USS Shenandoah’s 1924 Wreck – S.E. Ohio

Oct. 11, 2021

Photo by the Vagabond Historian
The Vagabond Historian is a scholar of local history, specializing in knowledge of early American history. Popular as a speaker, he has graciously agreed to contribute his column to Pickerington Online.

The amber glow of the awakening day gave the ripening fields of soybeans and corn a soft glow as we began our quest to find where a giant airship crash landed nearly a century ago. As we drove, the subtle first notes of what would soon be a symphony of autumn colors played across the hills of southeastern Ohio. This trip would combine our love of history with our admiration for fall colors. We were on a mission to visit the three primary crash sites of the USS Shenandoah which are located in the Appalachian foothills only about one and a half hours from Pickerington.

Public domain image from the National Archives

Construction on the Shenandoah began 99 years ago in an immense hanger at the US Naval Air Station at Lakehurst, New Jersey. Alcoa supplied the duralumin aluminum alloy which would comprise the dirigible’s rigid frame and special gas bags contained the helium which would provide buoyancy.

Did I mention that the Shenandoah was huge? Imagine that you are seated in a football stadium and an airship half the width and twice the length of the football field hovered above you. The Shenandoah was 680 feet long and 80 feet in diameter. For comparison, the maximum dimensions for each Goodyear blimp are 246.4 feet long by 64.79 feet wide.

USS Shenandoah exiting a hanger in Lakehurst, New Jersey, September 4, 1923.
Public domain image from the National Archives

Shenandoah emerged from the hanger for her maiden flight on September 4, 1923. On October 10, the wife of the Secretary of the Navy, Mrs. Edwin Denby, christened the new airship with the name “Shenandoah” which meant “Daughter of the Stars.”

USS Shenandoah moored to USS Patoka, circa 1924.
Public domain image from the National Archives

In 1924, a US Navy oiler named the Patoka was fitted with a 125-foot-high mooring mast and it became the first naval airship tender. On August 8, the Shenandoah became the first airship to ever moor to a floating tender when it docked with the Patoka for the first time.

At the United States Navy Air Station in Lakehurst, New Jersey
Public domain image from the National Archives

In the fall of 1924, the Shenandoah departed from Lakehurst on route to California and Washington State for the first cross-country flight by a dirigible. By early 1925 Shenandoah returned to its hanger at Lakehurst for some minor repairs and modifications.

On September 2, 1925, Shenandoah departed again for a public relations tour of the Midwest. U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander Zachary Lansdowne commanded the Shenandoah’s crew of 43 men. The first stop was to be an air show in St. Louis, Missouri, followed by an event in Dearborn, Michigan.   The complete schedule planned to visit 25 cities and several state fairs.

Public domain image from the National Archives

The next day, September 3, 1925, the Shenandoah encountered stormy weather as it flew over southeastern Ohio. Commander Lansdowne and his crew struggled to control the ship against the onslaught of powerful winds . The men all stood by their stations as Lansdowne barked orders in a desperate attempt to save his ship from the unrelenting air currents. The winds were so strong that the ship made no forward progress in spite of an airspeed indicator which read “65 miles per hour”. They were above Noble County, Ohio

The radio room of the Shenandoah
Public domain image from the National Archives

Down below, farmer Andy Gamara and his wife were woken by the sound from the Shenandoah’s huge engines. They quickly dressed and forged into the stormy night. As they stared into the pre-dawn darkness, lightening illuminated the cigar shape of the huge airship. They watched as she struggled against the storm.

The altimeter in the ship rose and fell like a roller coaster. Commander Lansdowne sent radio messages informing command of their situation. The crew alternated between dumping ballast and using the engines to try to maintain an altitude around 2700 feet. Then, the ship passed into a massive updraft. The crew immediately felt warm air and the ship shot upward. The altimeter showed a sudden gain in altitude to 4800 feet.

The control room of the Shenandoah
Public domain image from the National Archives

After venting some helium, cooler air returned and the ship dropped to 4600 feet. Upon entering another thermal updraft, Commander Lansdowne gave orders to vent more helium, however, the valves became stuck. At 5:34 am, the updraft carried the Shenandoah to 6200 feet which dangerously neared the altitude where the ship’s expanding gas bags would tear apart its aluminum frame.

The last altimeter reading was 7200 feet and still rising when, the control car tore free and plummeted to earth killing Commander Lansdowne and the other eleven crew members inside. The witnesses on the ground watched as the remainder of the ship continued to shoot skyward before breaking apart. In total fourteen crew members died in the crash.

Photo by the Vagabond Historian

The wreckage broke into three large sections which landed in different locations around Ava, Ohio (25 minutes south of Cambridge south on I-77). Historical markers identify where the debris landed as “Wreckage Site One”, “Wreckage Site Two” and “Wreckage Site Three”.

