The sprawling mess we know today as LAX was owned by no one and everyone once, as late as the Nineteenth Century, but by the 1830s and 1840s, Mexican governors had parceled up and handed out the land as the Rancho Sausal Redondo and Rancho Ajuaje de la Centinela, according to Los Angeles World Airports, which runs LAX. After the US won California in the mid-1800s, the land changed hands many times—it was consolidated by a Scottish lord into Rancho Centinela, who eventually sold to “a wealthy Canadian lawyer” who raised sheep there “until the drought of 1874-1876 forced him to turn to dry farming,” and the site became a barley field. Through the end of the century and into the first decades of the 1900s, the land was broken up, sold, and leased to farmers, who added wheat and lima beans to its crops. By the 1920s, several thousands acres had been reconsolidated into the Bennett Rancho and the area “began to attract pioneer aviators who used a small portion of this property as a makeshift landing strip.”
After Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight in 1927, the Los Angeles City Council decided LA needed a municipal airport. The still podunk city was already dotted with private airports from Fairfax to Glendale, but an official airport would “encourage airmail and passenger traffic between Los Angeles and other aviation-friendly cities, while a permanent presence would allow airlines, maintenance companies, and other private enterprises to cluster around the site,” writes Nathan Masters at KCET. Eventually they settled on a 640-acre site on the old Bennett Rancho; in classic Los Angeles style, the airport was named Mines Field after the real estate agent who brokered the lease.
Mines Field opened in 1928 with hangar space for 40 planes, but most people still flew in and out of Lockheed Field in Burbank, which today is well-kept secret Bob Hope Airport. In the early forties, having bought Mines Field, LA issued a construction bond to bring the airport into the very early Jet Age, and changed the name to Los Angeles Airport, meanwhile stealing away American, Trans World, United, and Western airlines from Burbank. The full Jet Age LAX we know today, centered around the spaceshippy Theme Building, touched down in the early 1960s.
Today LAX is getting yet another new life as the airlines re-modernize their terminals and the city tries to do something about the complete disaster of a traffic situation. Supposedly LAX will even be reachable by public transportation someday soon—a new people mover connecting to a light rail stop is scheduled to be finished by 2023. The airport is expected to be the busiest in the US this Thanksgiving season, with 2.1 million passengers traveling through in the last 10 days of November. So as holiday travel season dawns, let’s take a look back at LAX through the years, and realize it was always kind of a giant pain: