Monday, October 14, 2019

This Photo of a Dirigible Over Elmira is Fake!

by Erin Doane, Curator

“The Pageant of Decision” was a massive theatrical production that celebrated the Sesquicentennial of the Sullivan-Clinton Campaign.  On September 28, 1929, 2,000 local participants in Elmira performed the 17-act pageant on a half-mile wide outdoor stage on the slope of East Hill in front of nearly 75,000 spectators. The above photo from CCHS’s archive shows the Navy dirigible Los Angeles hovering over the pageant crowd. It is a wonderful, striking image. Too bad it’s fake.

The crowd shown is indeed gathered for the pageant in Elmira on September 28, but the Los Angeles was not there that Saturday afternoon. The massive airship, in fact, had flown over Elmira one week earlier on September 21. A photo that appeared in the Star-Gazette after the pageant show the exact same image (though a slightly wider view) without the dirigible.

Star-Gazette, September 30, 1929
The USS Los Angeles was a 658-foot-long rigid airship built in Germany in 1923-1924 as part of reparations after World War I. It was delivered to the U.S. Navy in 1924. It was primarily used as an observatory and experimental platform and as a training ship. In 1929, Congressman John Taber of Auburn arranged to have the dirigible fly from its base in Lakehurst, New Jersey up to Geneva on September 21 where it would circle the pageant being held there to commemorate the Sullivan-Clinton Campaign. (“The Pageant of Decision” was actually performed all across New York State in 1929.) So, the Los Angeles did appear at a pageant, just not at Elmira’s pageant. And it actually showed up early to the Geneva one, much to the disappointment of those in attendance.

The original plan was for the Los Angeles to leave Lakehurst on the morning of September 21, passing over Elmira around noon and arriving in Geneva in time to circle above their pageant, which began at 2:00pm. Instead, because of the weather conditions, the dirigible left New Jersey at 5:45 Friday evening, which changed its arrival time in Geneva to 7:30am on Saturday. The flight was non-stop, as there was no place for the airship to land except for in an emergency, so even though it circled the town for about half an hour, very few people there got to see it.

In Elmira, folks were also disappointed by the early passing of the massive airship, but it actually ended up passing over Elmira twice that day. At 5:40am, people who were awake and in the streets at that time could hear the dirigible’s motors droning as it passed over the city. The fog was so thick, however, that it was not visible. When Representative Gale H. Stalker of Elmira learned about the unexpectedly early flyover obscured by fog, he wired naval authorities to express his dissatisfaction. Navy officials then communicated with Lieutenant Commander Charles Rosendahl on the Los Angeles, and ordered him to return to Lakehurst by way of Elmira.

So, at noon on September 21, the Los Angeles sailed majestically over Elmira, bathed in sunlight. It lazily droned in from the northeast, cruised down the center of the city at an elevation of only about 1,000 feet, and then disappeared to the southeast. The original plan was for the dirigible to pass over the city at noon, so the only thing that really changed was the direction in which people saw it traveling. The newspapermen and cameramen of the Star-Gazette climbed onto the roof of their building to cover the story.

Photo taken from the roof of the Star-Gazette building 
Saturday, September 21, 1929. The towers are those of 
the First Presbyterian Church.
The Star-Gazette reported that when the airship passed overhead Elmira came to a standstill. “Husbands phoned their wives at home, binoculars and telescopes were brought forth, cameras were hastily adjusted and restaurants and offices were vacated and points of vantage were sought. Even automobiles were stopped in the streets, the drivers and passengers peering upward and hoping, no doubt, that no policeman would come along to spoil it by making them move on.” There was no waving of handkerchiefs or cheering, however, as everyone was too impressed to become vocal.

So, the USS Los Angeles did fly over Elmira and 75,000 people did gather the watch “The Pageant of Decision” in Elmira, but those two events did not happen at the same time or even on the same day. Why, then, do we have a photograph that indicates that they did? I, frankly, have no idea. Perhaps some photographically-talented trickster was just having a little fun back in the day, never expecting his or her creative image to become part of a museum’s collection. We will probably never know, but it is important to set the history straight.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting article, Erin! My mom (died in 2008) told us kids that she had seen a dirigible when she was really little. Mom would have loved this article!