03 Aug 2020


Lost Capitol Hill: An Airship at the Capitol

Lincoln Beachey

It was about 1 p.m. on an otherwise normal day on Capitol Hill in June of 1906 when the cry went up: “The elephant has come.” Members of Congress, visitors, and workers all sprang to action. In a committee room on the west front of the Capitol, Representative Olcott of New York adjourned his hearing as all in the room rushed for the windows.

Coming up Pennsylvania Avenue from the direction of the White House was something entirely new: A dirigible. Not a large one –only about 60 feet long– with just enough lift to carry a single passenger. Nonetheless, an entirely new mode of transportation, seen for the first time in Washington.

Those present in the Senate chamber were similarly enthralled, though Senator Alfred Benson, who had just been sworn in to fill out the term of Senator Burton, declined to join in the rush, stating “I’m a rube and I’m from Kansas and this is my first day here, but I’ll be darned if I’ll bite anything like that.”

Everyone else spilled out of the Capitol and watched as the airship first circled around the dome of Capitol, and then, as the pilot moved forward in the long keel suspended beneath the balloon, set the airship on a course for the ground, landing between the two wings of the Capitol.

While the crowd held the airship, the pilot disembarked. His most prominent characteristic was his youth: Lincoln Beachey (that’s him on the left) was not yet 20 years old, but already had considerable experience as a dirigible pilot, having made his first flight on the Baldwin-built California Arrow at the tender age of 17.

Photo illustration of the event. The picture of the airship was drawn onto a picture of the Capitol. (LOC)

At this moment, however, his main interest was in finding some food. He had left the Luna Park, an amusement park on the other side of the Potomac, around 10:30 that morning, flown directly to the Washington Monument, where he waited for a message he was to deliver to President Roosevelt – a message he had forgotten to take along in the excitement of takeoff. Message in hand, he had flown the short distance to the Sherman Statue just south of the Treasury building, where he had handed off the message, then taken off again and proceeded over Pennsylvania Avenue towards the Capitol.

While the crowd on the east front continued to jostle for a closer look at the new mode of transportation, Beachey was whisked away in an automobile. He was gone for some 20 minutes, then returned to get his airship ready for the flight back. After satisfying himself that all was in order, he clambered back onto the keel, and asked the crowd to let the airship rise a few feet in the air, so that the propellers and rudder would not hit them. Once all was running, the cry went up “Let go!” and airship “literally jumped into the air” as the Evening Star reported later that day.

The assembled masses reentered the Capitol and rushed to the west front, from where they “followed the airship with eyes and voice until the gas bag was well on its way toward Four-Mile Run.”

The airship remained a major attraction at Luna Park over the next few days. Beachey would die nine years later in a plane crash in the San Francisco Bay.

If you want more airship content, follow my project Today’s Zeppelin on Twitter. (In fact, I found this picture looking for images to post there)

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