Stapleton International Airport opened as a small municipal airport in 1929–30 and went on to become Denver’s primary airport for sixty-five years, until it was replaced by Denver International Airport in 1995. The airport played a major role in Denver’s development as a national transportation and shipping hub. Today, Stapleton’s airport buildings lie vacant, as the land has since been subdivided and zoned for multiple other uses.
With the exception of the 1931–35 term, Benjamin Stapleton was mayor of Denver from 1923 to 1947. He was one of the few people in the city who foresaw the tremendous potential of the airplane in the 1920s, and he wanted to consolidate Denver’s local, growing aviation industry around a single airport. Enlisting the aid of his Improvements and Parks Department manager, Charles Vail, Stapleton’s administration began laying the necessary groundwork. From the beginning, the airport project was placed under the jurisdiction of Improvements and Parks. The airport encountered opposition from the start, as some argued that Denver had no right to build a facility that would be a commercial venture for the city.
The site that Stapleton and Vail selected was called the Sand Creek site, or Rattlesnake Hollow, seven miles from downtown Denver. The new airport, named Denver Municipal Airport (DMA), celebrated its opening with a four-day program of events, from October 17 to October 20, 1929. Only three airlines had offices in the two-story administration building: Mid-Continent Express, which had just begun passenger service between Denver and El Paso; Western Air Express; and US Airways. Since there were so few passenger flights in 1929, the new facility functioned more like a glorified post office—the primary purpose of all three companies was flying the mail.
Yet by the end of 1930, its first full year of service, DMA was already turning a profit, with thirty takeoffs and landings registered every day and three new companies signing on to provide service: Carlos Reavis Service, Eddie Brooks Service, and Western Flying Service. In January 1931 city and airport officials constructed a new hangar, initiating a fifty-year run of continuous growth. In 1937 both United and Continental Airlines began offering service to and from DMA. By the end of the 1930s Denver Municipal was the city’s premier airport, although the area also hosted a number of privately owned airfields. Yet passenger traffic still languished. Though local businesses were convinced of the facility’s importance, the average Denverite was still not using the airport or planes on a regular basis. This would change with the onset of World War II.
After World War II
World War II was the catalyst for giant leaps in aviation technology; after the war, the average American was introduced to flying in numbers never seen before. The war cultivated a mass appreciation for the airplane and helped it capture much of the passenger market that trains had held for generations. Moreover, many people around the nation and the world came to view Denver as an important air hub due to its central location between the country’s international borders and its proximity to military bases, and federal authorities seriously considered proposed commercial routes that would tie Denver to other important cities such as Chicago and Washington, DC.
DMA was renamed Stapleton Airfield, in honor of the mayor, on August 25, 1944. When the war was over, Denver saw the airport as a key to the city’s future. The facility had kept up with all of the technological advances in aviation and was prepared for the future. Among these advances was a new control tower, added in 1941. The octagonal, six-story tower still stood atop the old administration building, but that same year, all of the runways were equipped with modern lighting; also, the Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA) announced it would be expanding its offices at the airport by installing a new teletype communication system.
By 1945 the airport had experienced phenomenal growth. Its original 640 acres had grown to 1,435, and there were forty to fifty commercial flights a day, up from eight per day in 1929. Stapleton employed 1,200 people, up from forty at the start, and boasted four runways, two flying schools, and four major airlines. Along with the three-story administration building, Stapleton now had six hangars, a post office, fire station, control tower, USO lounge, and a café. The airport also housed the CAA’s five-state air traffic control, staffed by thirty-five CAA personnel and ten army flight controllers who coordinated all commercial, private, and military flights.
To ensure the airport’s future, Stapleton and new improvements and parks manager George Cranmer unveiled an ambitious expansion plan in 1946. The $1 million proposal called for the extension of the east-west runway and the construction of a horseshoe-shaped terminal that would be built in units to allow for future expansion. However, when Stapleton left office, new mayor James Newton (1947–55) abandoned the expensive plan because the city had yet to experience the forecasted postwar aviation boom. With Denver’s newspapers, local politicians, and airport officials calling for more improvements, in September 1947 Newton decided to appoint a committee to study the airport. In a short time, Stapleton was growing once again.
By the 1950s the airplane had become an established means of transportation. Stapleton was being pushed to its capacity with tremendous increases in passenger travel; the forecasted aviation boom had simply taken a few more years than expected. In 1950 nearly 2,000 people passed through the airport each day, and by 1955 the annual figure had reached 1 million passengers. The increased traffic required extensive growth, and the airport was under construction throughout the 1950s. First a south wing was added to the administration building, then a north wing. In 1954 the original terminal was replaced. To handle the corresponding increase in airplane activity, a new, six-story control tower was completed in June 1953, replacing the iconic octagonal tower.
The first jet flight out of Denver took off from Stapleton on May 6, 1959—a Continental Boeing 707. The jet was intentionally underloaded with just ninety-three passengers, because Stapleton’s runways could not support jet-engine aircraft. Intending to construct jet-capable runways, the city of Denver originally placed an order for 252 acres of land on the nearby Rocky Mountain Arsenal in 1954, but by 1957 many airport experts felt that the jet age required more than just extending the east-west runway—it required a jet-age master plan that would accommodate airport growth several decades into the future.
In 1958 Denver newspapers quoted Mayor William Nicholson (1955–59) saying that Stapleton would ultimately require not only all of the Rocky Mountain Arsenal land but also all of Buckley Field. The newly formed Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) denied all of the city’s requests for new land, citing an overabundance of active development proposals dating to the Stapleton era. Eventually, Denver received the original 2,520-acre request on April 7, 1959, and by the end of 1962 Stapleton completed construction of a new jet-engine runway.
In 1960 Stapleton ranked fifth in total aircraft operations and served more than 1.5 million passengers annually. Only one year later, Stapleton jumped to third place and counted more than 2 million people through its gates. Consequently, the decade saw more expansion, including a new fourteen-story control tower, two new concourses, and new sections for the terminal that doubled its size and gave it the distinctive horseshoe shape. A twenty-bed fire station was added after the first major jet crash at Stapleton, which claimed seventeen lives on July 11, 1961. In 1964 the airport was renamed Stapleton International, reflecting its steady growth.
On April 30, 1967, thousands of Denverites came out to view the finished product of the 1950s master plan. With the newly expanded terminal, seven hangars, a new control tower, a fire station, a two-story parking lot, and the jet runway—all of which cost some $56 million—Stapleton International Airport represented a significant investment to the city.
But Stapleton’s increasing popularity and rapid growth turned out to be its undoing. Unable to keep up with the ever-increasing demand for international air traffic, the size of jet aircraft, or the land necessary to support continuous expansion, Stapleton International Airport halted flight service on February 28, 1995, and ceded all commercial airliner traffic to the newly constructed Denver International Airport.
Adapted from Jeff Miller, “An Airport in Place: Stapleton International Airport’s First Fifty-Five Years of Growth,” Colorado Heritage Magazine 4, no. 3 (1984).