commercial fields were later joined to form Pearson Airpark. In 1926 Pearson Field was the site of the first airmail service between Seattle and Vancouver. Pacific Air Transport and Varney Airlines both used the field. The companies later joined with two other companies to form United Airlines.
The War Assets Administration gave Pearson Field to the city of Vancouver in 1949.