You are landing in Warwick, not Providence
Looking back we see there were many factors, which accounted for the change in Hillsgrove from the small, well contained village of the early twentieth century to the modern community of today. As previously mentioned, the most significant single reason often given is the selection of Hillsgrove as the site for the State Airport. The impetus for an airport grew tremendously in 1927 when Charles A. Lindbergh, took a $13,000 Ryan monoplane, 'The Spirit of St. Louis', from Roosevelt Field on Long Island, N.Y. to the Le Bourget Airport in Paris on May 20 21, 1927. This flight, made alone, over 3,600 miles across the Atlantic, made Lindbergh a national hero overnight. Lindbergh, an advocate of commercial aviation, was invited to Rhode Island to spur the demand for an airport in the vicinity of Providence. Lindbergh's efforts resulted in the voters of Rhode Island approving a state airport by 76,281 to 9,369 in the general election of 1928. The main question was not "should we have an airport?" but "where should it be?" Early speculation and support wanted to locate it at Gaspee Point, but eventually Hillsgrove was selected.
The announcement by Harry T. Bodwell, Chairman of the State Airport Commission in 1929, that Hillsgrove was to be the site of the new airport was greeted with a great deal of discontent and prompted much criticism of the commission and of the state government. The site was selected upon the recommendation of a New York engineering firm, Black and Bigelow, and time has shown that the decision was based on careful and sensible evaluation.
The Providence Magazine, which had supported the cause for aviation for a number of years, was extremely critical of the Hillsgrove choice. In an August 1929 editorial it charged that, "Despite the recommendation of a survey conducted by impartial aviation and airport engineering experts..., despite the recommendation of The Providence Chamber of Commerce, .... Despite ...overwhelming public favor, the State Airport Commission ignored the logical location at Gaspee Point...." The editorial went on to conclude, "Posterity will hardly forgive a failure that is so completely the fault of misdirected reasoning."
Rhode Islanders who had high hopes of seeing a modern airport emerge overnight were sadly disappointed. The state confined their effort in the early period to simply clearing and grading the field. During the early 1930s, the planes landed on grassy strips as there were no paved runways. Private air companies erected their own hangars and it wasn't until 1932 that the state began to build a terminal and administration building.
The first decade of flying at the State Airport was often confusing and, in some cases, dangerous. Rhode Island had no laws governing the licensing and operation of aircraft which meant that an unlicensed plane could engage in interstate flying without any regulation or supervision. In addition, there were no laws governing the erection of buildings in the area and it was possible that tall buildings or spires within a mile and a half radius of the airport could pose serious problems. One example of this was the steeple of the Hillsgrove Methodist Church. This spire was not removed until 1943 much to the dismay of many of the pilots coming into Hillsgrove.
Senator Green is honored
One of the men most responsible for growth of the airport was Theodore Francis Green. As Governor of Rhode Island (1933 37) and then as U. S. Senator (1937 1961) Green was a constant supporter of aviation. Senator Green was given special recognition for his efforts on both state and national levels. On December 27, 1938, Governor Robert E. Quinn, by executive order, renamed the State Airport at Hillsgrove, "The Theodore Francis Green State Airport of Rhode Island.” The growth from this point on was phenomenal. A hanger built in 1938 to handle anticipated needs for ten years was filled to capacity by the end of 1940. During that year, the Green Airport was cited as being the seventh busiest facility in the nation. In 1940, a Uniform Aeronautical Regulatory Act made federal registration for all aircraft and pilot's licenses mandatory.
The Theodore Francis Green Airport at Hillsgrove has served the state in both peace and war. After being used by the federal government as an Army Air Force base, the facility was returned to the state in 1945. Since that time, Hillsgrove has been the site of one of the more important airports along the East Coast. It has continued to play a part in the overall defense plan. Since 1948, the airport has handled various aspects of the Air National Guard (152nd Fighter Bomber Squadron).
Over the last 78 years there have been a number of significant periods of expansion. One of the periods of greatest growth came in the 1950s. Between 1953 and 1957 the number of passengers using the facility rose by 100,000, and in the following year, it increased again by 16.2 percent. By 1957, the Green Airport was one of only 64 airports in the United States that serviced more than 100,000 passengers. Much of the ability to enplane, or handle, the increased numbers was made possible by voter approval of a bond issue of $1,500,000 in 1956. This bond issue made it possible to build a new terminal at the State Airport, which was dedicated in 1961.
By the 1960s the jet age had arrived and once again the Theodore F. Green Airport sought to expand to utilize the advanced technology and to compete with larger airports. By March 1966, the runways were able to provide the necessary space for landing the large jets that were becoming the modern vehicles for flying.
Of great significance was the completion of the "airport connector" between Interstate Route 95 and the airport. This two mile road made it possible for rapid transportation from all areas of Rhode Island as the Hillsgrove Airport is located near the geographical center of Rhode Island. The advertising for the event laid claim to the ability to reach Providence from Theodore Francis Green Airport via Rt. I-95 in fifteen minutes.
The next twenty years witnessed a phenomenal growth in the number of planes and passengers coming into Green. In the year 1986, T.F. Green, was one of the fastest growing airports in the country. In January 1992, Governor Bruce Sundlun inaugurated a plan which led to a two tier airport terminal with 15 gates that could accommodate 3 million passengers annually. This became a reality in 1995. Those who were used to the small airport were pleasantly surprised by the beauty and scope of the new terminal.
All Warwick residents were not in favor of the recent airport expansion, however. There was a great fear that there would be much more noise and traffic that would alter the quality of life in the neighborhood. This has been true, of course, but most observers of the airport have agreed that the expansion has been a success and that the airport at Hillsgrove now houses excellent facilities. Obviously, there are many problems to be worked on in addition to noise and fumes and parking. Today, more people are flying out of T. F. Green than anytime in its history and Hillsgrove has been affected to a great extent by the expansion.
Warwick is now seeing the new railroad station being built that will connect a train station with the terminal as a reality. They also hope that when passengers come through the terminal they will pay attention to the sign that says, “You are in Warwick, not Providence.”
Editor’s note: This concludes Don D’Amato’s series on Hillsgrove. His latest book, Warwick’s Villages, Glimpses from the Past, is now available at major bookstores and the Warwick Beacon . It features a number of the villages in the city.