When Butte was born, hooves and steam were leading-edge travel developments. The next few decades, though, brought big changes to methods of getting around. Those evolutions surfaced in Butte in 1910, when a “flying machine” made an appearance at an old race track.
Facing a skeptical crowd, a young daredevil named Moroni set out to fly the machine for 30 minutes. Despite practice and promises, Moroni failed to take off. Determined to please the crowd, though, he came back the next day and cleared the race-track fence to circle the skies for 45 minutes. The flight, Butte’s first, began the city’s long and colorful relationship with aviation.
The milestones came quickly at first. Just one year after Moroni’s flight, Butte resident Edward P. Dawson drew a crowd to watch his self-built plane take flight – the first aircraft constructed in Montana. Eager flying fans would wait nearly a decade, however, before Butte saw its first passenger plane when Inland Empire Aerial introduced six plans seating one or two people. Then, in 1926, Western Air Lines, Inc. became the first commercial airline to operate in and out of Butte.
With air travel edging out other means of mass transportation, workers broke ground on a new airport south of Butte in June 1927. The Daily Miner Newspaper ran a contest offering $35 for the best name. “Mile High Airport,” “Port O’Copper,” and “Pedlars Field,” were all considered, but the name Butte Municipal Airport eventually won. A few years later, an Anaconda Company official donated money to help the airport expand substantially.
Aviation continued to evolve and progress nationally, with airlines buying each other out, planes covering increasingly large territories and air travel growing in popularity. Butte’s air travel flourished as well, with the community boasting regular flights to Salt Lake City.
In 1933, Butte became part of a pioneering effort when Northwest Orient Airlines brought service here as part of the airline drive from the Midwest to the Pacific Coast.
Northwest Orient, headquartered in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn., advanced its routes west by first reaching Billings. From there, pilots made daily sorties westward into the mountainous areas, studying the territory and noting details. They pierced landmark mountain passes one-by-one and soared over rugged ground until the first flight reach Butte in 1933. The westward journey continued as planes finally reached Helena, Spokane and then Seattle, completing the journey to the West Coast.
Butte’s airport, meanwhile, was touted as one of the finest in the country. The airport changed its name to Silver Bow County Airport in 1960, then Bert Mooney Airport in 1972, as a nod to one of Butte’s great aviators. Mooney began his flying career under the direction of Jack Lynch, the man who instructed Charles Lindbergh. Mooney made history in 1935 when he flew the first mail into Yellowstone National Park.