Article by Ennis Davis, AICP

Bessie Coleman’s final flight

Born to a family of sharecroppers in Atlanta, Texas on January 26, 1892, Bessie Coleman became the first woman of African-American and the first of Native American descent to hold a pilot license. Barred from flight-school opportunities in the United States due to being a woman, she defied the odds by saving up money to go travel to France in 1920 to earn her pilot license. With her license in hand, she returned to the US in 1921, becoming an immediate media sensation. Over the next five years, “Queen Bess” made a living as an air show pilot with plans to start a school for African-American fliers.

Unfortunately, while in Jacksonville to visit local schools to encourage children to explore aviation on April 30, 1926, Queen Bess’ dreams were cut short. While performing a test flight at Paxon Field, she was accidentally thrown from the plane, falling 2,000 feet to her death. Despite living only 34 years, Coleman was immortalized as an inspiration to early pilots, women, African-American and Native American communities. A member of the National Women’s Hall of Fame and the National Aviation Hall of Fame, in 2012 a bronze plaque with her likeness was installed at Paxon School for Advanced Studies which is located on the site of where her fatal flight took off.

Charles Lindbergh flew to Jax to collect his award

Charles Lindbergh in Jacksonville in 1927. (State Archives of Florida)

Designed by local architectural firm Marsh & Saxelbye, Robert Kloeppel’s $1.5 million Hotel George Washington opened its doors on December 15, 1926 with Mayor John Alsop, Governor John W. Martin, and former Governor Cary Hardee in attendance. Standing 13 stories tall at the intersection of Adams and Julia Street, the 350-room tower was built to be the largest and most magnificent hotel in Jacksonville at the time.

In addition, the George Washington was the nation’s first 100% air-conditioned hotel and its rooftop “Hotel George Washington” sign was the first neon sign in the city. In 1927, at a George Washington Hotel dinner-dance party, Kloeppel announced a $1,000 prize for the first flier to conquer the Atlantic. His hope was that the winner would come to Jacksonville to collect. His wish came true, when Charles Lindbergh accomplished the feat less than a month later, coming to the Hotel George Washington to collect the pot on May 16, 1927.

Imeson International Industrial Park was once an airport

For over 40 years, Jacksonville Municipal Airport Imeson Field was the center of the First Coast’s commercial aviation scene. Jacksonville Municipal Airport Number One opened in 1927, with a dedication that included Charles Lindbergh. In 1931, Eastern Air Transit (eventually Eastern Airlines) became the first major commercial airline to provide regular service to Jacksonville. Known as the Jacksonville Army Air Field during World War II, it was commissioned as the Naval Auxiliary Air Station Jacksonville #1 with the primary tenant being Operational Training Units for PB4Y-1 Liberator Patrol Bombers. After the war, it was returned to the City and renamed Imeson Field, in honor of Thomas Cole Imeson. Imeson, who passed in 1948, was a long time city councilman whose visionary work led to the opening on the airport back in the 1920’s.

During its heyday, Imeson was anchored by an Art Deco passenger terminal building and five runways with the longest having a length of 7,000 feet. By the 1960s, the community realized that with limited expansion space, and larger jet aircraft coming on line, it was time to consider replacing the airport. In 1965, taxpayers approved a $9 million dollar bond to help fund construction for a new airport a few miles to the Northeast. Upon completion of the new Jacksonville International Airport, Imeson Field was abandoned. In 1970, Webb International Inc. purchased the former 1,500-acre airport and then proceeded to turn it into a new commerce center. Home to Kaman Aerospace, Bacardi, Westinghouse and Amazaon, today, this business park is known as Imeson International Industrial Park and one of the city’s largest.