It can be argued that NASA Ames Research Center and Moffett Federal Airfield would not exist if it weren't for the vision and efforts of one woman, real estate agent Laura Thane Whipple.
That's the conclusion of local historian Mary Jo Ignoffo, who has written that it was "highly probable" that Moffett Field would have been built in San Diego without Whipple's vision and diligent advocacy.
Whipple's story is an unlikely one. A widow in the 1920s working in a real estate profession made up almost exclusively of men, she was able to lead a massive regional effort to raise $450,000 for a complicated purchase of 1,000 acres from eight land owners. The idea was to make the site as attractive as possible to the Navy, which ended up paying only $1 for it on July 31, 1931.
The $450,000 was seen by community as well worth the economic boost that jobs at an air base would bring during the Depression. Hundreds would soon be put to work constructing Hangar One, which housed the massive airship the U.S.S. Macon.
New West Coast base
Having read that the Navy was looking to locate a large airship base somewhere on the West Coast, the story goes that Whipple traveled from her home in Niles Canyon on an outing with her mother to see a site she had heard about from a client: 1,700 acres of broccoli, cauliflower and hay fields. Her mother, increasingly agitated, asked her what she saw. Whipple said, "I see an air base." She climbed onto the hood of her 1926 Dodge and took a series of photos that she would later turn into a panorama that she sent in a pitch to the Navy.
Ignoffo notes that the land had been known as Ranch Ynigo -- one of a few Mexican land grants to Native Americans. It was granted to Lupe Ynigo by the Mexican Government in 1844, who came under pressure to sell it in the late 1800s. By 1876, it had been divided and sold off. When Whipple became involved, there were eight owners, though most of it was owned by the Hirsch Land Company, one of her clients. Other owners included Henry Wong Him of San Francisco, The South Shore Port holdings, Minnie and Antone Medeiros, and the Holthouse family and Merrill Lion, which leased to the Fosgate-Lion Seed company. The Holthouse Family would later sell their entire ranch when another 700 acres was acquired to build Moffett's airfield.
She initially presented the idea at a Mountain View Chamber of Commerce luncheon, and one member reportedly said, "Sure! Go on and offer it to them, Pop! If you can put that over we'll send you to Congress!" Chamber representatives would eventually get behind the cause.
Whipple realized that the only way to compete with a campaign to bring the air base to San Diego was to raise the money to buy the land and donate it to the Navy. She would convince Bay Area businessmen to get involved, forming the Santa Clara Consolidated Air Base Committee to manage the fundraising effort.
"Since taking to the 'Air' I have not been fancy-free," she explained in a letter to a friend. "The Air Work has simply made it impossible for me to concentrate on anything else."
Her panorama of pictures was initially "scoffed at" by the Navy, Ignoffo says, but she was pushed ahead and enlisted help from local Congressman Arthur Free and got a letter-writing campaign going to persuade the Navy. Local politicians as well as the chambers of commerce in San Jose, Oakland and San Francisco would get behind the effort, pitching the benefits to the local economy.
A film was also made to promote the 1,000-acre site to Navy leaders, showing footage of the site from the Bay and the sky. It was soon realized that the film could be used to whip up community support for the plan, and the film was shown in local theaters. There was even support from famous trans-Atlantic aviation pioneer Charles Lindbergh who appeared at a closed-door Congressional meeting to support use of the site as an air base and an aeronautical research center, which it is today under NASA.
A bill to approve the purchase of the land -- and $5 million for construction -- was introduced by Congressman Free, passed by Congress and signed by President Herbert Hoover on February 20, 1931.
Ignoffo says there was little opposition to locating the base in Santa Clara County, but plenty of enthusiasm. A May 13, 1932 visit by the giant airship the U.S.S. Akron to Moffett drew tens of thousands of curious onlookers, an event newspapers warned would be the "biggest traffic problem in state history" and newspapers printed maps in an unusual attempt by officials to control crowds.
Early proponents favored the name "Naval Air Station Mountain View-Sunnyvale," but Navy officials would drop "Mountain View" from the name for fear of causing concerns about flight safety, as mountains are a hazard for airships, especially in those days. The local newspaper the Mountain View Register Leader, would continue to call it "Mountain View's air base" anyway.
The dedication of Naval Air Station Sunnyvale on April 12, 1933 was overshadowed by the crash of the Akron eight days earlier, off the coast of New Jersey, killing most of its crew. The base would eventually be named after Admiral William Moffett, who died in the Akron crash.
The U.S.S. Macon arrived at Moffett in October of 1933, a 785-foot-long floating ship with a vast aluminum frame covered with varnished cotton fabric. Used to patrol the Pacific Ocean, it caused wonder every time it floated over the the South Bay, its Sparrowhawk planes released from its belly before it would land inside Hangar One through its giant, orange-peel doors. The Macon eventually crashed off of Point Sur on Feb. 11, 1935, encountering strong winds that were no match for repairs to a tail fin, which would break off and puncture several gas bags, causing a slow decent into the Pacific. All but two crew members survived.
By 1936, the Navy's lighter-than-air program was finished, the horrific Hindenburg crash being a final nail in the coffin. The only massive Navy airship not to crash was the German-made U.S.S. Los Angeles, which was scrapped in 1939.
Moffett would become a base for the Army and the Navy until 1994, and remains a major aeronautical and space research center for NASA. It is often considered to be a main factor, along with Stanford University, for the creation of modern-day Silicon Valley, marking its transitional away from agriculture. Whipple's role was largely forgotten in her time, but she was acknowledged by the Navy in a 1962 ceremony and presented United States Aviator Wings by the base commander, George Clifford.
Whipple died at 91 in 1966 in her longtime home on Overacker Avenue in what is now Fremont, called by one newspaper "Washington Township's grand old lady" and leaving her entire estate, including her huge home, to her housekeeper.