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History Revisited: Groton-New London Airport's humble beginnings

Recently, while organizing a few of my historical research files, I came across one titled “Trumbull Airfield”. Upon looking through the information and documents, I could not help but think that there were probably a great many residents, both newly located and “long timers”, who might not be aware of how the air field was established as well as some of the interesting facts and stories surrounding the air field, now named the Groton-New London Airport. This article will be the first of two relaying many little-known facts about Groton’s Trumbull Airfield.

The story begins back in the early 1900s, after multi-millionaire industrialist Morton F. Plant came to Groton and built his colossal granite (summer) mansion and estate at Avery Point. Plant, who had always had a keen interest in becoming a “gentleman farmer,” purchased well over 300 acres of land east of his estate and west of the Poquonnock River where he established his Branford Farms. He built a large poultry farm on what was once the Mather Farm, where the Branford Avenue apartment complex is located today, and then combined and modernized the Morgan and Fish farms, between Baker’s Cove and the Poquonnock River (where the present Groton-New London Airport is located), into his dairy and produce farm.

Plant died in late 1918, and the heirs to his estate, although electing not to continue the Branford Farms business operations, kept the farm properties in the holdings of the estate.

A September 1982 article in The Day newspaper relayed a story wherein approximately 10 years after the death of Morton Plant, a barnstorming (stunt) pilot named Philip Dorrier made a landing on one of Plant’s farm pastures in Poquonnock Bridge. Dorrier, who found the pasture to be remarkably conducive for aircraft landings, subsequently met with Plant’s stepson, Philip Plant, apparently to determine if the farm property could be purchased.

The article further stated, without explanation, that “in 1929 after Dorrier talked with then Governor John H. Trumbull, the state bought 275 acres there and Trumbull Field, which has since been renamed, opened.”

Further research revealed the underlying purpose for purchasing the Plant property was to establish an airport site to support a newly proposed “four-day transatlantic mail and passenger steamship service and terminal” project. The company wanting to establish the service was considering several locations in New England as “home port” for their anticipated fleet of 20 ships. Establishment of the proposed operation in New London had the potential of bringing 12,000 to 15,000 employees and their families to the area, which, of course, would result in a major boom to the entire economy, not only New London but also the state.

New London was high on the list of prospective locations for various reasons: the Thames River offered a deep water port which could accommodate the proposed 900 foot, 20,000 ton liners; and new and large docking, warehousing and support facilities were already present at the State Pier. Because the business venture included express and mail services to Europe, a major consideration for their homeport operations would be the availability of various modes of transportation, including railroad, highways and airport facilities. New London already maintained more than satisfactory highway and train services for potentially high traffic volume from the New York and Boston areas; however, it was lacking facilities to accommodate air traffic, which was a major component for the proposed project.

Recognizing the tremendous economic potential for the state, if this proposal was approved, Gov. Trumbull became personally involved in promoting an airport in the New London area as a way to boost Connecticut’s chances of landing the lucrative project.

Trumbull directed that a thorough search be made throughout New London County to determine if there was any property that could be utilized for airline support facilities.

It is at this point where it is believed that Philip Dorrier’s input on the Plant farm in Groton came into play.

Once advised of the potential of the Plant property for use as an airfield, Trumbull immediately pursued obtaining the property. On March 23, 1928, at the insistence of Trumbull and, with the approval of the state Board of Finance and Control, the state authorized securing of an option on the Plant farm property for use as a state aviation field.

The option was purchased at a cost of $1,000 and would hold the property for approximately 14 months, providing ample time for the General Assembly to authorize the appropriation of $125,000 to purchase the property.

Once the option on the property was approved, Trumbull advised the owners of the company proposing the 4-Day Transatlantic project of the state acquiring property, in close proximity to the New London State Pier, which was to be converted into an aviation field.

The governor boasted of the property close to the Thames River and Long Island Sound which would be conducive to handling both land and water aircraft. Another plus the newly acquired property offered for the project was the fact that a railroad spur track and trolley line connections were present on the property.

In April 1928, the United States Shipping Board submitted a report to the Senate concerning funding for the proposed 4-Day Transatlantic program. The board’s report urged that the proposal be rejected on the grounds that the project was economically unsound and financially nebulous. The board’s recommendation essentially “stopped the proposal in its tracks” and thus eliminated the potential of use of the state pier in New London as well as the use of the newly acquired “aviation field” in Groton.

Even after receiving the disappointing news about the 4-Day Transatlantic program, Gov. Trumbull, who maintained a keen interest in flying, continued his pursuit of funding to establish a state-owned airfield in Groton.

On July 21, 1928, a special Governor’s Day program was held at the Groton field to commemorate the facility’s use by the 43rd Division for its annual summer exercises. It was during this program that the field was named Trumbull Airport.

In a speech given by the governor at the event, he stated: “If it is my last official act — I am going to sell to the state the idea of buying this field for an airport, or I will buy it myself.”

In May 1929, the state Legislature approved funding to purchase the former Plant farm property at Poquonnock Plains for use as an airfield, thus the official beginning of Groton’s Trumbull Airport.

Jim Streeter is Groton town historian.

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