I was recently flipping through a Dundalk-Patapsco Neck Historical Society publication and was reminded of a story I had yet to cover in this column. And it all began way back in 1919...
Actually, it began in 1783 when the Montgolfier brothers went up in their first hot air balloon. Skip forward about a century, and we next see Austro-Hungarian timber merchant David Schwarz build the world’s first rigid airship, a hydrogen-filled cylinder contained by an aluminum frame and powered by 12-horsepower Daimler engine. It crashed during a test in 1897.
Dirigible design improved over the next decade until both France and Germany used rigid and semirigid airships as bombers in World War I (both sides quickly figured out, however, that giant slow-moving bags of highly flammable hydrogen are generally no match for biplanes armed with machine guns).
By the end of the war, the U.S. Navy also used hydrogen-filled dirigibles for military transport. A series of disasters, however, led the United States to switch to more expensive but nonflammable helium in 1922. That’s where we come in.
July 1, 1919, was a predictably warm day hereabouts when witnesses spotted a suspiciously low-flying dirigible heading southeast over Baltimore City. The U.S. Navy C-8 airship had developed rudder problems on a trip from Washington, D.C., to Cape May, N.J., and diverted to Camp Holabird for repairs.
The C-8 was a 192-foot dirigible that carried a six-man crew in a 40-foot gondola slung below the hydrogen-filled airframe. It set down in an empty field just outside the camp for repairs (the exact site of this field is unknown. Folks at the historical society guess it may have been in Graceland Park).
The sight quickly attracted onlookers, and a crowd of several hundred, mostly children, gathered to watch as mechanics attempted to correct the misbehaving rudder.
At this point, the story gets murky. According to a report in the Baltimore Evening Sun, moments after landing, the hydrogen in the blimp somehow ignited, and a violent explosion followed. The shock wave threw the spectators to the ground, and the ensuing fire burned dozens, many quite seriously. The blast shattered windows and damaged homes for blocks around, and the explosion could be heard for miles.
The wounded were rushed to the Army hospital at Camp Holabird where several of them returned repeatedly over the following months to receive additional treatment.
Miraculously, and mysteriously, no one was killed. This is where I start having problems with this story. According to the newspaper account, there were mechanics and crew members working on the craft when the hydrogen detonated. While I can accept that the crowd stayed far enough back to avoid fatalities, I find it hard to understand how the guys at ground zero made it through. Apparently, the explosion was unheralded. The crew did not run away before the blast.
I do not mean to imply that there was a cover-up, but the Navy may have had a hard time justifying the use of these risky aircraft at the time. In 1921, the British R-38 exploded, killing 44 of the 49 crew members. In 1922, the Navy’s Italian-made dirigible Roma crashed and burned, killing 34. These fiery catastrophes led the United States to ban the use of hydrogen in airships. In 1923, the Navy launched its first helium-filled rigid airship.
At the time, the U.S. was the world’s only large-scale producer of helium. German dirigible operators, especially under the Nazis, didn’t want to rely on a foreign supplier so they continued to use hydrogen until the burning of the Hindenburg in 1937. I guess the Nazis should have paid more attention to what happens in Dundalk.
(first posted 2004)