Fly­ing high over Philadel­phia, 110 years ago

The Review - - OPINION - Jim Smart Of All Things Visit colum­nist Jim Smart’s web­site at jamess­mart­sphiladel­phia.com.

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.”

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