Fire at 1200 feet over Chicago


It was a warm 83 degrees in Chicago on Monday, July 21, 1919.  The movie “Daddy Long Legs” starring Mary Pickford was playing at the biograph theater. Vaudeville was alive and well at the State-Lake theater. All seats $.25. Ten thousand were cheering the end of the stockyards workers strike. A brick bungalow could be had for $4000. A loaf of bread seven cents. A quart of milk was nine cents.

On that day,  Evelyn L Meyer, 28 years old,  made her daily weekday trip downtown from her home at 5135 Blackstone Avenue on Chicago’s far south side. Evelyn was a teller at the llinois Trust and Savings Bank at 231 S. LaSalle, corner of Jackson Blvd. in downtown Chicago. She earned about $15 a week.

Evelyn and 150 bookkeepers and clerks were closing up  the bank at about 4:55 PM in and around the main banking hall. Built in 1897, the bank featured a beautiful open lobby, topped by an enormous skylight over a marble columned rotunda.  


The Wingfoot Air Express was a Type FD dirigible, built and owned by the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company and was powered by two Gnome LeRhone rotary air cooled motors, each with 110 horsepower,. . It was 158 feet long and 33.4 feet wide. covered with a rubberized fabric fuselage and carrying 200 gallons of fuel. It was a sister ship of the A-4 which is in the service in the Army.


Between 1917 in 1920 Goodrich and Goodyear assembled a dozen or so commercial airships  at  the White city aerodrome on the White city amusement park’s property then at  63rd St. and South Park Ave. The early Goodyear airships cost about $100,000 to build. There was a 34 foot open wicker gondola slung on cables beneath the blimp. capable of holding 10 persons, a crew of two and eight passengers. Passengers sat in leather covered wicker chairs.

Wingfoot Express arrived at White city in pieces on June 29 1919 . Assembly taking place through early July. It held 95,000 ft.³ of hydrogen,, it cruised at 40 mph,

The flight


at 9 AM on this fateful Monday, it left the hanger at White city and made its way to Grant Park, first East, then northward toward downtown area paralleling Michigan Avenue. At 12:20 Express it made a second trip from Grant Park flying further north along Lakeshore to Diversey returning to Grant Park at about 3 PM..

The third and fatal take off was at 4:05 PM intending to transport five people from Grant Park to the White City amusement park. “Nose right” commanded the helmsman. Wingfoot swung starboard. “Let your tail swing!” The stern drifted free. “All hands off! Weigh it.” Boettner waited on Weaver to man the engines. Weaver signaled. Helmsman sounded a blast from his siren as the volunteer crew loosed ropes and the gondola. The twin engines roared. Wingfoot Express rose suddenly . Propellers gnawed  at the air and threw a stiff back air wash. They flew north paralleling Michigan Avenue and then east into the Loop. It sailed for 45 minutes over downtown before the disaster.  They crossed Madison, State Street, and Van Buren.

the pilot J. A. Boettner, recalled; ‘As we neared State Street I felt the machine buckle and there was a tremor throughout the fuselage. I knew something it happened and saw the flames licking the bag.

The craft caught fire at about 4:55pm while cruising at an altitude of 1,200 ft (370 m) over the Chicago Loop. Causing up to that point, the worst dirigible disaster in United States history. Near the bank building, the pilot, John “Jack” Alexander Boettner leaped from the pilot seat and parachuted to safety  using a “Spencer – type “device. John was born June 24 1892 to John and Barbara Boettner. He married Helen G Houghton in 1927. John died in Miami Florida on March 16 1961 at the age of 68.

The observer and chief mechanic, Harry (actually Henry) H. Wacker, also used a Spencer type parachute and jumped to safety having scrambled over the port side. Henry crashed into a building and finally came to rest fifth floor fire escape. Although he suffered two skull fractures, broke all of his ribs, tore his right arm from its socket and badly injured his back, when he awoke in the hospital nine days later considered himself fortunate to have survived. Henry born 1880,  married to Annie, died March 17 1967 in Cleveland Ohio.

A second mechanic, Carl Emery “Buck” Weaver 27 years old of 910 St. Carlos Court in Warren Ohio, (His Chicago address was the Strand Hotel.) He died when he jumped from the beam and his parachute caught fire. He was born in Warren Ohio on July 14, 1892 to Emery Weaver and Kathryn Beard. He was married to Kathryn Belle  Hartman. He was buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Warren Ohio.

