The Wreck of the Shenandoah

The screaming of the aluminum girders suddenly ceased. The deep spanging thrum of cables popping slowed. Charles E. Rosendahl clung to a girder and watched the rear half of the great dirigible dwindle below him into the, uh, dark and stormy night.

Rosendahl was the navigator on the USS Shenandoah, the first of the US Navy’s four great dirigibles. Reverse-engineered from a German zeppelin brought down over England, the major engineering innovation in the ship’s design was the use of helium, which, as we all know, is a good idea for an airship. Adding to the attractiveness of the idea, the United States at the time had a global monopoly on helium production.

The site has a gallery of collectors’ images of the Shenandoah. Navy Lakehurst Historical Society also has a great deal of Shenandoah-related material.

The Shenandoah (said to be an Algonquian word meaning “Daughter of the Stars”) had already survived at least two near-disasters in her mere 2 years afloat. She’d been in flight for about 24 hours, en route to St. Louis from her base at Lakehurst, New Jersey. The other incidents were both wind-related accidents. She’d been torn from her moorings in a New Jersey iwindstorm, losing her nose in the process and free-ballooning for the better part of a day all over the eastern seaboard before the 17 persons who happened to be aboard at the time were able to bring her home.

Her other brush with death happened when she was caught in downdrafts while crossing mountains in Arizona on her way to San Diego.

The first incident was widely publicized, with a commercial radio station (the beloved WOR) actually playing a key role in establishing communications with the wounded giant and broadcasting the radio link live to the greater metropolitan area of New York City (imagine!).

The night-time incident in the mountains was not widely covered.

On September 2, 1925, the Shenandoah had departed Lakehurst on the first leg of a Midwestern publicity tour. Publicity tours proved, for all of the Navy’s airships, to actually be the single most time-consuming missions the dirigibles would undertake. The popularity of the ships with the public and politicians, combined with a certain military impracticality, engendered a great deal of criticism of the LTA program within the Navy. Even within the LTA program, these goodwill tours were not regarded as pleasant or worthwhile assignments. The commander of the Shenandoah, Captain Zachary Lansdowne, is said to have been annoyed that the schedule for the airship’s Midwestern journey was published in advance.

This annoyance seems selfish and petulant at best to modern ears. In researching this article and from other readings in the area, it’s clear that the presence of one of these ships in the sky over your city or farm was regarded as an event of great moment. People took time off work, made plans to rise in the middle of the night, and then talked about the sight for the rest of their lives. Much like the space program of the 1960s, the technology of the airship appears to have offered a sort of totem for utopian ideals of technological and social progress.

At any rate, it’s well documented that all along the route the ship was scheduled to take, from Lakehurst to St. Louis, people were aware that the ship was coming and had made plans to be outside looking for the ship when she flew over. For the people of Noble County, Ohio, this anticipation would turn to something very different a little past 4 o’clock on the morning of September 3.

Navigator Rosendahl noted a cloud formation that might be a storm front at 4:20 am, and brought it to the attention of Captain Lansdowne. At the same time, the ship began to rise uncontrollably. This initial rise carried the ship to 3,100 feet, where severe turbulence was encountered. A second, faster rise occurred, carrying the ship to a height of over 6,000 feet despite emergency venting of helium.

The crew of forty-three, roused by the turbulence and the dramatic changes in air pressure, were all working to secure the ship. They were quite aware that an uncontrolled ascent posed a grave threat to the gas cells, which could rupture if the ship were not brought under control.

On the ground, observers recount seeing the ship tumbled along a mass of scudding cloud in the moonlight and suddenly shot high into the sky. As suddenly as it lifted, it was seen to dive dramatically.

Aboard, the crew felt a cold wind catch the ship, and as the ship moved from the rapidly ascending column of warm air and entered the rapidly dropping column of cold air, the efforts to vent gas were replaced by orders to dump ballast. As the crew’s frantic efforts yielded a short-lived artificial rainstorm of seven thousand gallons of water onto the Ohio soil, she entered another thermal column.

Navigator Rosendahl was sent aft. As he headed toward the rear of the ship, she assumed a violently inclined position, possibly nose up. In essence, the front of the ship was in one weather system, and the rear was in another. The collision of the fronts created sufficient windshear that the ship was literally torn in two. Rosendahl stood at the breach, riding the nose of the divided ship skyward.

When the break occurred, the nose-mounted control car, containing the bridge and the captain, was torn away from the hull and plummeted about three thousand feet to the ground. Engines along both main sections of the hull fell away as well, carrying with them mechanics who had climbed out to tend them in the fantastic beating the ship had been taking.

