by Philip R. Devlin.
(May 6, 2021) — Few events inspired more awe and wonder in the state than the zeppelin flyovers from 1923 to 1937. Today is the 84th anniversary of the Hindenburg disaster.
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, just as the 9/11 airplane hijackers used the Hudson River as a guide to find the Twin Towers in 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 picture above shows the Hindenburg floating by the Traveler’s Tower in Hartford.)
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 round trips 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 was sold on eBay in 2011. 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 company’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” 83 years ago 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 1937 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, including, no doubt many Haddam residents along the river.
Below appears an email exchange between Barbara Blaney Bair and me in 2012, shortly after the initial publication of this article. She was living in Old Lyme at the time and happened across my article. (Audrey Cooper was my mother.)
Richard Cooper was in my class all the way through Ellsworth. He was always one of the smartest kids in the class. My brother, Dickie and I delivered papers to the Coopers and Mrs. Cooper was always very good to us. They lived on Maple Avenue across from Vinings Market and behind the silk mill. The Sinsigalli’s lived on the same street. I remember Audrey. She married an officer in the service sometime in the 1940’s. I remembered that his last name was Devlin. Say hello to Shirley and Barbara. My family lived over the post office and on South Main Street. We were always close to the Balf’s.
My husband, Bob, and I live in Old Lyme now and my homework for a writer’s class is to write a story about an unusual event I had experienced as a child. I came across your writings on the Hindenburg. Great work! A small world!
I, too, went to warehouse point grammar school and was six years old when the Hindenburg flew over the school on October of 1936. What was your mother’s name? I grew up in WHPT and delivered newspapers for years in town as a kid.
Barbara Blaney Bair
(My Aunt Shirley remembers the Blaneys living on Dean Ave. She was born in 1926. Her brother, Richard Cooper, was born in 1930. They lived on Maple Ave at the time.)
Here is the url to watch the Hindenburg flying over Hartford: