The men of the WPA were instrumental in improving airport

Published 8:04 am Saturday, April 4, 2020

In this rather critical time with the coronavirus and all the unemployment, it appears that we are going into a recession and I hope it doesn’t evolve into a 1930s-type depression.

The Lawrence County airport was opened in the early years of the depression.

Being an old guy, I grew up on a farm during that era. The runways were paved during this time by the works Progress Administration (WPA) employees.

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The front page of the fourth section of the Huntington Herald-Advertiser of April 4, 1937 had a story about it with five pictures. From it, you can learn that the American Airlines decided to eliminate the airport on their stop because of the condition of the grass runway, which, when wet was hazardous. They promised to fly in again when the runway was paved. Lawrence County came up with $13,000 and the Huntington Chamber of Commerce supplied $7,500 plus a donation from the Huntington-Ohio Bridge Company. These funds, plus an $80,000 federal grant, made it possible to extend the runways, level the 107-acre site and relocate the utility wires.

With these improvements, the article claims that it could accommodate any plane flying at that time, including the new DC-3, which was introduced into commercial service in 1936. This DC-3 plane evolved from the DC-2 and could accommodate 21 to 34 passengers and flew up to 200 mph. It even had a sleeper version. They are still flying today as both the DC-3 and military version, the C-47.

The WPA, during President Franklin Roosevelt’s days, produced many lasting edifices, for example the stone wall along the Edgemont Road in Huntington. But sometimes, they were wonderfully slow. The program kept many families from starving during the Great Depression. The WPA built the first paved runway at what we know as the Lawrence County Airport. At the time, Howard Mayes Sr., a WWI fighter pilot, was the airport manager. The WPA quarried rock from the hill north of the airport to make a good foundation for the runway. There is a picture of the WPA placing the rocks by hand in the runway, which was noted in the 1937 issue of the Huntington Herald-Advertiser newspaper.

Forrest Sammons, a local contractor, depended on using an airplane flying out of the airport to visit the various construction sites around the country. His pilot, Howard Mayes Jr., had a rare instrument rating to even fly in bad weather.

Anyway, Sammons was becoming frustrated at the slow-moving runway project. He had a solution, he brought in heavy equipment to make short work on moving dirt and laying down a solid runway foundation. This move did not make the workers happy, but very unhappy.

During the depression, the WPA men were depending on this job to provide them money for buying food and shelter. The average salary for a WPA employee was $52.50 per month, which doesn’t sound like a living wage nowadays, but this was in the 1930s. They went on strike and set up a picket line and stopped the Sammon’s construction company from going ahead to pave the runway.

Don Lee, a pilot flying out of Lawrence County Airport since 1970, has been in charge of equipment and grounds maintenance for the last several years. He can be reached at