What Cheer Airport – Pawtucket, R.I.

What Cheer Airport – Pawtucket, Rhode Island

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airplane     What Cheer Airport was one of Rhode Island’s early airfields that was in operation from as early as 1928 to 1934.  It began as a small grass airfield located on a few acres of land between Manton Street, Newport Avenue, and Beverage Hill Avenue in Pawtucket, close to the East Providence city line, but it eventually grew to encompass over 300 acres and extended into East Providence as far south as Ferris Avenue.  

     The name “What Cheer” comes from the legendary greeting of “What Cheer, Netop?” which the Narragansett Indians are said to have given Roger Williams, (Rhode Island’s founder), upon his arrival in 1636 at what would become Providence.  (“Netop” is the Narragansett word for friend.) The words “What Cheer” are also found on the Providence city seal.

   The land on which the airfield sat was owned by Nicholas Bertozzi, and was initially used by the Curtis Flying Service. On May 21, 1928, Bertozzi, along with Leo J. Leeburn, and Attorney Raymond J. McMahon, were granted a charter by Secretary of State Ernest L. Sprague to incorporate What Cheer Airways. The corporation began with $10,000 in preferred stock, and 500 shares of common stock. The Charter enabled What Cheer Airways expand the airfield and establish passenger flights, as well as institute a flight school and airplane dealership. The planned expansion would grow to encompass 85 acres, and would include the erection of six airplane hangers, and the construction of two runways, one about 2,150 feet long, and the other about 2,500 feet long.   

Pawtucket Times
October 11, 1928

On September 15, 1928, veteran pilot and instructor Douglas Harris took over as chief pilot and instructor for the company. Interestingly, Harris bore a remarkable resemblance to national hero Charles Lindbergh. In fact, Harris and Lindbergh were born on the same day, and Harris owned a Curtis Jenny that had once belonged to Lindbergh.  

     By the late 1920s the state legislature had decided that there should be a state owned airport for Rhode Island. If it came to pass, it would be the first state owned airport in the United States. This airport, wherever it might be located, would become the state’s primary airport regarding passenger service and commerce.      

     At the time there were about ten or so airports in Rhode Island, some more established than others, and each vied for consideration. In today’s world, with modern (and noisy) jet traffic, proposing to put a major airport in any community would likely meet with resistance, but this was an era before jets, when the occasional drone of an aircraft propeller was cause for one to look skyward and think of Charles Lindbergh. As such, the City of Pawtucket was anxious to have the state decide in its favor for What Cheer Airport, and formed an aviation committee within the Pawtucket Chamber of Commerce.

     To help gain attention, in October of 1928, What Cheer Airport hosted what was advertised as Rhode Island’s “first military air meet”, and “the most spectacular military air meet in New England’s history”. Pilots of the Rhode Island National Guard, as well as military flyers from New York, Boston, Hartford, and Virginia, arrived in various types of aircraft. One plane of particular interest was a Fairchild Monoplane which had wings that could fold “like a bird” to make it easier to store in a hangar. A total of 40 military planes were in attendance.

     However, many civilian aircraft were also in attendance, one being a large, 14 passenger all-metal, Ford tri-motor, with a wing span of 78 feet, valued at $65,000.    

     One civilian of note was famous pioneer aviator Harry M. Jones, who arrived from Mane in his Stinson-Detroiter.      

     Special features of the air meet included air races and stunt flying, parachute jumps, and a mock air battles.

     It was during this air meet that What Cheer Airport was officially dedicated by Governor Chase on Oct. 14, 1928. As part of the ceremony, the Governor released a number of “Good Luck” balloons, one of which had a small horseshoe attached. The finder would be entitled to a free plane ride.  

   The event was highly successful, attracting 50,000 people and 15,000 automobiles to the area, which reportedly created the worst traffic jams in the city’s history.

     By the spring of 1929, the state was getting close to making a decision as to where the state’s airport should be located, and in May the Pawtucket Chamber of Commerce released a report extolling the virtues for choosing What Cheer. Among the positives stated were:  

     1) What Cheer’s convenient location to the Providence metropolitan area and the “bulk of the population of Rhode Island”.

