On the north Georgia frontier one day in 1837, a group of engineers scouted a location for a “Terminus” to the Western & Atlantic Railroad. After surveying options, a zero mile post was staked near what is present-day Five Points in Atlanta. The Chief Engineer commented that the chosen spot would make “a good location for one tavern, a blacksmith shop, a grocery store, and nothing else.”
It would have been impossible for those gathered to imagine metal behemoths one day flying overhead. Railroads defined early Atlanta: A locomotive was placed on the city’s first seal in 1854. But Atlanta, always eager to evolve, changed with the times. Like its post-Civil War symbol, the Phoenix, the city took flight.
Following 90 years of growth tied to the railroad industry, Atlanta shifted its focus to a new transportation era on April 16, 1925. After tireless nudging from council member William B. Hartsfield, Mayor Walter A. Sims signed a five-year lease to convert defunct Atlanta racetrack grounds into an airfield. Within a year, Candler Field (named for its owner, Coca-Cola founder Asa Candler) greeted its first commercial flight.
A year before, a crop-dusting company, Huff Daland Dusters, had formed in Macon, Ga. The company was the world’s first aerial crop duster and was joined by a Louisiana agriculture extension service supervisor named C.E. Woolman.
Woolman helped expand the crop-dusting business into Peru. When he returned to the U.S. in 1928 with expertise and capital behind him, Woolman bought Huff Daland Dusters and changed the name to Delta Air Service. The name was derived from the region the company served from its headquarters in Monroe, La.
Delta connects with Atlanta
From the outset, Woolman dreamed of the fledging company offering national passenger air service and purchased three six-seat monoplanes in 1929 to start a fleet.
After operating several other successful Southern routes, Delta Air Service established service between Birmingham, Ala., and Atlanta on June 12, 1930. Regular service was hindered, however, by the company’s inability to secure air mail service rights, an important source of revenue. A brief hiatus from Atlanta ensued for Delta.
Following the Air Mail Act of 1934, which made airmail service contracts more competitive for small businesses, Woolman landed a contract between Dallas and Charleston, with Atlanta as the route’s base of operations.
From that point on, the fate of Delta and Atlanta would be intertwined.
Delta makes Atlanta home with World War II on the horizon
On March 1, 1941, Delta officially moved its headquarters to Atlanta. The relocation made strategic sense due to Atlanta’s commercial viability and connection to the coveted air route 54 – a vital path to the Midwest. Most of all, though, Delta’s move partnered the company with the City of Atlanta with a shared sense of optimism, resources and will to grow.
Atlanta offered a warm welcome. Mayor Hartsfield signed a deal with Woolman pledging city funds toward the construction of two hangars and an office building for Delta’s base.
Shortly after the relocation, route 54 was approved by government regulators, permitting service between Cincinnati and Savannah. Atlanta’s rise to regional flight hub was assured – the city was suddenly linked to 16 cities in the Delta system.
Then crisis: On Dec. 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor was attacked and war was declared on Japan. The war led to a large part of Delta’s fleet being reassigned to the U.S. military (six of the company’s 10 planes were withdrawn for service). The year before, the military had taken notice of Atlanta’s sudden strategic importance – largely due to Delta’s expansion – and made Atlanta Municipal Airport an airbase in addition to its passenger flight duties.
To support the war effort, Delta provided airplane instrument training and maintenance instruction to military personnel. Importantly, Delta contributed to Air Transport Command, moving Army cargo and servicemen from overseas. With the war’s conclusion in 1945, the company changed its name to Delta Air Lines.
In 1953, Delta’s acquired Chicago and Southern Air Lines (C&S). The merger gave Atlantans access to routes throughout the Great Lakes system and Delta’s first international destinations: points in the Caribbean and Venezuela. For two years, Delta operated as Delta-C&S.
Then, in 1955, the company nabbed its finest prize yet: the Atlanta-New York connection. It was a symbolic win – New York was suddenly and easily in reach to everyday Atlantans overnight. The achievement solidified Delta’s status as a major industry player, further confirmed by the airline’s introduction of the revolutionary “hub and spoke” system that same year. This novel approach organized an airline’s flights through central routing “hubs” and various “spokes” to destinations on the map. Delta’s use of Atlanta as a “hub” made the city a center of a newly efficient airline industry.
