Flying high over Philadelphia, 110 years ago
Perhaps the journalism practitioners at Eighth and Market will pause on Friday to observe the 110th anniversary of the flight of the great Inquirer Airship.
It was part of the Founders Week celebration the city fathers staged for the 225th anniversary of Philadelphia.
The major event was a three-milelong parade down Broad Street from Lehigh Avenue to Snyder Avenue on Monday, Oct. 5, 1908, with dozens of marching bands and block after block of military and naval units. An estimated 750,000 spectators lined the street.
And as Gov. Edwin S. Stuart, leading the parade on horseback with Gen. Fred Grant (Ulysses’s son), reached the reviewing stand where Mayor John E. Reyburn waited at City Hall, a huge form rose up from a fenced-in empty lot at Wallace Street.
It was a hydrogen-filled, cigar-shaped tube, 56 feet long and 14 feet wide, made of 350 square yards of silk. Beneath it about 10 feet, a spruce-wood framework ran its length. On the framework, a man operated a rudder for steering and a two-cylinder, five horsepower engine turning a 400 rpm propeller.
And across the belly of the flying marvel hung a long banner, proclaiming in giant letters: THE INQUIRER AIRSHIP.
The crowds reacted loudly as the phenomenon chugged along above the parade. Few people had ever seen an aircraft.
Just in the previous month, Orville Wright had cracked up one of his flying machines; Army Lt. Thomas Selfridge, with him, was killed, the first ever passenger to die in a plane crash.
The man on the airship was Lincoln Beachey, a 21-year-old “aeronaut” famous for experimental flying demonstrations. His ship sailing over Broad Street was largely based on the recent work of Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin in Germany.
Lifted by hydrogen gas produced by an electrical current being run through water, it rose steeply as it approached City Hall, which had lost its status as the world’s tallest building in the previous year. In the reviewing stand, Mayor Reyburn stood up and doffed his high silk hat.
Beachey waved to the excited crowds and took photos with a camera borrowed from an Inquirer photographer.
The ship slowly circled William Penn’s statue and moved east. As it passed over the Inquirer building at 1109 Market St., Beachey hollered “Hello, boys!” to staff members gathered on the roof. One of them yelled back, “How’s the weather up there?”
The Inquirer had been promoting the flight of the airship with big front page articles for days. Page one on the day after the parade boasted, “The cheers of the vast concourse of persons were showered lavishly upon this piece of newspaper enterprise.”
The paper announced that for a week, the air ship would make two flights daily, plus one night flight in which it would be illuminated by floodlights from City Hall.
The U.S. Navy had placed five battleships and six submarines in the Delaware River for Founders Week, and on Thursday, Oct. 8, crowds on the waterfront watched as Beachey made history by flying over the USS Idaho and dropping a message to a sailor atop a mast, which read “Greetings from a ship of the air to a ship of the sea.”
Beachey flew frequent aerial shows elsewhere. He died six years later in the crash of an airplane of his own design. Orville Wright called him “the most wonderful aviator the world has yet seen.”