     2) The great number of people who already frequent the airport.

     3) The field now consisted of 292 acres, most of which was level and needed little or no grading.

     4) The area had a great deal of skilled labor, including tradesmen capable of working in construction as well as the growing aircraft industry.

     5) The airport already had nearby rail facilities for handling freight and passengers.

     6) The soil had excellent drainage. (Something other potential sites did not.)

     7) There were no wire hazards – meaning that there were no telephone poles to obstruct takeoffs and landings.

     8) The airport was in proximity to golf courses, farm land, and Slater Memorial Park, any of which could serve as emergency landing fields.

     9) The airport was only 5.2 miles from the Providence Post Office in downtown Providence, about 13 minutes away.

     10) The airport would be easily accessible for those living in the Blackstone Valley region.

     11) The field already possessed a six-plane hangar and administration building.

     12) The airport was serviced by nearby trolley lines.

     13) There was still open land around the airport which would allow for future expansion.

     Unfortunately for Pawtucket, the state chose Hillsgrove Airfield in Warwick, which is today the state’s primary airport known as T. F. Green. Hillsgrove Airport was dedicated on July 2, 1929, and a $300,000 bond issue was passed for construction to begin.

     Despite not being selected by the state, there were those who held out hope that What Cheer might at least compete with Hillsgrove for on August 9 it was announced in that What Cheer Airport had gained another 27 acres, bringing the total land area to 319 acres. The acquisition, it was reported, would now allow for “landings and take-offs from any part of the field and in any kind of flying weather.”    

     Advocates for What Cheer Airport then proposed a plan where the airport would be municipally owned by the cities of Pawtucket and East Providence, since the airport was now located in both jurisdictions.    

     In April of 1930 another air meet was held at What Cheer featuring stunt flyers and parachute jumpers. The program also promised a first for Rhode Island – an aerial wedding between Miss Mabel P. Denver of Seekonk, Massachusetts, and Charles E. Cherry, of Pawtucket. The nuptials were to be performed aboard a Ford tri-motor aircraft by the town clerk of Rehoboth, Massachusetts, H. E. Hill. Theirs was the first wedding in Rhode Island to take place in an airplane while in flight.    

     On May 4, 1930, it was suddenly announced by the Curtis-Wright Flying Service, the lessee of the field, that they were suspending their operations at What Cheer Airport for an “indefinite” period of time. The specific reasons were not stated.

     Meanwhile, the Pawtucket Chamber of Commerce pursued plans for the field to become municipally owned. Nicholas Bertozzi, the owner of the airport, and President of What Cheer Airways, said he would hold the property open for at least two years to allow the city(s) time to make a purchase. Shortly afterward the airport came under the new management of the Rhode Island Flying Service, the vice president of which was well known New England aviator Joshua Crane, Jr.

   On June 28, 1930, Rhode Island aviation history moved forward when the first glider flight ever made in the state was accomplished at What Cheer Airport. The pilot was Joshua Crane, Jr., and the glider was made by Waco aircraft. It was launched into the air via a 500 foot rope towed by an automobile. Mr. Crane circled the field once at an altitude of 250 feet before landing where he started, and made a second flight a short time later.    

     The following month the Goodyear blimp “Mayflower” visited What Cheer Airport from its regular station at Colonel Edward H. R. Green’s Airport at Round Hill in South Dartmouth, Massachusetts. The blimp had a seating capacity of four passengers and a pilot, and made numerous trips about the area giving flights to 115 people.   On one flight, airport manager Arthur T. Ormaby was allowed to pilot the ship and commented that it handled smoother than an airplane.  

     It was also in July of 1930 that members of the Providence Glider Club met at the airport to watch Thorsby P. Slack demonstrate a Waco glider. After being towed into a 10 mph breeze Slack rose to an altitude of 600 feet and made a complete circuit of the field lasting two minutes and ten seconds thereby setting what was thought to be a new glider record for Rhode Island.       