Our goal was to travel to southeastern Ohio and visit each location while enjoying the beauty of the fall leaves in the process. In addition to the crash sites, other historical markers and memorials also commemorate the Shenandoah.

A few miles south of Byesville, we came to a rest area on I-77, just north of mile marker 37 on the southbound side of I-77. Be sure to visit the rest area and read the information on the historical marker there. As you head south after leaving the rest area, keep an eye on the mile markers.

Photo by the Vagabond Historian

Shenandoah Wreckage Site Number Two is located on the west side of I-77 just south of the mile marker 33 at these GPS coordinates: 39.83527667° N 81.54612833° W.  There is no automotive access for Site Two, so your best view of the site is from southbound I-77. A large sign and an American flag identify the site in the field near the road.

Site Number Two marks the spot where a 450-foot-long section of the stern came to rest. Eighteen of the crew members survived by venting helium and dumping gasoline to bring the stern section down to a soft landing. The tail of the ship came to rest very close to where I-77 now cuts through the area.

USS Shenandoah stern wreckage at Site Number 2
Public domain image from the National Archives
Photo by the Vagabond Historian

After we drove to Wreckage Site Number Two, our GPS took us to the small town of Ava, Ohio where we photographed two commemorative markers.

The first was located on the south side of town near a garage on Rt 821. The GPS Coordinates for this marker are: 39.8306680° N  81.5741430° W.  This marker was erected since Site 2 is not accessible by auto.

The people of the Ava area have also erected a much larger memorial alongside Rt 821 on the north side of town at these coordinates: 39° 49.994′ N  81° 34.458′ W   

After leaving Ava, we entered the coordinates for Wreckage Site One into our GPS. Those coordinates are: 39° 50′ 21.002″ N, 81° 32′ 21.998″ W. Site One is about two miles east of Ava and just east of I-77. Our GPS led us along some very scenic country roads.

Photo by the Vagabond Historian

Along the way, we spotted a flock of wild turkeys feeding in a meadow. I stopped our truck in the middle of a narrow country road and got out with my camera to photograph the turkeys. The countryside there is very peaceful and quiet.

We soon arrived at Wreckage Site Number One where nearly a hundred years ago the Gamaras watched as raging winds rent apart a large airship above their farm house.

A granite marker identifies the location where the control car landed and where Commander Lansdowne’s body was found.

USS Shenandoah Wreckage Site Number 1
Photo by the Vagabond Historian
USS Shenandoah front section at Site Number 3, Ernest Nichols’ farm.
Public domain image from the National Archives

After the ship broke up, eight men rode the front section for 12 miles as it drifted to the southwest. They operated the front section as if it had been a hot air balloon to maintain enough altitude to clear the trees and other obstacles.

As they descended, the front section brushed the house and barn of Ernest Nichols who was able to tie the two ropes hanging from the front section to trees thereby assisting with bringing the craft down to a soft landing. One of the men aboard the fragment borrowed a shotgun from Nichols and blasted holes into the gas bags to release the helium to keep the remnant on the ground.

Wreckage Site Number Three marks the spot on the Nichols farm where the bow section landed. The GPS coordinates for Site Three are: 39.74129722° N  81.593145° W  This is on State Route 73 about two miles or so northwest of the town of Sharon, Ohio. Site Three consists of a very nice little roadside park. According to my research, the Nichols family still owns the farm where the bow section landed.

USS Shenandoah Control Car, Gamara Farm
USS Shenandoah Front Section, Nichols Farm

As the news of the crash spread, looters flocked to the wreckage sites tearing apart what remained of the Shenandoah to collect souvenirs. A large portion of the wreckage rested upon a farm owned by Charles Neiswonger who began charging admission.. He charged 25 cents per person or $1.00 per carload and made over $500.00. Over 1000 people looted the wreckage before military personnel arrived to secure the scenes.

Today, the countryside around the crash sites is quiet and serene. As we made our way along the small country roads, we paused to enjoy the sights, sounds and smells of the rural countryside. Not far from Site One, we passed a field of newly mown hay. At one point, some deer stopped their grazing to give us a look. The trees in the woods of southeastern Ohio will achieve their peak of fall color within the next week or two, so there is no better time than now to visit that area.

Newsreel film of the crash site.
A somg “Wreck of the Shenandoah” was released in 1925.

This the second in a series of stories about historical places to visit in Ohio.  Each installment of Geohistory will include the GPS coordinates for the places featured in the story. You may copy and paste those into Google Earth to see where the places are located, or you may copy those coordinates into your GPS device or phone to navigate to those locations. If you enjoyed the article please comment below.

Please also check out the first article in this series where the Vagabond Historian takes us on a tour of the ancient Native American quarry at Flint Ridge near Glenford, Ohio – Geohistory: Flint Ridge.

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