Zeppelin Poseurs: Why Chicago's Airship Dreams Never Took Off
Editor's note: This piece was produced in partnership with Chicago Collections, a consortium of local libraries, museums and archives which provided research, expertise and other assistance during its development. Explore their online collections of Chicago history for yourself!
“All abo-o-oard! New York-Chicago Air Route, Twenty-first Century Limited! Get your tickets ready! Airship sails in twenty minutes! All abo-o-oard!”
Deep in his heart, questioner Jef Johnson wishes he could hear these words, beckoned by the pilot of a commercial passenger airship service en route from Chicago.
He’d heard that early last century, Chicago had seriously considered becoming a transportation hub for airships and that it might have outfitted skyscrapers with airship mooring masts. He wanted his steampunk daydreams to be accurate, at least, so he asked us:
Was Zeppelin or dirigible travel ever very popular in Chicago? Were any buildings outfitted for them? If so, are there any remains?
If you’re not clear on Jef’s terminology, you’ve probably got the imagery down: Dirigibles are lighter-than-air, steerable aircraft that float like ocean-liners in the sky. Zeppelins are a brand of dirigibles; Kleenex is a brand of facial tissues.
While answering Jef’s question we find exactly one bit of Zeppelin-era docking infrastructure in Chicago. But that’s no disappointment, because that bit of machinery — alongside his question — reveals a curious story about Chicago in the 1920s and 1930s. That story goes like this: The so-called city of progress dreamed of making it big with this once-futuristic technology, but it chose to let it slip away. And (spoiler alert!) the city did become tops in air travel, just not the way it thought it would.
That single remnant of infrastructure
When it comes to Chicago buildings that may or may not have had airship docking infrastructure, we encounter only a few leads. One involves the Blackstone Hotel. In a 1910 article from Chicago’s Inter-Ocean newspaper, the Blackstone’s manager confirms plans to build “Drome Station No. 1” on the rooftop — big enough for four airships, housing stalls and a repair shop. The manager said it’s “not a whim nor advertisement” for the newly-opened hotel. Today, though, there’s no evidence the Blackstone’s rooftop landing dock ever existed.
The next lead involves the chimney and the gold, onion-shaped dome atop the Medinah Athletic Club, the building known today as the Intercontinental Hotel at 505 N. Michigan Ave. The rumor is that it was designed to be an airship mooring mast. Michael Locke, Director of Sales of the Intercontinental Hotel, confirms it but makes one thing clear: No airship actually moored there. And when we run that by airship historian Dan Grossman, he makes things even clearer: No airship ever moored to the roof of any building in the entire country!
And there’s another twist, too. A photo from 1929 on the Explore Chicago Collections website shows a Zeppelin flying close to the Club, as if it’s about to dock. The photo caption reads: “Count Dr. Eckener and his Zeppelin visits our club by air.”
Why would the Club hint at what clearly never happened?
“Often, these were just publicity stunts,” Grossman says, adding that buildings across the country had similar structures at the time. “You build a new hotel, you put a Zeppelin mast on it. … You know, it got attention.”
Usually, Grossman says, these structures weren’t built with practicality in mind.
“Docking a large rigid airship to the top of a building is one of the worst ideas anyone could ever come up with, which is why it was never done,” he says.
Airships could be 800 feet long, and a single mast atop a building could provide just one point of contact for tying off. If an airship were moored only at its front, changing winds could spin the ship in circles. In the case of the Club, that would have meant a docked airship could swing into nearby skyscrapers, like the Tribune Tower. It would have been a disaster waiting to happen.
Still, the remnants of this staged stunt testify just how popular the idea of commercial airship travel was early last century. And that popularity wasn’t just expressed in architecture.
Airship hype and the airship business
Chicago had dallied with air travel decades before the Medinah Athletic Club falsely enticed airship captains to dock atop its dome. Photographs from 1908 depict huge crowds filling a Chicago field to watch a July 4th hot air balloon race. Just a few years later, companies formed to investigate commercial airship travel. Newspaper accounts suggest a dual interest in the wonders of new technology and its business prospects.
