On the 9th of October 1936, retired chemist and camera buff A.C. Langmuir of 383 Broadway set up his camera to take a photograph of the zeppelin Hindenburg hovering above the Anaconda Wire & Cable Company on the waterfront. The same day, the following article appeared in the Yonkers Statesman under the title “Thousands Here View Hindenburg.”
“Thousands of Yonkers residents, craning their necks skyward and shading their eyes against a blazing sun, got their first view of the giant dirigible Hindenburg today.
The glistening German trans-Atlantic air liner was clearly visible in detail, from beaming nose to the colorful Nazi swastika on its tail. Its motors humming, the Zeppelin dipped low over the city, after making a graceful crossing from New Jersey and entering over South Yonkers. The flying level was estimated at 700 feet.
The passage over this city began at 8:50 A.M., about half an hour past schedule. Aboard were a party of commercial men, making an observation tour of Westchester County’s western sector, and prepared to cruise over New England, returning down the Long Island Sound and eastern Westchester this afternoon.
The dirigible glided north, over Hastings, Dobbs Ferry, Ardsley, Irvington, the Tarrytowns, Ossining, and Peekskill. Then it turned east toward Danbury, Conn. It was then to continue on a roughly elliptical course to Boston, and then return via Brockton, Providence, New Haven and Bridgeport, passing then over Port Chester and Mount Vernon.”
Map from the New York Times showing the route of the Hindenburg's 10-hour cruise.
The residents of Yonkers were not the only enthusiastic spectators – every inhabitant of every city that the zeppelin passed over was amazed at the vision of the Hindenburg hovering above them. Factory whistles blew to alert the residents to its arrival in a new town. Planes circled around the liner and dipped in salute. Schools recessed, and the children ran about in the streets shouting so loudly that they could be heard on the zeppelin itself. The New York Times reported that a Newark man had actually died after falling through a skylight while stepping back to get a better view!
And this was no surprise, for the Hindenburg was, and still is, the largest airship ever built. The Camden, NJ paper called her the “Queen of the Skies.” She was built for commercial passenger and mail service, and boasted a dining room, lounge, and writing room designed by the same artist who designed the interiors of ocean liners and luxury trains. The ship could carry up to 72 passengers, and for the trans-Atlantic service from Germany to the U.S. the tickets were $400 each (about $6,300 in 2010 dollars). As you might imagine, the passengers were mostly the very wealthy – politicians, athletes, entertainers, and industrialists.
The “Nazi swastika” on the tail end of the zeppelin may seem a little surprising for a commercial passenger carrier. It probably wouldn’t have been there if Dr. Hugo Eckener, chairman of the company that built the zeppelin, had had anything to say about it. It was Eckener who had insisted on naming his zeppelin after the former president of Germany, and not, as the Nazi propaganda office had instructed him, after Adolf Hitler. For this error, the German newspapers were not permitted to use Eckener’s name in any article they wrote about the airship. In Hitler’s Germany, the state ran the airships in partnership with Dr. Eckener’s company. Both the Hindenburg and the Graf Zeppelin were used for propaganda purposes in Germany, flying around the country dropping leaflets and broadcasting political speeches.
In 1936, the first year of its operation, the Hindenburg made 10 trips across the Atlantic. In October of that year it had reached the end of its official season. The flight over Hastings was part of a special 10-hour cruise before the ship returned to Germany for the winter. Its purpose was two-fold: to inspect sites for future airship air fields and to get the heads of America’s biggest corporations interested in the commercial possibilities of airship travel. Among the 84 passengers invited on the trip were Nelson Rockefeller, the presidents of Chrysler, Packard, and De Soto, and the president of the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company. (Could this ride have inspired Goodyear’s future affection for blimps?) Every guest was enthusiastic over the smooth and comfortable trip. When the ship returned to its birth at Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey, Dr. Eckener was able to tell the press that “progress had been made toward the financing of two big rigid airships in this country.”
But almost exactly seven months later, for reasons still not fully explained, the Hindenburg crashed at Lakehurst airfield, killing 35 of the 97 people onboard. This disaster was so horrific that it brought the age of commercial airship travel to an abrupt end. Two days later, the Graf Zeppelin was grounded, and in 1940 the brand new Graf Zeppelin II was dismantled.
But on that clear day in October when A.C. Langmuir set up his camera to snap the photograph at the top of this article, the future of the zeppelin looked bright. Langmuir and the thousands of other people who saw the Hindenburg must have thought they were looking at the dawn of a new age – the glorious hydrogen-filled future of air travel.
Photograph from the October 9, 1936 article in the Yonkers Statesman.