Slim Lewis Slept Here

Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, had one brief, shining moment when airmail pilots used it as a stopover. Then they went away, leaving only memories.

U.S. Air Mail personnel with a De Havilland DH-4 mailplane at the Bellefonte, Pennsylvania airfield, December 1923. (NASM (SI 91-10342))
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Pilot “Wild Bill” Hopson dropped airborne love letters, weighted with bolts, from airfield clerk Charlie Gates to his girlfriend in nearby Hecla Park. Hopson once kept a date in New York by climbing onto the wing of another pilot’s loaded aircraft, snuggling close to the fuselage, and holding onto the guy wires for the chilly two-hour ride.

The aviators were part of the life of the town. They stayed at the Brockerhoff Hotel or boarded with local families, played on local baseball teams, and flew exhibitions for the townfolk. “There was an intimacy between the pilots and the town,” says retired newspaper editor Hugh Manchester, another Bellefonte boy smitten by the romance of flight. “If they spotted a fire they’d buzz the house to make sure people were awake. They were heroes to the kids, girls as well as boys.”

Other aviation luminaries turned up in Bellefonte in the 1920s and early 1930s. Wiley Post and partner Harold Gatry, Amelia Earhart, Eddie Rickenbacker, Will Rogers, Admiral Richard Byrd—all landed their aircraft on the little field at Bellefonte, often forced down by the always-chancy weather over the Allegheny mountain range.

Charles Lindbergh dropped by in the early 1930s. As Manchester recounts the story, the manager of the Bush House hotel took one look at the coveralled flier and concluded that he was a poor risk for the $1.50 room charge. Luckily, somebody recognized the Lone Eagle. Because of the late hour, he had the whole dining room to himself. Lindy showed up again a few years later, and this time a crowd thronged to the field when word spread that he was coming. Spying the mob as he approached the runway, Lindbergh pulled up, sending the disappointed spectators home. Ten minutes later he returned to the empty field and landed. “I think we all followed Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart and the rest a lot more after the airmail came here,” says Sampsell.

Aeronautical prominence was heady stuff for a town whose political and economic muscle, along with its population, had been waning since the 19th century, when Bellefonte produced five Pennsylvania governors. The 1925 move to a larger airfield occasioned a civil celebration. The Kiwanis Club served sandwiches; the Odd Fellows band performed. Phil Wion, wearing his blue serge uniform with the gold stripe, played the trombone. “We were proud because Bellefonte was a main stop,” he recalls. “We played the national anthem and marches. It was a big occasion.”

“We felt like we were part of something,” says Manchester, the unofficial town historian. “When I was 14 I went into an airline building at the 1940 world’s fair in New York and saw an aviation map of the country and there was Bellefonte! We were literally on the map. Oh, there was pride here then. And another big thing, remember a movie called Ceiling Zero with Jimmy Cagney in the 1930s? There’s a scene where a pilot is calling Bellefonte airport: ‘Come in, Bellefonte.’ It’s right in the movie. I suppose the airmail years were like the Golden Age of Greece for us.”

There was, however, a dark side to Bellefonte’s fleeting fame. The long, low ridges that roll across central Pennsylvania like waves on a choppy sea—hard to read from the air, prey to violent weather changes, and short on flat clearings for forced landings—were dreaded by pioneer fliers. Those who endured the area called it the “Hell Stretch.” A 1921 mail pilots’ manual shows what they had to contend with: “On top of the mountain just south of a gap in the Bald Eagle Range at Bellefonte may be seen a clearing with a few trees scattered in it. This identifies the gap from others in the range. The mail field lies just east of town and is marked by a large white circle.”

With aviators forced to navigate by landmarks over mountainous country in rough weather, crashes were inevitable. Between 1918 and 1927, 43 postal pilots were killed. Charles Lamborn, who boarded with the Bellefonte undertaker, died in a crash just a few weeks after regular flights began when his DH-4 somersaulted to earth from 6,000 feet. Field clerk Charlie Gates flew to Cleveland one day in September 1920 with Walter Stevens, another Bellefonte favorite. On landing, Sevens asked Gates if he wanted to go on to Chicago, but Gates had a date in Bellefonte and decided to take the train back. Less than an hour later, Stevens died when the fuel tank on his Junkers Larsen J.L.6 exploded.

Irving Murphy was luckier. When his airplane crashed in flames on Max Sampsell’s father’s farm on the edge of town, “my dad cut him free and rolled him on the ground to put out the fire,” Sampsell remembers. Murphy eventually recovered, thanking the elder Sampsell with a gold watch. And Max Miller, the man who discovered Bellefonte for the airmail service in 1918 and for whom Sampsell was named, died in a fiery crash two years later, the year Sampsell was born.

The disappearance of pilot Charlie Ames in 1925 put Bellefonte on the nation’s front pages. Ames vanished on October 1 en route to Bellefonte from New Jersey on a night when clouds sagged below the Allegheny peaks. Field clerk Gates anxiously checked nearby emergency strips and then stood on the field, listening for an engine that never came. More than a thousand searchers combed the hills east and west of town for the next nine days. Finally Ames’ splintered aircraft and broken body were found near the summit of a mountain a few miles from the Bellefonte field. Longtime residents can still point out the gap in the Allegheny mountains that the courtly, well-liked Ames missed by about 200 feet. Manchester has the cushion from Ames’ cockpit seat with the airplane’s number, 385, on it.

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