A reporter for a 1910 Chicago Daily Tribune article kept his audience connected to the wonder: “Assuming the ship will be constructed as its promoters plan, that it will work as they predict, and that the air route will be established, a journey from Chicago to New York will be an experience to marvel over.”
The article, though, quotes an entrepreneur who admits airship travel may be “romantic and inspiring,” but goes on to say Chicago businessmen “think more of material and pecuniary advantages that such flying possesses over traveling on the earth’s surfaces.”
The article ends with: “Such is the dream that Chicago men hope to make come true. But they insist that it is no dream — just a cold business proposition.”
In the summer of 1919, the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company’s Wingfoot Express Airship was the talk of the town as it flew training runs between the South Side and the Loop. The ship attracted interest from airship fans, but also from the U.S. military and businessmen. Roger J. Adams, of the Adams Aerial Transportation Company, told the Chicago Daily News that, “Chicago will be the Blimpopolis of the Western World!”
Thousands of fans, reporters and photographers lined parks and streets to watch the Wingfoot. The final trip of the day took up five people. At 4:55 p.m., the gasbag ignited at about 1,200 feet above the Loop, and the airship crashed through the skylight of the Illinois Trust & Savings Bank. After falling to the floor of the bookkeeping area, the ship exploded. Fourteen people died in the crash. One survivor in the bank recounted a man on fire screaming, “It’s raining hell!”
Tellingly, this fiery tragedy did little to dampen Chicago’s enthusiasm for all things airship; the bank even opened the next day.
By 1923 another company, envisioning the development of municipal aviation fields with mooring masts in major cities, made a go of developing an airship route between Chicago and New York. Their proposal would cut train-travel time in half, from 20 to 10 hours. In a 1923 New York Times article, Dr. Johan Schütte, co-designer of the Schütte-Lanz rigid airships proposed for use by the venture, stated, “The only thing necessary for the development of rigid aircraft in this country is capital — and, I might add, courage.”
Schütte also pointed out a division of labor between the burgeoning airplane and the stalwart airship. Planes, he said, were best suited for quick, short flights of less than 500 to 700 miles. Airships, though, could travel long distances without stopping or refueling — perfect for non-stop continental or (someday!) transoceanic flights. Schütte is quoted as saying: “There is no competition between the airplane and the airship. One supplements the other.”
Airplane technology would continue to gain on airships in the coming years, but the golden age of the Zeppelin was still to come.
The Graf Zeppelin in Chicago
The most telling chapter of Chicago’s interest in airships — and the city’s eventual abandonment of the technology — spans just five years.
In 1928, German airship captain Hugo Eckener proved the possibility of trans-Atlantic passenger travel when he flew the Graf Zeppelin, a flagship of the Zeppelin Company, from Friedrichshafen to Lakehurst, New Jersey. Just a year later Eckener flew around the world, making a point to fly over Chicago. By this point, the Graf Zeppelin had become a virtual mascot, representing the promise of international technological progress. Commercial airship travel between continents seemed just around the corner.
Eckener and his Zeppelin were invited back to Chicago in 1933 for the Century of Progress Exposition. But this time, it was a very different story.
As the Nazi party strengthened control in Germany, it implemented Gleichschaltung, a policy that sought to synchronize German society and promote national socialist ideals. National symbols or publicity vehicles were marked as Nazi property. The Graf Zeppelin had huge swastikas fixed on its side.
That didn’t sit well with many Chicagoans, particularly the city’s large Jewish and German populations, some of whom were already embarrassed and angry about the rising militarism and jingoism in their homeland. Where there had been nearly universal acclaim and support for the Graf Zeppelin from Chicago in 1929, the airship was met with threats, boycotts, and almost no civic support in 1933.