Ascending into the jet age as Atlanta expands
The 1960s were a time of immense change in Atlanta, reflected in the Civil Rights movement, the number of skyscrapers constructed and the city’s sharp population growth. By 1960, the Atlanta metro area had reached 1.3 million residents.
As investment flooded the city during the administration of Mayor Ivan Allen Jr., Delta secured an interchange agreement with Pan Am, bringing Atlantans access to points and business across Europe.
To accommodate its increasing flow of visitors, the city opened a new $21 million terminal in 1961 – the largest in the United States. Within the first year, the terminal exceeded its suggested visitor limit, with 9.5 million passengers passing through its doors.
Such expansion, fueled by Delta’s heavy traffic, elevated Atlanta to a regional center, attracting business, construction and sports to the “city too busy to hate.” Milestones during the decade included the Braves’ relocation to Atlanta in 1966, the erection of landmarks like John Portman’s Hyatt Regency hotel in 1967 and the completion of Interstate 285 in 1969.
A 1972 merger with Northeast Airlines strengthened Atlanta’s domestic reach by establishing new routes to Florida, Boston and other parts of New England. The globalization of the city, afforded by Delta’s vast air network, was visible in the opening of new consulate offices in Atlanta. The Japanese consulate office opened in 1974, for instance. By 1978, Delta was able to offer Atlantans direct flights to London – a global center of culture and finance.
Delta celebrated its 50th anniversary of service in 1979. That year, the airline and Atlanta were the first to board 1 million passengers within a single month.
Expanding capacity in the 1980s and 1990s
After years of construction, the new William B. Hartsfield International Airport opened on September 21, 1980. At 2.5 million square feet, it became the largest air passenger terminal complex in the world, able to accommodate 55 million passengers a year.
Subsequent development of additional runways in 1984 made the airport capable of handling the largest commercial airplanes.
Delta was ready to put the new Atlanta terminal to the test with a merger with Western Airlines in 1987. Transpacific flight service was now available, linking Atlanta to Portland, Ore., and on to Tokyo. The city opened a MARTA mass transit airport station in 1988 to accommodate its ever-growing number of international and domestic travelers.
Delta’s takeover of former Pan Am transatlantic routes in 1991 – the largest acquisition ever in the airline industry – was a monumental move. The company’s greatly expanded web, crossing into new points in Europe, made Atlanta an even more attractive outlet for business. The move presented Atlanta with the largest transatlantic route network in the industry.
In 1995, Delta’s became the official airline of Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Games. When the games arrived in 1996, Delta revealed its “Centennial Spirit” MD-11 jet, painted in the Games color scheme of that year.
The Centennial Games set the stage for a new period in Atlanta history. Two decades later, it is a legacy that Atlantans have only begun to fully comprehend: The city became a metropolis largely because of Delta’s connection to the rest of the world.
2000s: Rallying after tragedy
The attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 presented new challenges for the airline industry and the country. Concern about air travel, combined with the political, economic and international turmoil of the time, led to a decline in airline business.
In 2003, the Atlanta City Council renamed the airport Hartfield-Jackson International Airport in honor of the leadership of mayors Hartsfield and Maynard Jackson in promoting its growth.
After record losses, on Sept. 14, 2005, Delta filed for bankruptcy. With significant restructuring and court approval of the company’s bankruptcy plan, Delta reentered the New York Stock Exchange in 2007.
The airline’s fortunes took an important turn for the better with the acquisition of Northwest Airlines in 2008. At that moment, Delta and Atlanta became effectively linked to every region on the planet. Delta emerged from the recession more prosperous and more competitive than at any time in its history.
Nearly every year since the late 1990s, Hartsfield-Jackson has won recognition as the busiest airport in the world. As the longest and most prosperous tenant, Delta remains a vital part of Atlanta’s aviation history. It was because of this once small crop dusting company, after all, that the world was brought into Atlanta’s embrace.
Recognizing the company’s importance to the city’s modern development, Atlantans voted to include Delta in Atlanta in 50 Objects, an exhibition continuing through year’s end at the Atlanta History Center. The airline is represented by 1969 Delta “stewardess” uniform – a reminder of heady go-go days for both the airline and its ever on-the-move home city.
Sheffield Hale is President and CEO of the Atlanta History Center. For more information about the Center, see its website.