Another passenger, Earl Horton Davenport, 5448 Calumet , a publicity agent for the White City Amusement Park jumped from the dirigible, his parachute tangled in the rigging and hung fifty feet below the burning craft; he was killed when the airship crashed. He was cremated and his ashes went to Warsaw Indiana his former home.

 A fifth person who parachuted from the dirigible, Chicago Daily News photographer Milton Green Norton, 2146 Vilas Street, my broke both legs and later died that day at a hospital.  Born about 1874 the son of James B Norton and Mary Cox. He was married in 1903 to Alice B Smith He was buried in Graceland Cemetery


The remains of the Wingfoot struck the bank’s skylight directly and flaming debris fell through to the banking hall below at which point the gasoline tanks attached to its twin engines exploded.. There was a wave of flaming gas radius 50 feet around the workers. Flaming debris rained through the iron and glass roof in the bank building and dropped in the central office space on the main floor. The skylight of the bank, which extended over the greater part of the first floor space was torn out and became a charred mass on the main floor along with telephones, electric lights, adding machines, typewriters, desks, and shares. Girls on the second floor ran screening to the windows several jumped to the street. The injured were taken to Iroquois Hospital at Market and Madison. Others went to St. Lukes and Jefferson hospitals.

Inside the bank nine employees sadly lost their lives;

Evelyn L Meyer, age 28, stenographer 5135 Blackstone Ave. Born December 31, 1891 in Fort Wayne Indiana born to William A and  Ada Alice Meyer, Buried in Underwood Cemetery in Fort Wayne

Helen P Berger age 32, stenographer 4516 Beacon St.  born February 25, 1887 in Chicago, the daughter of Charles F Berger and Charlotte Dodd buried Mount Hope Cemetery

Maria Florence age 26, clerk 5202 Cornell Ave. born about 1893 in Massachusetts to Charles and Lillian Florence. buried in Rose Hill Cemetery

Irene C. Miles age 25,  stenographer , 1816 Park Ave, an only child,  living with her widowed mother. born about 1894 in Michigan, buried Forest home Cemetery

Joseph David Scanlan age 14,  bank messenger, 7150 Ingleside Ave. born June 27, 1905 the son of William Scanlon and Margaret Elliott. buried in Mount Greenwood Cemetery

Jacob E Carpenter age 17, bank messenger, 1249 Cornelia Ave . born about 1902 to Paul Carpenter and Magdalene Schneider. Graduated St Alphonus school,    buried St. Joseph’s Cemetery, River Grove

Carl A. Otto telegrapher 4718 North Lincoln St. born February 1876 in Germany, married to Elsie J Gwynn     his son was Stanley Gwynn Otto 1912-2007

Edwin a Munzner age 27, correspondence clerk 8006 Kimbark Ave, born November 6, 1888 in Chicago the son of Charles and Dora married to Anna Maria Frenck in 1911.  buried Oak Woods Cemetery

Mary Gallagher, age 24,  stenographer 7715 South Morgan St. born August 1894 to John Gallagher and Kate Higgins Gallagher  buried Mount Olivet Catholic Cemetery


Testimony to the grand jury included a statement by First Lieutenant Thomas K Atkinson. He said “there is always a slight leak in the valves attached to a gasbag of this sort, and hydrogen gas mixed with the oxygen in the air makes an explosive combination.” He surmised that either static electricity or the Rotary motors throwing sparks or burning oil might have been responsible for the blaze. There were other theories as well. One theory was that a gasbag smoldering since you will let Grant Park 10 minutes previous to witnesses said the mechanic used a blowtorch on the propellers just before they started to burn off oil from the propeller bearing. Another theory was that balloon was overcharged in the sun’s rays cause it to expand inverse, fire following contact the gas sparks in the motors.

In addition the city of Chicago adopted a new set of rules for aviation over the city. Within hours, Ald. Anton sermon, Chicago’s future mayor, led an effort to pass the nation’s first air traffic regulations restricting flights over major population center. Chicago began building in municipal Airport now known as Midway international Airport.

The crash led to the closing of the Grant Park Airstrip first began in 1910 and once an official U.S. mail airfield. It was replaced by the Chicago Air Park renamed Midway Airport. .The bank later became Continental Bank then Bank of America. After the accident Goodyear changed its blimps the hydrogen to helium a safer but much more expensive gas. However in 1931 hydrogen powered Hindenburg exploding in New Jersey and brought memories of the Wingfoot express.

And few people know that Medinah  athletic club later the Hotel Intercontinental 505 N. Michigan built a blimp mooring tower in 1933 but was never used. It remains today.

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