     On October 4, 1931, it was announced that Joshua Crane, Jr., now President of Dennison Airport Incorporated, of Quincy, Massachusetts, and some unnamed associates, had taken over operations at What Cheer Airport after acquiring the lease formerly held by the Curtis-Wright Flying Service. The chief pilot for the new enterprise was to be Kurt Langborg, who had also worked as chief pilot for the now defunct Rhode Island Flying Service.  

     In the summer of 1932, the New York Times reported that a farmer living near the airport wanted to take flying lessons, and in lieu of cash offered a milk cow as payment. Airport manager Joshua Crane Jr. accepted the offer, and agreed that that the farmer could have daily flight lessons for six weeks.

     The plan for What Cheer to become a municipally owned airport never came to fruition. However, in August of 1933, the possibility arose that What Cheer Airport might yet be the state’s primary airport. On August 7, Governor Theodore F. Green announced that he was willing to consider a plan submitted by the Pawtucket Businessmen’s Association to make their city the hub of Rhode Island air commerce. Governor Green had just returned from a 6,000 mile trip where he’d visited other airports and determined that all of them were in better condition than Hillsgrove Airport. Furthermore, the projected costs of new runways at Hillsgrove were estimated to be $350,000; an astronomical sum for 1933, especially during the Great Depression. It was reported that half a million dollars had already been spent on Hillsgrove, and the Governor didn’t want to “continue to throw good money after bad.” Yet this proposal put forth by the businessmen failed.        

     History has shown that Hillsgrove remained the state’s primary airport, and as stated earlier in this article, is today known as T.F. Green Airport. The property occupied by What Cheer Airport was sold August 1, 1934, to the Narragansett Racing Association which converted it for horse racing.  


The Pawtucket Times, “Flying School Planned Here; Airways Company Chartered, May 21, 1928

The Providence Journal, “What Cheer Airways Gets State Charter”, May 22, 1928

The Pawtucket Times, “Board Of Review Grants Permanent Permit For Airport, June 4, 1928

The Providence Sunday Journal, “Lindbergh’s Double Pilot In Pawtucket”, September 16, 1928

The Providence Journal, “Hawks Are Coming To National Guard Meet To Be Held At What Cheer Airport In Pawtucket The Coming Week”, October 7, 1928

The Providence Journal, “Air Meet At What Cheer Airport, Pawtucket, Proves A Mecca For Big Saturday Crowd Despite The Rain”, October 14, 1928

The Providence Journal, “Stunting Aircraft Thrill 50,000 At Pawtucket Meet”, October 15, 1928

New York Times, “Pawtucket Dedicates Airport”, October 15, 1928

The Providence Journal, “Pawtucket Urges What Cheer Site”, May 14, 1929

The Providence Journal, “Pawtucket Chamber Presents Arguments For selection Of What Cheer Field As Site For State Airport”, May 16, 1929

The Providence Journal, “Pawtucket Airport Will Be Enlarged”, August 9, 1929

The Providence Journal, “Airport Purchase To Be Considered”, April 6, 1930

The Providence Journal, “Wedding Feature Of Air Meet Today”, April 20, 1930

The Providence Journal, “What Cheer Airport At Pawtucket Is Closed”, May 4, 1930

The Providence Journal, “First R. I. Glider Flight Is Success”, June 29, 1930

The Providence Journal, “Rhode Islanders Investigate Blimp”, July 27, 1930

The Providence Journal, “R.I. Glider Record Set By T. P. Slack”, July 30, 1930

The Providence Journal, “Bay Staters Take Over What Cheer Airport”, October 4, 1931

New York Times, “Rhode Island Farmer Trades Cow For Flying Instruction”, July 26, 1932

The Providence Journal, “Green Ready To Consider What Cheer Airport Plan”, August 8, 1933.  

The Pawtucket Times, “Politics Grounded What Cheer,” August 13, 1991

Grooms, Balloons, And Aerial Honeymoons

     Originally published in The Smithfield Times, (Rhode Island), June, 2016.  Some of the early aerial weddings mentioned in this article took place in New England. 

