The history of technology is a battleground of ideas competing to solve the challenges of each age: Steam power or internal combustion? Android or iPhone? Paper or plastic?
In the 1930s, the future of human flight and the industries surrounding it were still up in the air.
Lighter-than-air passenger ships had their advantages over fixed-winged airplanes. When used commercially for trans-Atlantic flights, they cut days off the long voyage by ocean liner. National newspapers covered each crossing, taking note of the prestigious passenger lists. The U.S. Navy even experimented with two enormous ships as potential aircraft carriers. Wind and storms were the natural predators of the accident-prone ships, and both helium-filled Navy airships were lost during weather-related incidents in 1933 and 1935.
On May 6, 1937, the German luxury passenger ship LZ 129 Hindenburg caught fire and was destroyed in less than 60 seconds while landing at Lakehurst Naval Base in New Jersey during its second commercial season. The ship had been filled with flammable hydrogen gas, as helium was rare at the time. Although the United States had a supply from the mining of natural gas reserves, an act of Congress had banned the gas from export.
Thirty seven people were killed in the accident, which was filmed and broadcast widely. Public confidence in airships as a major commercial force plummeted.
The day the Hindenburg blew up, then-Capt. Elliot Springs, a decorated World War I flying ace, was reminiscing with a visiting German pilot at his home. His daughter Anne remembers hearing the now famous anguished exclamation “Oh, the humanity!” from reporter Herbert Morris, broadcast over the radio during his coverage on the accident. She remembers bursting into the room and blurting out the news that the Hindenburg had been destroyed.
“That was the end of all lighter-than-air travel,” said Anne Springs Close, a Fort Mill native and one of the few passengers of the Hindenburg – on a flight prior to May 6, 1937 – who’s still around to share the recollection.
Close bridged the history gap Thursday evening at the Fort Mill History Museum during an extraordinary presentation about her childhood experience as a passenger during the ship’s first season.
“I had almost forgotten about it, and when we did the restoration of the big house, it sort of brought it all back,” she says.
After the presentation and reception, the museum unveiled its new beautifully curated Hindenburg exhibit featuring video interviews, historical photos, and memorabilia from the Springs-Close Family Archives.
“The Hindenburg has been fascinating people since its first flight in 1936,” says Fort Mill History Museum volunteer Heather Otis, who did much of the research and preparation for the museum’s Hindenburg exhibit.
In modern times we equate the now-infamous Hindenburg with disaster, but during her inaugural flying season in 1936, the great ship symbolized technological innovation, power and adventure.
“We went over in 1936 – my mother, my father, my German nanny and my mother’s brother. They went to the Olympics and that was the year Jesse Owens won the gold medalsIt only operated that one year. At that time it was thought to be wonderful, the new thing in travel,” Close said.
She and her family traveled to Germany by ocean liner. When Elliott Springs returned home in July aboard the Hindenburg, he sent a telegram back to the family in Frankfurt:
“BY ALL MEANS BRING CHILDREN ON ZEPPELIN VOYAGE PLEASANT SAFE INTERESTING MAKE RESERVATIONS THERE LOVE.”
The rest of the family returned home in September on the ship’s eighth transatlantic crossing. Anne recalls that as the Hindenburg’s 1000th passenger, her mother Frances Ley Springs was honored with a dinner at a Frankfurt hotel.
“We got on one evening at 6 o’clock – it always left and arrived at 6 o’clock.. They were terrified of fire because our government wouldn’t sell them the non-flammable gas,” Close said.
She remembers that most of the 72 passengers aboard her flight were businessmen, and she and her brother were the only children she knew of on the ship. She recalls looking out the Hindenburg’s cantilevered viewing windows over the ocean.
“They let in all the light without the glare,” she said.
“We saw a lot of ships in the shipping lanes. Sometimes they were high and sometimes very low, but it was very quiet. They had elegant meals and china – everything very lightweight. There was nothing else to do except eat,” she jokes.
Col. Springs still remembered those windows nearly 20 years later and incorporated them and other design elements from the Hindenburg into the plans for the Springs Executive Office Building on North White Street, explained Ann Evans, curator of the Springs-Close Family Archives and consultant to the museum on the exhibit.
Artifacts on loan from the Springs-Close Family Archives, video interviews with Anne Close, and photographs illustrating the design influence of the Hindenburg on local architecture and are among the items on display as part of the museum exhibit, which will run through the end of May.
The Fort Mill History Museum is located at 310 North White St. in Fort Mill and is open Wednesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission rates and other information are available at fortmillhistorymuseum.org.