Monday, July 16, 2012

Hindenburg: When Dirigibles Roamed North Country Skies

Many famous ships can be linked in one way or another to Plattsburgh on Lake Champlain in northern Clinton County. There was the Philadelphia under Benedict Arnold’s command in the Battle of Valcour, and the Saratoga under Thomas Macdonough, hero of the Battle of Plattsburgh. There were steamers, like the Vermont, the Chateaugay, and the Ticonderoga. And as noted here in the past, Plattsburgh also owns an unusual link to the largest seagoing vessel of its time, the Titanic.

But there is yet another tied not only to Plattsburgh, but to the entire Champlain Valley, and from Whitehall to Albany as well. And like the Titanic, its name became synonymous with disaster.

At 10:50 on the night of July 1, 1936, staff members of the Plattsburgh Daily Press received word that a remarkable ship was passing their way. Large steamers on the lake often presented a spectacular view at night, but when the men rushed outside, they ignored the lake and turned their gaze skyward.

An unforgettable sight soon emerged in the darkness, providing what the men accurately pegged as the thrill of a lifetime. A behemoth, unlike any other before or since, floated into view. Incredibly, it was the world-famous Hindenburg, at over 800 feet long, 150 feet high, and 136 feet wide, history’s largest aircraft ever built.

Though most of us expect silence when we see airships (blimps have visited the North Country many times), the roar of four powerful diesel engines reverberated across the countryside, driving the massive ship south at between 70 and 80 mph. Due to its size and elevation, its pace appeared casual.

It wasn’t the first such craft to visit the North Country. In 1928, and again in 1930, the third-largest dirigible in the world, the Los Angeles, flew training missions over a number of northern towns, including Whitehall, Ticonderoga, Glens Falls, Lake George, Saratoga, Albany, and Gloversville. The huge ship had been given to the United States by Germany as part of reparations following World War I.

Most of us know little of the Hindenburg except for the story of its incredible, horrific demise. But until that fateful moment in 1937, the ship was a resounding success, a superstar in the world of aviation, and possibly the future of international transportation.

It was, in fact, the world’s first transatlantic commercial airliner, carrying passengers and mail. Like the Titanic, it was … well, titanic, and offered the ultimate in luxury travel. It was pricey as well: a one-way fare across the ocean in 1936 cost $400, equivalent to about $6500 today.

Within minutes of appearing over Plattsburgh in 1936, the Hindenburg was out of sight, leaving other night owls along the lakeshore stunned at their good fortune to view the famous ship. An Ogdensburg woman, spending time with friends in her cottage at Thompson’s Point on the Vermont shore, said the quiet was interrupted by what sounded like “a fleet of airplanes” as it passed about 400 feet above the lake. Farther south, a Ticonderoga Sentinel reporter eloquently described the occasion: “Silhouetted against a moonlit, star-flecked sky, the zeppelin created a thrilling, almost awe-inspiring sight.”

Following the lake south, the Hindenburg eventually passed over Glens Falls, Schenectady, and Albany before continuing down the Hudson River towards its eventual destination, Lakehurst, New Jersey.

This particular transatlantic journey (its fourth) made international headlines, and the North Country was a key factor in the story. Instead of routinely following the American coastline south towards New York City, the captain instead guided the ship inland, passing over Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

Turning south, he used the Champlain Valley as his guide, and taking advantage of a tailwind, completed the passage from Frankfort, Germany, to Lakehurst, New Jersey, in 50 hours and 34 minutes, shaving more than 8 hours off the previous record. It was lauded as a momentous accomplishment, and another fine example of German excellence. This was, of course, the time of Hitler’s rise to power, and there was no doubt of the Hindenburg’s origins: its massive tailfins were adorned with large swastikas.

The great ship crossed the Atlantic 17 times that year, including 10 trips from Germany to the United States. In all, it traveled nearly 200,000 miles in a very successful season.

But 1936 was the only full year of operation for the Hindenburg. Just over a year after its debut in March 1936, it met a fiery, horrific end in Lakehurst on May 6, 1937. A number of other huge airships suffered similar fates during the previous decade, but the high-profile, filmed ending of the Hindenburg, linked with Herb Morrison’s famous report on radio, sounded the death knell of the industry.

Photos: Top―A US Coast Guard plane escorts the Hindenburg at Lakehurst, NJ, in 1936. In the background is the Los Angeles, another airship that visited the North Country. Bottom―a page from the passenger list of the Hindenburg’s first flight to the US in May 1936.

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Lawrence P. Gooley

Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley's books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.





2 Responses

  1. Phil says:

    Great story. I work at Lakehurst and my office is steps away from the hangar in the photo. It still stands and is something to see in person. The Hindenberg memorial is about 1000 feet from the hangar, about at the lower left hand corner of the photo.

  2. Ellen Rathbone Ellen says:

    My grandfather was one of the doctors who was on the scene when the Hindenberg wend down. Unfortunately, I don’t know any of the details. Perhaps my father knows the story, but I’ve always remembered that he told me he was there.

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