Grooms, Balloons, and Aerial Honeymoons

 By Jim Ignasher

Updated January 27, 2017

    Balloon wedding july 4 1884 There’s an old joke about a woman who told her suitor that no man on earth was good enough for her to marry. Undaunted, the hopeful groom suggested that instead of getting married “on earth”, they get married in a balloon.  

     Various renditions of this quip have appeared in old newspapers, and at the dawn of the 20th century it was considered not only humorous, but timely as well, for balloon weddings were, (Dare I say it?) on the rise – so to speak.

     For as long as people have been getting married there’ve been those wanting to take their vows in non-traditional settings, and by the later half of the 1800s balloon technology had “risen” (Pun intended.) to the point where something new in the way of unique circumstances could be offered – aerial weddings. The following stories have been culled from various newspaper articles.

     Famous showman and circus owner P. T. Barnum is generally credited with orchestrating the first aerial wedding in history which occurred in Cincinnati, Ohio, on October 19, 1874, when Charles Colton and Mary Walsh were married in a balloon one mile above the earth. The event created quite a sensation at the time. However, there’s evidence to indicate that this marriage in the clouds may not have been the first.

     Seven years earlier Mr. J. W. Smithson, of Philadelphia, and Miss Maggie E. Fornshell, of Wooster, Ohio, were reportedly married in a balloon over Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on July 6, 1867. The Evansville Journal characterized the nuptials as being, “Emphatically a wedding in the upper circles.”

     John Kinney, the owner of the balloon, saw the potential business opportunities in aerial nuptials, and announced shortly afterwards his plans for constructing a new balloon specifically for weddings which was to be christened the Maggie Fornshell.

     Another early balloon wedding may have taken place in San Francisco, in November of 1873. It was announced in the Pioche Daily Record that Professor A. A. Lay had obtained a marriage license for himself and one Miss Mary Smith so they could be married in a balloon 900 feet above San Francisco’s city gardens by Justice of the Peace C. F. Townsend. It was reported that once the vows had been exchanged the balloon would be brought down for the reception.        

         What may have been the first wedding involving a balloon took place in New York City, on November 8, 1865. The event was advertised by promoters as the “Balloon Nuptial Ceremonies”, and thousands bought tickets to see the “show”. John N. Boynton, of Syracuse, New York, was to be married in a balloon while it sailed aloft to Miss Mary West Jenkins of St. Louis, Missouri, but instead the vows were exchanged before they climbed into the gondola. Had they only stood inside the basket and risen even three feet from the ground they could have made wedding history, and scooped P.T. Barnum by nine years.  

    Barnum was an advertising genius, so it’s no surprise that after his sponsored airborne wedding of 1874, balloon marriages “took off” (Pun intended.) as more happy couples took their love to “new heights” – sometimes with mixed results.

     The 19th century was a time when people flocked to events involving balloon ascensions much to the delight of those who rang cash registers at country fairs and other locations where balloons were exhibited. Advertised balloon marriages drew even larger crowds due to the increased novelty. But getting married in a swaying balloon in an era when manned flight was still relatively new was not for the faint of heart, or those who suffered from a fear of heights. An interesting case of “cold feet” took place at Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, in 1884, when the bride and groom failed to arrive for their appointed wedding, leaving promoters with the prospect of refunding thousands of dollars to the waiting crowds.

     Yet, as they say, “the show must go on,” so the balloon’s owner and his lovely assistant posed as the happy couple and were married under assumed names. Four years later the owner found himself in court, for evidently the fake marriage had legally binding implications. The “marriage” was dissolved by the judge.

     Then there was the couple from Providence, Rhode Island, who in 1902 were married in a balloon to win a bet. Thomas L. Bennett was already engaged to Edith Ring when a friend bet him twenty-five dollars that he wouldn’t get married in a balloon. The couple accepted the challenge and was married one mile above the Tioga, Pennsylvania, fairgrounds.  

     In 1888, Edward T. Davis and Margaret A. Buckley were married in a balloon before 30,000 people at Narragansett Park, in Providence. After the vows were exchanged the balloon sailed off toward Massachusetts where it encountered a storm and went down in a swamp. Fortunately all aboard were rescued safely.