But Eckener, who wanted nothing to do with the Nazi party, tried to accommodate the prevailing temperament. He made a long loop around Chicago, keeping the side of the ship with the German tricolor flag in view of the city; he kept the opposite side — the one with the swastika — hidden.
But let’s be real, you just can’t hide a gigantic, flying swastika.
The dream fades
By the mid-1930s, Chicago was the hub of all things industrial and futuristic: heavy industry, meat packing, shipping, passenger rail travel, and — increasingly — airplane travel. Why couldn’t the city pull off international airship travel, too? Here’s the account we receive from Grossman:
1. There was more serious commitment from other Midwestern cities. Chicago had no permanent infrastructure to accommodate airship travel. Akron, Ohio, on the other hand, was home of the Goodyear company. And Henry Ford’s estate just outside of Detroit, Michigan, also had a permanent airship mooring mast in a field.
2. Chicago, being in the middle of the country, was just a bad location. Airships were good at long-distance, coast-to-coast travel, largely because airships were an ordeal to dock. Even a trip of 1,000 miles, say, from Chicago to New York City, wasn’t long enough to justify the effort. When the Zeppelin company ran its own commercial air service between 1928 and 1937, it only stopped in Germany, New Jersey, Brazil and Argentina. Zeppelins were mostly used to carry urgent mail and business travelers who had to be in a different country quickly.
3. Routes between Chicago and major, coastal cities were already well-served by rail and fixed-wing air travel. Chicago’s early investments in fixed-wing airplanes during the late 1920s and 1930s, as well as its status as the nation’s railroad hub, undercut the need for an airship base. The airship hub of Lakehurst, New Jersey, was just south of New York City. From Chicago, travelers with final destinations overseas could quickly fly on an airplane to the Lakehurst area and hop trans-Atlantic Zeppelin flights there.
4. Eventually, airplane technology caught up to the airship.
For less than a decade, airship had been the only commercially viable way to fly long distances, but that changed in the mid-1930s with the manufacture of the Douglas DC-3, which could fly farther and more economically than previous models. Within just a few years, seaplane versions of the DC-3 and other models were used in commercial trans-Atlantic routes. “By the mid to late 1930s, fixed-wing airliners could do what Zeppelins could do but better and faster,” Grossman says. “People just didn’t need Zeppelins anymore.”
Thirty-five people died in the incident. It was the most public catastrophe of an airship ever recorded. The same year, the Graf Zeppelin was retired from flight.
Despite the fact that the Hindenburg became an archetype of epic failure — and a bookend for the decline of airship travel — the public infatuation with airships persisted, and still does today. Airship travel obviously lost its edge and allure as the only way to fly to Europe in less than a day. But Grossman says seeing a steamboat-sized ship just floating in the air remains enchanting as ever: “I can only imagine how magical it must have been to be a passenger in Hindenburg or Graf Zeppelin … and you see cliffs from an approaching coast, or you see an iceberg, floating. Or you’re floating a few hundred feet above a cathedral in Germany or France.
You see cities from only a couple hundred feet in the air. You can see people! You wave at people. It must have been a truly magical experience to be in one of them.”
“Jef-with-one-F” Johnson lives in Chicago’s Kenwood neighborhood and is a veteran Curious City questioner (see: Why ban pickups from Lakeshore Drive? and Campus Police: Real Deal or Rent-a-Cops?). His curiosity about flying machines began when he’d heard some friends speculate that the architecture atop some downtown Chicago buildings was inspired by the prospect of commercial, passenger airship travel.
“I just had visions of airships taking off … and landing …. And taking off again. It just seems so civilized!” he says.
Sorry to burst your helium-bubble, Jef, but Chicago wasn’t one of those “civilized” cities graced by casual airship travel. But his penchant for the romantic carries over to his own life: He’s a wedding minister employed by the city of Chicago!
Jason Nargis is a special collections librarian at Northwestern University. Logan Jaffe is Curious City’s multimedia producer.