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Shenandoah Flying Over New York

USS Shenandoah flying over New York City

USS Shenandoah

During the World War I, Germany modified their Zeppelins to become long range bombers. These raiders brought night time terror to the streets of London. Between World Wars I and II, the Zeppelin airships became fast transportation. Citizens traveled in great style from one continent to another aboard these aerial ocean liners.

Shendoah Under Construction, Lakehurst

ZR-1 under construction at Lakehurst, New Jersey

In 1919 the American government committed to build a German designed rigid airship here in America. The Shenandoah was originally designated FA-1, for 'Fleet Airship Number One' but this was changed to ZR-1. On September 4, 1923 she made her first flight and was christened the USS Shenandoah, an Algonquian name for Daughter of the Stars. The great airship was captained by an Ohioan: Zachary Lansdowne. He and the ship became household names capturing the imagination of the American people.

Shenandoah at Lakehurst, NJFor the first time in aeronautical history the large gas cells that kept the airship afloat were filled with helium instead of the flammable hydrogen which would cause the German Airship Hindenberg to become a fiery tomb in 1933. Although somewhat safer than hydrogen, helium was only 89 per cent as buoyant. The United States was the only country in the world producing helium in quantities large enough to fill the great ship. The gas cells made of goldbeaters skins and were constructed by the Goodyear Company in Akron Ohio.

In case you were wondering, goldbeater skins are made of linen lined with layers of membrane from the intestines of cattle. These membranes made the cells flexible and able to hold gas without leaking. Before being used in the massive airships, goldbeaters skin were used to hammer out gold into gold leave, thus the name.

In the early test flights the Shenandoah was put through many stressful maneuvers and it was believed by some, that these tests may have weakened its structure. For 18 months America took pride as the ship cruised about the country. On September 2, 1925 the Shenandoah left its base in Lakehurst, NJ and turned westward. Its destination was Columbus Ohio, Saint Louis and other Midwestern cities.

During the night the ship rose and crossed the Allegheny Mountains with a cruising height of 3600'. At 1:45 am Wheeling West Virginia passed beneath her as the course was corrected for Zanesville Ohio; 45 minutes later lightning was seen in the distance. Lieutenant Commander Lansdowne was awaken and returned to the command car. The weather forecast had only shown a low pressure disturbance in northern Minnesota, but that should not have effected the airship. By 3:00 am the winds had picked up and began to slow progress.

The airship ZR1 had been designed by Dr. Karl Arnstein, chief designer of the Goodyear Zeppelin Corp. It was later said “No European designer could possibly imagine the violence of weather conditions in the American Midwest.” The Shenandoah crew could see the lights of Cambridge as they turned south in a desperate attempt to slide around the massive storm. Its engines now running at maximum speed had been doped with tetraethyl lead to increase their efficiency The cloud formations rolled and twisted about the ship. The Shenandoah was now caught between two unexpected storm fronts its massive metal structure screeching in metallic pain.

Shenandoah Gas TanksTwo of the 6 Packard 357 horse powered engines had over heated and failed. A witness on the ground stated she saw the ship pass overhead and it seemed to be pulled into a swirling black emptiness. It was 5:00am the winds had increased and pushed the ship up to 6200'. Lieutenant Commander Lansdowne was calm, his crew remained at their posts as the wind hit them once again. The support cables running through the ship began to snap. The pressure was intense as the Shenandoah split open and was torn in half. The control car hanging below the bow began to shake. Lieutenant Commander Lansdowne told his men they could leave the car if they wish, only 2 men scrambled up the ladder into the remaining front portion of the ship. Moments later the control car shook violently and broke free plunging towards earth taking with it the control cables, 2 engines and their crews.

Shenandoah Crash SiteWithout the weight of the control car, the bow section of the ship quickly rose 1000s of feet. The stern came down to earth without the lose of life and settled into a small valley. The bow section with 7 men had been caught by the storm's high winds. Spinning in large circles the front portion of the Shenandoah was tossed about for 1 hour before reaching the ground.


Shenandoah CrashIn all, there would be 3 crash sites. The first was the command car crashing into a farm field east of Ava. The stern came down in a small valley closer to Ava. This site is marked by a large sign which can be seen today from I-77. The third site is the bow which touched earth just west of Sharon, Ohio.

The crew was composed of 43 Navy men, 14 would lose their lives in the crash. Lieutenant Commander Lansdowne would be among the dead. When daylight came there was silence. The Shenandoah lay in the Ohio fields with its skeleton exposed like some giant animal that had crawled away to die. The event shocked America.

Shenandoah Memorial

Across the nation songs were written and poems dedicated to this wonderful ship and her brave crew. In 1937 a stone monument was erected for those that died. That monument can be seen in the little town of Ava Ohio just down the street from Rayners Garage.

Bryan and Theresa Rayner are responsible for the only Shenandoah Museum and though it is small and in a trailer, it is a must see if your interested in the great ship who was the Daughter of the Stars.

Shenandoah Marker

Shenandoah Crash Museum

As a young boy Bryan Rayner traveled along with his grandfather providing tours of the crash sites. In 1995 Bryan created this small traveling museum dedicated to the Shenandoah Airship.

Shenandoah Museum

The trailer includes artifacts, memorabilia as well as photos and stories all in the care of Bryan and Theresa Rayner. While history is not always something people enjoy and most don’t remember, or never knew the Shenandoah story, those that live in Noble County Ohio remember. They see it often with the Zeps football team at Shenandoah High School, the little Zeps Elementary and of coarse the small traveling museum telling the story anew to each generation.

Museum is opened to private tours call first to make appointment.