My mother was 9 years old in 1928 when she saw her first zeppelin from the schoolyard at Warehouse Point Elementary School in East Windsor. It was Germany’s famous Graf Zeppelin, and it was headed south down the Connecticut River on its way to a mooring point at the Lakehurst, NJ, Naval Station.
Zeppelin pilots used the river as a navigational guidepost en route to Lakehurst via New York City. The airship usually flew at an altitude of 500 to 700 feet over the state, so its graceful presence was easy to see, and schoolchildren all over Connecticut delighted in viewing it. In fact, my mother said that whenever the zeppelin came down the river, classes would stop, and kids would run outside and marvel at it. It was a drill repeated by thousands of schoolchildren and the general public all over the Northeast whenever a zeppelin glided slowly by.
The first dirigible appeared in Connecticut in 1923. It was a U.S. Navy airship named the Shenandoah; however, it was the two German airships — the Graf Zeppelin and, later, the Hindenburg — that created the biggest stir wherever they traveled. Here’s what one New York City newscaster had to say about a flyover by the Hindenburg in 1937:
Yes, people, 5,000 men, women, and children are sitting on newspapers in the park. The streets are packed. All available parking places have been taken. Deafening cheers rise up as the zeppelin appears on the horizon. But, when the airship flies over, the thousands standing to watch are silent!
The Graf Zeppelin appeared in Connecticut once in 1928, twice in 1929, and once in both 1930 and 1933. The Hindenburg was only in service for 17 months before its well-publicized destruction at Lakehurst on May 6, 1937, but it passed over Connecticut 21 times on its 10 roundtrips from Germany to Lakehurst and on its October 1936 "millionaire’s flight" on which a few dozen American businessmen and military figures were treated to a 10-hour excursion over various parts of New England.
A short movie of the 800-foot-long Hindenburg flying over Hartford recently was sold on eBay. The new owner has posted it on YouTube with the following introduction:
Film of the Hindenburg flying low over Connecticut in October 1936. Seems to be filmed from the roof of one of the Traveler’s Insurance co’s buildings. Visible is Traveler’s tower and the now-gone WTIC radio tower. At the very end of the clip is footage of several people on the roof of the building that is on the corner of Central Row and Main Street in Hartford…I bought this original reel of Kodak film via an online auction a few years ago and didn’t know what it was until I brought it to a video conversion place to have it copied to a DVD…You can clearly read "Hindenburg," the ship’s numbering, and see the Olympic rings. Spooky. So I’m pretty sure that no one has ever widely seen this footage before.
The Nazi swastika can easily be seen on each of the Hindenburg’s four tailfins in the movie. The presence of the five interlocking Olympic rings on the airship reflects the fact that the 1936 Olympics were held in Berlin, Germany; in fact, a low flyover by the Hindenburg –the largest flying machine in history--during the opening day ceremonies at the Berlin Olympics stole the show.
The Hindenburg’s 10-hour "millionaire cruise" 75 years ago this month was designed in part to show wealthy American investors the possibilities of investing in commercial air travel. Among the 84 passengers was the president of Goodyear Tire and Rubber, a company that continues to be known for its helium-filled blimps at sporting events. The cruise began at Lakehurst and went north to Westchester County. It then flew in a northeasterly direction over Danbury and Waterbury to Hartford and up the Connecticut River to Massachusetts. After flying over Springfield, the Hindenburg then headed due east to Boston, southwest to Providence, and then back through Connecticut, hugging the shoreline from New London all the way to Greenwich on its way back to Lakehurst. Undoubtedly, the film of the Hindenburg flying over the Traveler’s Tower in Hartford was shot during this cruise.
The Hindenburg’s final voyage in May 1936 ended in catastrophe in Lakehurst when it caught fire on May 6. Fueled by more than 7 million cubic feet of highly volatile hydrogen, the giant airship incinerated in a matter of seconds, killing 36 people. Only a few hours before, the Hindenburg had passed over Connecticut for the last time. In fact, Bridgeport native, William H. DiSesa, while working for the Danbury News Times, took the last known still photo of the Hindenburg’s final flight as it passed over Danbury only a couple of hours before it burned. The Hindenburg disaster brought an abrupt end to the era of travel by giant airships that had captured the imaginations of so many schoolchildren in Connecticut.
Notes, Sources, and Links:
U.S. airships Los Angeles, Akron, and Macon all appeared over Connecticut during this time period as well.
Hugo Eckener, chairman of the company that built the zeppelins, was called on the carpet by Hitler’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, for not naming his giant airship after Adolph Hitler. Eckener refused to comply with Goebbels, preferring to name the ship after the German statesman and president, Paul Von Hindenburg, who had preceded Hitler in office.
Zeppelins are making a comeback! Click here to read about the new class of helium-filled zeppelins.
Notes, Sources, and Links:
- U.S. airships Los Angeles, Akron, and Macon all appeared over Connecticut during this time period as well.
- An outstanding online source for information on airships in general and the Hindenburg in particular is http://www.airships.net/hindenburg
- A transatlantic trip from Germany to Lakehurst on the Hindenburg cost about $400—that’s just over $6,000 in today’s money.
- To listen to a 5-minute interview with one of the last living survivors of the Hindenburg disaster, Robert Buchanan, click here: http://www.teachertube.com/viewVideo.php?video_id=79483&title=Hindenberg___The_Day_of_Disaster
- Hugo Eckener, chairman of the company that built the zeppelins, was called on the carpet by Hitler’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, for not naming his giant airship after Adolph Hitler. Eckener refused to comply with Goebbels, preferring to name the ship after the German statesman and president, Paul Von Hindenburg, who had preceded Hitler in office.
- Zeppelins are making a comeback! To read about the new class of helium-filled zeppelins, click here: http://www.myairship.com/database/zeppelin.html
- To see the video of the Hindenburg disaster with Herbert Morrision’s famous commentary, click here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aK4I9el5vh0
- The zeppelin pilots were not the only ones to use rivers as navigational aids. The 9/11 terrorists flew out of Boston and hijacked the planes before reaching the Hudson River. They then simply followed the Hudson south and easily found the trade centers.