Burke Lakefront Airport

The Landfill Airport

In 1923, the Air Service, a part of the U.S. Army, published and distributed a basic how-to manual on airport construction for America’s cities.  This publication, titled “Airways and Landing Fields,” contained information on the Model Airway program as well as a list of suggestions to be followed by a city on “How An Airport Should Be Built.”  These suggestions listed in the Air Services bulletin regarded the location suitable for building, related to the size and shape, ground material, markings and accommodations.  These attributes that the Air Service bulletin prescribed included being within proximity to ground transportation, merchandise and business districts of a city, which the City of Cleveland took to a different level for building its second an airport.

In the City of Cleveland the Lakefront and its subsequent use or misuse, as the case may be, has been a point of contention among Clevelanders for decades. Before the turn of the twentieth century there had been a park on top of the bluff overlooking the lake, appropriately if unimaginatively named Lakeview Park. Then during the Great Depression the shoreline between what is now called East 9th Street and East 12th Street was a dumping ground for the city’s refuse both material and human. In this area a makeshift “Hooverville” as shantytowns were christened after President Hoover, was constructed by the hundreds of jobless and homeless Clevelanders as a result of the Depression. To combat this refuse and homeless problem several influential and wealthy Clevelanders put forth an idea to clear the area and build a World’s Fair type event in the location. This event would be known as the Great Lakes Exposition of 1936. During the exposition, future ideas and plans were proposed, displayed and developed about what use the lakefront could be to the city. Eventually the most practical solution was proposed of transportation facilities either marine or aerial in nature. 

The proposal contained the early building blocks for a lakefront plan that included the entire shoreline of the city of Cleveland and would contain an aviation point which would become Burke Lakefront Airport.  The Lakefront area where the refuse and Great Lakes expositions were once located was not suitable enough for a full-fledged airport according to the Air Services suggestions made in 1923.   Nevertheless, a Lakefront location for an airport was seen locally as a huge draw for tourists, businessmen and Clevelanders alike.  Proposed as only a short ten minute drive from Public Square in the center of the city, it was viewed by many as what could be a great alternative to the more distant Hopkins Airport. 

In the early 1940s construction on a dike retaining wall in Lake Erie by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began, which was the outer support area, where within the interior was to be completely filled with hundreds of tons of dirt dredgings from the Cuyahoga River. The interior area was partially completed and secure enough in August 1947 for a temporary runway to be built and the first airplane to land at the site. On the shoreline, off Memorial Shoreway and in between East 9th and East 12th Streets Mayor Thomas Burke and Major John Berry, City Commissioner of Airports, were on hand to perform an opening ceremony with the first plane to land at the site.  Over the next year the Army Corps of Engineers continued to develop what would become the permanent airport by depositing over 700,000 cubic yards of dredging on both the east and west ends of the temporary runway. Even though the completed airport was far from completion, within about five years, it still managed to set records for the numbers of flights and passengers traveling through the area in 1949. There was a total increase of about 200 aircraft and over 400 more passengers than in the previous year. The 1950s saw a need for the attribution of more money through bonds to make improvements and completions to the Lakefront Airport. 

The 1960s were a decade of change and celebration surrounding the nearly completed Lakefront Airport. Continuous flights were flying in and out of the Lakefront Airport, and the first commercial business, Lake Central Airlines, planned to move some operations to the Lakefront Airport. A Nike missile facility that was built near the Lakefront Airport in the late fifties was shut down with updates to technologies which rendered the site obsolete. Controversy and near closure followed the airport surrounding the proposed installation of a new heavy-lift crane at the West 3rd Street docks. The proposed site would have caused disruptions to the flight paths of planes into and departing the Lakefront Airport. This was such a controversy that even Port Director William Rogers proclaimed that he would quit if the city approved the proposed crane installation on the piers north face. Throughout all this, entertainment was still to be had in the form of high-flying action during the annual Memorial Day air shows held at Burke Lakefront Airport especially in the form of the "Girl on the Wing" (aircraft wing walks by stuntwomen).

The 1970s saw expansion at Burke Lakefront Airport with a focus on attracting more small airlines providing destinations such as roundtrip flights to Detroit, Michigan. An increase in numbers of flights and passengers from the sixties into the seventies produced a need for construction of new West and East Concourses. The 1980s, on the other hand, saw no further expansion of buildings or rise in numbers of passengers or flights but instead the inclusion of a new opportunity for an entertainment location for the city. The first Cleveland Grand Prix (similar to the Indianapolis 500) was held on the airport's runways and approach aprons on July 4, 1981. 

Over the years since its heyday, Burke Lakefront has steadily lost numbers in planes delivering cargo as Cleveland lost its onetime #3 rank as a Fortune 500 headquarters city, and as many companies moved toward larger planes that the airport could not support. The land on which the airport sits has also been a contentious subject for Clevelanders, although unlike Mayor Daley in Chicago with his midnight raid to destroy Meigs Field and avoid court proceedings and costs, Burke has remained as Clevelanders continue to discuss and debate the future of the airport. 

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1501 N Marginal Rd, Cleveland, OH 44114