     A Chattanooga, Tennessee, couple got married in a balloon on June 28, 1897. Shortly after the vows were exchanged, they found themselves drifting over the Tennessee River, where the bride became frightened and jumped from a height of one-hundred feet into the water. The Groom waited until the Balloon had risen to 1,000 feet before jumping with a parachute. Neither was injured.

     About a week later on July 6, 1897, The Rock Island Argus had this to say about the incident: “A Chattanooga girl who was married in a balloon jumped out of the balloon into the river at the conclusion of the ceremony, and when she was fished out reproached the bridegroom for leaving her.”

   In another case, what began as a balloon flight ended as a marriage.  On July 17, 1909, Dr. Sidney S. Stowell met Miss Blanch Edith Hulse for the first time at the Pittsfield (Mass.) Aero Park, and dared her to make a flight with him in his balloon.  The pretty woman accepted, and before long the couple was sailing two miles above the earth.  By the time they landed at Shelbourne Falls, Massachusetts, about fifty miles away, love had blossomed.  They were married a year-and-a-half later.   

     Another 1909 balloon wedding connected to the Pittsfield Aero Park was the marriage between Roger N. Burnham, a Boston sculptor, and Miss Eleanor H. Waring, a writer from Brookline, Mass.   They were married in Falmouth, Massachusetts, before heading to Pittsfield to begin their honeymoon journey in the large balloon, “Pittsfield”, piloted by William van Sleet.  

    One problem with aerial weddings was the fact that the exchange of vows could only be heard by those aboard the balloon, leaving guests on the ground more or less unfulfilled as spectators. In the summer of 1909 one couple solved this difficulty by incorporating modern wireless technology. The event took place high above Seattle, where the young couple said their vows via wireless radio The ceremony was conducted by a minister who stood on the ground next to the radio operator surrounded by the wedding party. Once they were pronounced man and wife, the groom landed the balloon amidst cheers and congratulations.  

     In 1913, a balloon ascension was advertised for the county fair in Rutland, Vermont, and promoters offered twenty-five dollars for a couple willing to be married in the balloon while it was in flight. The offer led a local religious leader to preach against “mercenary marriages”.  

     In September of 1914 a new comedic play titled, ”An Aerial Honeymoon” opened in Providence, Rhode Island, to rave reviews. One review which appeared in the Norwich Bulletin said in part, “The comely girls who formed the chorus are well selected for their musical ability as well as their appearance, and the music is catchy.”

     The invention of the “aeroplane” offered another way to get married aloft, but initially being wedded in one was difficult, for very few were capable of carrying four people; the bride and groom, pilot, and minister. However, this didn’t stop couples from being married while sitting in an aeroplane that was firmly on the ground, which still made them eligible to say they were married “aboard” an aeroplane. Newspaper articles as early as 1911 mention couples being married “in” or “aboard” aeroplanes, therefore it’s difficult to determine exactly when the first wedding aboard an airplane in flight took place.    

     By the 1920s airplane technology had come a long way. In 1922 a New York couple was married in a plane over Mineola, Long Island. Afterwards they honeymooned in New England.  

    BOY50069 What is reportedly the “first marriage in an airplane on record in the State of Vermont” took place on August 26, 1927, over the Milton Airdrome. As their airplane circled 2,800 feet overhead, Kenneth Dickerman and Sadie Branch were married by the Reverend S. Rowe who broadcast to the couple from the ground via radio. As the couple exchanged their vows, the pilot cut the engine and allowed the plane to glide downward so wedding guests and spectators could clearly hear the broadcast words.  

     What was described by one newspaper as a “marriage epidemic” took place at the opening of the Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania, Airport in August of 1928.  In planning the dedication of the new airport it was advertised that any couple who arrived on that date with a marriage license and willing to be married in an airplane, would receive $100, which was considered a handsome sum in those days.  Unfortunately for the promoters, one-hundred couples responded expressing interest, with at least thirty confirming their plans.  It was then decided that only the first couple to arrive would receive the prize money, but the rest would still be taken aloft and married in an airplane.        

