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Savannah Airport: The Runway That Contains Gravestones

In terms of airports, the US state of Georgia is perhaps best known for the presence of Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International. This was the world’s busiest by passenger traffic for more than two decades before COVID-19 hit. However, elsewhere in the state lies another noteworthy airport, namely for the fact that one of its runways contains gravestones.

Savannah/Hilton Head International as seen from above. Photo: Mavin 101 via Wikimedia Commons

brief history of the airport in question

The city of Savannah, Georgia used to have two airports. This came about due to the fact that the Second World War meant that the original Savannah Municipal Airport/Hunter Field could no longer accommodate the increased military traffic. As such, in 1942, the US Army Air Corps took over a new three-runway facility known as Chatham Field.

After the conflict had ended, Chatham Field became Travis Field. As airline traffic picked up at this newer facility, it saw the construction of a new control tower and passenger terminal. This began in 1958, and the six-gate building was complete two years later, in 1960.

This terminal remained in service for over three decades. The airport eventually replaced it with the current facility in 1994, at a cost of $21 million ($38.4 million today). By this time, its name had been Savannah International Airport for 11 years, after a name change in 1983. It took on its current identity of Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport (SAV) in 2003.

Savannah Airport
The airport’s entrance is rather grand. Photo: Lucas Klappas via Flickr

Why does the runway contain gravestones?

Before the land where the airport lies became used for such a purpose, its owners were the Dotson family. After their deaths in the 19th century, Richard and Catherine Dotson were buried in an area that became the subject of a wartime expansion project for the main runway, which has the bearings 10/28. This was something of an obstacle for the airport.

Satellite view of Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport in Georgia,
The little, light-grey rectangles? They are grave markers.

— Eric Alper 🎧 (@ThatEricAlper) October 23, 2017

After all, US federal law generally deems the moving of graves illegal if permission from the next of kin isn’t obtained. According to Savannah Morning News, the Dotson family’s grandchildren were unwilling to have them moved, despite the urgency of the war effort.

Savannah-Hilton Head International Airport. The actual grave markers of the family that used to own the land.

— Market Bull (@Market_Bull) May 7, 2015

As such, the armed forces paid to move most of the family cemetery, while leaving the graves of Catherine and Richard Dotson in place. Their gravestones on the runway surface remain in place today, and are reportedly the only marked graves on any US runway. John Dotson and Daniel Hueston’s graves also remained in place, albeit away from the runway.

Savannah Airport
The gravestones lie directly south of the airport’s terminal. Photo: Google Maps

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Savannah/Hilton Head International today

Today, Savannah/Hilton Head International is a bustling two-runway airport that mainly serves various domestic destinations. It does so on both a year-round and seasonal basis, with legacy carriers, budget airlines, and regional operators plying these routes. According to airport data, its busiest destinations last year were Atlanta, Charlotte, and Dallas.

As the airport’s name suggests, it also accommodates international traffic, albeit to a far more limited extent. At present, its only non-US route serves Toronto Pearson International Airport, with flights operated seasonally by Air Canada Express. Despite the challenges of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, nearly 1.2 million passengers used the airport in 2020.

Did you know that Savannah Airport’s runway contained gravestones? Have you ever flown to or from this facility? Let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments.