In 1915, the southern edge of Anchorage was Ninth Avenue – with only undeveloped land beyond it. Around 1917, vegetation was cut along a strip of land one block wide by 16 blocks long south of Ninth to create a firebreak, and in 1923 this strip was completely cleared to accommodate Anchorage’s first airfield and a golf course.
By 1929, residential areas in Anchorage were expanding around and beyond Ninth Avenue Airfield, prompting the City of Anchorage to move its aviation facilities to the eastern outskirts of Anchorage, just beyond present-day 15th Avenue. After receiving title to the land from the federal government, the city built “Aviation Field”, which was operational in August 1929.
In 1930, the airfield was renamed in honor of Anchorage’s first aviator, Russ Merrill, who disappeared while flying through Cook Inlet in 1929. By 1935, six airlines were operating off the field, and he managed more than a quarter of the state. air traffic.
After World War II, there was an influx of veterans (many of whom had gained flight experience during the war) and other civilians into the territory. This has been accompanied by an increase in the use of small civilian aircraft for commercial and recreational flying.
Also after the war, and in part due to the construction of wartime airfields in Alaska and Canada, commercial aviation pioneered the North Pacific Great Circle air route from North America to the Asia. Anchorage became one of the main stops along the route.
As activity increased, a control tower was built at Merrill Field in 1947. Photos show it as a 4-story skeletal structure built with steel beams, with a covered staircase that ascends to the “cabin ” closed control at the top of the structure. In the late 1940s, the airfield also improved other facilities, including lengthening its east/west and north/south runways.
By this time, Anchorage’s growth had again surrounded its airport. Merrill Field could not expand and could not accommodate the larger aircraft then entering service. A new airport at Point Woronzof (now called Ted Stevens International Airport) was built between 1949 and 1951.
Many officials expected the new airport to eclipse or even eliminate the need for Merrill Field. However, while large commercial operators moved to Point Woronzof, smaller operators and private pilots remained loyal to Merrill. According to an aviation history of the Anchorage area, Merrill’s operations in the early 1950s surpassed those of Los Angeles and San Francisco—ranking it No. 1 on the West Coast. During this time, the length of the tracks was again increased.
In 1961 a new 4-story air traffic control tower (shown in the drawing) was built south of the east-west runway, near its intersection with the north-south runway.
The City and Borough of Anchorage merged in 1975 and the new Municipality of Anchorage took control of Merrill Field. The municipal landfill adjacent to Merrill closed in 1987, allowing the airport to expand. The expansion included the addition of a seasonal northeast/southwest runway for use by ski-equipped aircraft.
As facilities expanded in the mid-1990s, Merrill Field needed a new tower. A 10-storey control tower was built on the north side of the runway between 1997 and 1999.
After the new tower was commissioned, the old tower, which obstructed air traffic controllers’ view of the taxiways and the north-south runway, was deconstructed. The upper floors, as well as the control tower cabin, have been removed. The ground floor was then redone, modified and transformed into the airport manager’s office.
The old control tower cabin was moved to the Alaska Aviation Museum, next to Lake Hood. The taxi was renovated with a grant from the State of Alaska and is now open to visitors.
Today, Merrill Field, which has more than 150,000 flight operations each year, remains one of the busiest airports in the United States.
Ray Bonnell is a freelance artist, writer and longtime resident of Fairbanks. See more of his works at www.pingostudio.us.