The Stewart Connection
Stewart International Airport was overgrown pasture land called “Stony Lonesome” when I first knew it. I remember picnicking there with my parents and their friends. Dad and his buddies liked to do target shooting there. My dad, Thomas Archibald (“Archie”) Stewart, was born in early 1902, well before the Wright brothers made their first historic flight at Kitty Hawk in December 1903. I asked him when he first saw an airplane. He replied that it was when the whole Hudson Valley turned out and looked upward to see Glenn Curtiss win a huge prize for flying from Albany to New York in less than twenty four hours. This was May 31, 1910.
I believe his first up close and personal experience was in 1912 or 1913. A promoter, who knew nothing about aviation, had engaged a “barnstormer” to demonstrate his flying machine in Newburgh. It was scheduled for a baseball stadium near the old DuPont plant on South St. This was near my grandfather’s farm if you walked across fields and climbed over stone walls. When the aviator arrived with a horse-drawn wagon, carrying his plane minus its wings, he took one look at the field and said it was impossibly small. The impasse was solved when Grandfather, Thomas Wesley (“Wes”) Stewart, offered to let them use a suitable field that he had. The road to Grandfather’s farm entered from Rt. 17-K, and just beyond this was the road to the dairy farm of his brother, Sam. Grandfather gave them road directions and he and Father went back cross-lots to await the arrival of the aviator and a huge crowd of spectators.
To their amazement, they saw the entourage on the other side of Brookside Ice Co. pond, heading toward Uncle Sam’s house. By the time Grandfather and Father could get around the pond and catch up with them, the aviator had decided that there was a field there that was acceptable, though not as good as the one described to him. Grandfather did not know that this was a very special field of peas being grown by Uncle Sam for a carefully controlled experiment for the Cornell University School of Agriculture. The aviator, surrounded by hundreds of spectators, began setting up his plane. Just then, Uncle Sam came home from church. His face was brick red with anger and he called to his farm hands to bring him an axe to chop up the plane. His employees, wisely, had trouble finding an axe, thereby giving him time to cool down.
This was the Samuel L. Stewart who donated the original land for the airport.
Father had a very strong sense of history. He knew of thriving canal ports and stage coach centers that had “withered on the vine” after railroads became the dominant means of transportation in the nineteenth century. He thought that in the twentieth century, a city would need an airport in order to prosper.
Around 1930, Father and a number of like-minded young men, including Fred Stern, Gus Bennett, and Carlisle Goodrich, looked over all possible sites for a Newburgh airport and concluded that Uncle Sam’s “Stony Lonesome” was the best. Father went to Uncle Sam and suggested that he give it to the city for use as an airport. Uncle Sam readily agreed, and asked Father to represent him. In due time, with W.P.A. funds and a C.C.C. camp, the city slowly began to prepare the land.
At that time, West Point’s Army Air Corps consisted of three or four Douglas observation planes on which the wheels had been replaced by pontoons. They were kept in a hangar on the banks of the river and commanded by First Lieutenant Orval Cook, later, a four-star general. They were used by faculty members who were pilots in order to maintain their flight proficiency. Father often took rides with them.
In the late 1930s, Douglas MacArthur was Chief of Staff in Washington. He could foresee war clouds arising in Europe, and he knew that airplanes would play a major role in a coming war. He appointed a commission to find a site near West Point that could become a military airport where West Point cadets could learn to fly. After careful study, they decided that the infant airport at Newburgh was, by far, the best location. Father strongly welcomed this because he realized that the federal government had much deeper pockets for development than the city of Newburgh. He persuaded the City Council to sell the airport to the Army for one dollar.
Since then, West Point cadets learned to fly there during and after WWII. It then became the headquarters of the Eastern Air Defense Command. In 1970 it was deactivated, and acquired by the New York Transportation Authority, although the Air National Guard and the Marine Corps still use it. More buffer land was purchased then, in addition to the farmland already acquired during Nelson Rockefeller’s governorship, for development and support of the airport. In 1990, American Airlines began scheduled service.
Father lived to fly out with his family, (including me) on the first commercial flight, fifteen years ago. I had also attended the very first opening ceremony in a tiny hangar near 17-K, and many subsequent ceremonies. I am happy to see that Newburgh is a river port, a cross roads of major highways, and has a fine airport, all of which contribute to its economic prosperity.