From Mines Field to LAX: The Early History of L.A. International Airport

Mines Field, known today as Los Angeles International Airport, circa 1930. Courtesy of the Title Insurance and Trust / C.C. Pierce Photography Collection, USC Libraries.

With a renovation of the Tom Bradley International Terminal underway, and with Metro considering a fixed-rail transit connection, change is again afoot at Los Angeles International Airport -- the transportation hub that has hardly stood still since it emerged from the bean fields of Westchester in the late 1920s.

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Originally named Mines Field after a real estate agent who brokered the site's land deal, the facility was L.A.'s first municipal airport but not the first airfield to serve the Los Angeles area. Dominguez Field, at the present-day site of Cal State Dominguez Hills, hosted the first U.S. air show, and Rogers Airport at the intersection of Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue (then Crescent Avenue) hosted many air shows as well as passenger air service to San Francisco.


But Charles Lindbergh's famous transatlantic flight in May 1927 convinced Los Angeles city leaders of the need for a permanent, municipal airport. With an improved runway and dedicated facilities, a city airport would encourage airmail and passenger traffic between Los Angeles and other aviation-friendly cities, while a permanent presence would allow airlines, maintenance companies, and other private enterprises to cluster around the site. In September 1927, Lindbergh himself, in Los Angeles on a nationwide victory lap, told a Coliseum crowd of roughly 60,000 that "airports are the most important factor in the development of aviation...I wish to say that if you expect to keep your city on the air map, it will be necessary to construct a municipal airport."

Within months of Lindbergh's recommendation, the city had begun surveying suitable airport sites. At first, the city planned to open three municipal airports: one in the San Fernando Valley at Sesnon Field, one near downtown at Vail Field, and a third near Westchester and Inglewood at Mines Field. It soon became clear that maintaining three airports would be impractical, however, and the city decided upon one: Mines Field. On September 26, 1927, the city signed a ten-year lease for 640 acres, and L.A.'s first municipal airport was born.

In 1910, Dominguez Field hosted the first air meet in the United States. Composite photograph courtesy of the Title Insurance and Trust / C.C. Pierce Photography Collection, USC Libraries.

Rogers Airport was located at the corner of Wilshire and Fairfax in what is today L.A.'s Miracle Mile district. Courtesy Title Insurance and Trust / C.C. Pierce Photography Collection, USC Libraries.

Charles Lindbergh, shown here parading down Broadway in downtown Los Angeles, called upon the city to build an airport in 1927. Within a year, Los Angeles had selected Mines Field as the site of its first municipal airport. Courtesy of the Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

In the 1930s, Mines Field competed with Glendale's Grand Central Air Terminal for air traffic. The historic structure, owned today by the Walt Disney Company, still stands. Courtesy of the Herman J. Schultheis Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Circa 1929 view of Vail Field, another rival to Mines Field. For many years, Western Air Lines used Vail Field, located in the present-day City of Commerce, for its air mail service. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce Collection, USC Libraries.

Despite the city's support and investments, Mines Field, which featured a 2,000-foot runway and hangar space for 40 planes, would not become the region's principal aviation terminus until the 1940s. That distinction was held for nearly two decades by Burbank's Lockheed Field (today, Bob Hope Airport), through which most airlines routed their planes. Other important airports were located in Alhambra, Van Nuys (Metropolitan Airport), Glendale (Grand Central Air Terminal), and the present-day City of Commerce (Vail Field).

In 1937, the City of Los Angeles purchased Mines Field outright. Four years later, it passed a $3.5 million bond issue for new construction, renamed the site Los Angeles Airport, and began converting the modest aviation facility into the major airport that would escort Los Angeles into the Jet Age.

World War II slowed construction, but by the end of 1946 the new runways, passenger terminals, hangars, control tower, and maintenance sheds were ready. (Work on the airport's first parking garage, with space for 125 cars, lagged behind.) On December 9, 1946, four major airlines -- American, Trans World, United, and Western -- more or less abandoned Burbank in favor of the expanded municipal airport. Pan Am joined them in January 1947. William Pereira's iconic Theme Building and other modern additions were still years off, but by 1949, the former bean fields -- still hopping with jackrabbits and often shrouded in fog -- were rechristened Los Angeles International Airport.

In 1929, the 776-foot-long Graf Zeppelin docked at Mines Field as part of its circumnavigation of the globe. Courtesy of the Title Insurance and Trust / C.C. Pierce Photography Collection, USC Libraries.

A biplane, possibly participating in an air show, on the Mines Field runway circa 1931. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce Collection, USC Libraries.

Land-based markers pointed the way for Mines Field-bound aviators. 1928 aerial photo courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Though it had already hosted an air show and opened to plane traffic, Mines Field was officially dedicated in June 1930. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce Collection, USC Libraries.

Circa 1931 aerial view of Mines Field. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive, Young Research Library, UCLA. Used under a Creative Commons license.

1939 aerial view of Mines Field before its transformation into Los Angeles Airport. Courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Aerial view of Los Angeles International Airport shortly after its postwar renovations. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce Collection, USC Libraries.

1961 artist's rendering of LAX's Theme Building, designed by architect William Pereira. Courtesy of the California Historical Society Collection, USC Libraries.

Many of the archives who contributed the above images are members of L.A. as Subject, an association of more than 230 libraries, museums, official archives, personal collections, and other institutions. Hosted by the USC Libraries, L.A. as Subject is dedicated to preserving and telling the sometimes-hidden stories and histories of the Los Angeles region. Our posts here provide a view into the archives of individuals and cultural institutions whose collections inform the great narrative—in all its complex facets—of Southern California.

Read more L.A. as Subject posts here at KCET.org, and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

About the Author

A writer specializing in Los Angeles history, Nathan Masters serves as manager of academic events and programming communications for the USC Libraries, the host institution for L.A. as Subject.
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