     About two years later on April 20, 1930, Rhode Island saw its first airplane wedding. Mabel P. Denver of Seekonk, Massachusetts, and Charles E. Cherry of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, were married in a tri-motor aircraft as it soared above What Cheer Airport in Pawtucket during an air meet.      

   Then there was the New Hampshire couple who met by accident – literally – when the groom, a pilot, was injured in a plane crash at Concord Airport. At the hospital he met and fell in love with his nurse. They were married August 28, 1936, and took off in an airplane to begin their “aerial honeymoon”.

     Getting back to P.T. Barnum’s sponsored wedding of 1874; some may have suspected it was nothing more than a publicity stunt. After all, Barnum was known for stunts and hoaxes, and the newlyweds were employees of the circus. In fact, in July of 1875 some newspapers were reporting that the marriage lasted but three weeks however, such is not the case. A 1901 newspaper account from the Lewiston Evening Journal proves the marriage was not only legitimate, but a success.  

     In that article, Charles Colton, then known as Sergeant Colton of the New York City Police Department, recalled how the wedding might not have occurred had it not been for his wife Mary’s initiative. Both had hoped to marry, but financial circumstances were forcing them to wait. Then Mary suggested they be married in a balloon. They approached Mr. Barnum who liked the idea, and gave them a substantial dowry with which to begin married life together.

     People are still being married in balloons and airplanes today, and pay big money to do so, although the novelty is hardly newsworthy any more. Yet the world is still waiting for the first wedding in outer space.    


(MS.) The Daily Clarion, “The Latest Sensation In New York Was A Projected Marriage In A Balloon”, November 21, 1865

(MO.) The Holt County Sentinel, “The Balloon Marriage”, December 1, 1865

(OH.) Urbana Union, “The Balloon Wedding”, July 24, 1867

(ID.) The Evansville Journal, “News Briefs, July 29, 1867

(NV.) Pioche Daily Record, “The Great Balloon Marriage”, October 31, 1873

(ID.) The Indiana State Sentinel, “Among The Clouds – The Balloon Wedding”, October 27, 1874

(AZ.) The Arizona Sentinel, (No Headline – Under Briefs) July 17, 1875

(KY.) The Evening Bulletin, “Don’t Want It To Hold Good”, April 16, 1888

(VT.) Essex County Herald, “Honeymoon In The Clouds”, October 5, 1888

(OH.) Marietta Daily Leader, “Married In A Balloon”, June 29, 1897

(IL.) The Rock Island Argus, “Abbreviated Telegrams”, July 6, 1897

(ME.) Lewiston Evening Journal, “The Original Balloon Wedding”, November 29, 1901

(AZ.) Arizona Republican, “Married In A Balloon”, September 2, 1902

(VA.) The Richmond Planet, “Easy Way Out”, June 23, 1906

(NE.) The North Platte Semi-Weekly Tribune”, Married In A Balloon”, August 13, 1909

(NY) New York Times, “Their Honeymoon In A Big Balloon”, June 19, 1909 

(OR.) East Oregonian, Balloon Trip The Cause”, January 5, 1911, evening edition, page 5.   

(Ill.) Rock Island Argus, “To Wed In An Aeroplane”, August 23, 1911

(KS.) The Topeka State Journal, “To Wed In The Air”, July 13, 1912

(VT.) The Barre Daily Times, (No Headline) July 22, 1913

(CT.) Norwich Bulletin, “Byrne Brothers In ‘Aerial Honeymoon’”, September 14, 1914

(N.Y.) The New York Herald, “Aerial Bridal Pair Honeymoon By Plane”, April 26, 1922

(CT.) New Britain Herald, “Marriage Epidemic To Open New Aviation Field”, August 24, 1928

(R.I.) The Providence Journal, Wedding Feature Of Air Meet Today”, April 20, 1930

(R.I.) Woonsocket Call, “Couple Married In Plane Flying Over Town Of Milton, VT.” August 26, 1927

(N.H.) Nashua Telegraph, “Aerial Honeymoon For Concord Couple”, August 29, 1936


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