In 1849, the U.S. Army built Vancouver Barracks just 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, eventually became an airfield that would host a few of the more interesting flights in aviation history.
In fact, what is now called Pearson Field is the oldest operating airfield in the United States. It dates to 1905, when Lincoln Beachey piloted the U.S. Army Signal Corps blimp, Gelatin, on the first aerial crossing of the Columbia River.
Airplanes, lumber mills and famous aviators
The first airplane took off from the field in 1911. A few years later during World War I, the U.S. 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 and most of the wood came from Washington.
The Army Air Service began flying planes from the field in 1921. 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 the last stopover of the Army's Round-the-World flight of 1924. In June 1937, a Russian-piloted plane that made the first nonstop transpolar flight landed at Pearson, opening the polar route between Europe and the U.S. west coast.
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 48 hours, 14 minutes and 8 seconds. He also made the first aerial survey of the Grand Canyon. Pearson was killed in 1924 when his plane's wings collapsed during a practice run.
A commercial airfield was started near the Army field in 1925. The military and commercial fields later were joined to form Pearson Airpark. In 1926, Pearson 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 two other companies to form United Airlines.
The War Assets Administration gave Pearson Field to the city of Vancouver in 1949.