The bow section rose into the turbulent night. Rosendahl and six other airmen established contact with one another and took stock of their grim situation as the undamaged helium cells lifted the bullet-shaped wreck high above the Ohio countryside, reaching an estimated height of 10,000 feet.

The aft section, about 470 feet of the 680-foot ship, broke once more before landing close to the location of the control car’s impact.

Meanwhile, local residents had begun to stream toward the grounded remnants of the once-proud ship, and as the stunned survivors of the wreck sought both care and contact with the Navy, news spread rapidly, eventually drawing an estimated (by me) ten thousand people to the wreck sites within a couple of days of the event. The wrecks were stripped by souvenir seekers, although a guard was eventually posted.

I’ve seen photos of unconcerned looking guards before sections of the wreck that have clearly not been picked over, and read accounts of picking so thorough that souvenir hunters dug up potatoes from the farms the hull landed atop when there was no material to be had from the broken body of the Shenandoah.

As Noble County began to react to the historic tragedy unfolding above, the seven remaining fliers systematically began to bring the remnant of the Shenandoah under control, principally by venting helium. An hour after the breakup and twelve miles away, they were low enough to call out to farmer Ernest Nichols for help securing one of the trailing cables.

In a Cleveland Plain Dealer article, “Dirigible disaster“, one of several elderly eyewitnesses reminisces:

The farmer’s son, Stanley E. Nichols, 77, of Caldwell, was only 2 ½, but said he vividly remembers when that giant silver cone, nearly 10 stories high and 300 feet long, came plowing through their orchard.

“I was scared. We were all scared. Very scared,” Nichols said. “It was coming right at us, open-end first, with long strips of fabric flapping in the wind.”

(The article includes an elderly woman recalling the ship coming apart in the air, as well.)

Nichols gave it a shot, busting a fence and uprooting a tree stump in the process before finally setting the rope to a large tree. The seven shaken survivors then borrowed the farmer’s shotgun and holed the remaining helium cells, laying the Shenandoah to her rest. Remarkably, only fourteen persons perished, eleven of those in the control car.

Her last flight might have been over, but the consequences of the wreck had just begin. A song, “The Wreck of the Shenandoah” was written and released under the pen name “Maggie Andrews” by the team of Carson Robison and Vernon Dalhart, who specialized in disaster ballads and are remembered today principally for “The Wreck of the Old 97”. A recorded version of the song was also released, but both versions were quickly suppressed after complaints from family members of those lost in the incident (click the image of the sheet music for a large view of both sections of the wreck).

I’d hoped to find a recording of the song to link to, or failing that, to perform the song and provide that here, but I was unable to locate the music in time for this article. I did find a link to a “school paper” preserved by the family of one Dalton McLaughlin, possibly in the belief that Mr. McLaughlin had written the lyrics, but which are probably a child’s transcription of the song.

An additional, and not at all obvious consequence of the wreck, was the loss of all the US Navy’s helium. Helium was dramatically more expensive than hydrogen (over $100 a cubic foot versus hydrogen’s $2-and-change), and although the Navy had two active dirigibles in service in September of 1925, (the Los Angeles had been delivered from Germany in October of 1924) but helium was so scarce that only one of the two ships could be airborne at a time. It would be April of 1926 before there were sufficient helium reserves available for the ship to take to the skies once again.

The wreck is still recalled today, as the Plain Dealer article referenced above shows, and I also located an article at the New England Aviation Museum which includes photos of the wreck site from 1997 and from 1925. Bryan Rayner, of Ava, Ohio, the town closest to the wreck, maintains a museum in a trailer with wreck-related artifacts and curiosities.

Finally, here’s another account of the airship’s loss, originally published in American Heritage in 1969: The Death of a Dirigible. It’s much more dramatic than mine.

UPDATE: I followed up some on the Vernon Dalhart song here, and there are some other wonderfully interesting comments on that entry as well.

UPDATE, 2008: Gregg Frisby has sent some family photos of the tail section, probably taken early on the morning of the wreck.

May 7, 2002

28 thoughts on “The Wreck of the Shenandoah

  1. Karen

    “The Wreck of the Old 97”–I grew up with that song; it’s one of the first folksongs I learned, since my dad has been a passionate Hank Snow fan since about junior high…

  2. mike

    The Dalhart / Robison site is dauntingly complete – but I love that old music about death and disaster!

    In my on-and-off outfit the Wretched Bastards, we actually toyed with another side by the grim duo, “Little Rosewood Casket”, a charming ditty about the death of a child.

  3. Roger

    Interesting to compare the wrecked Shenandoah’s “souvenir seekers” with those today seeking souvenirs of the space shuttle Columbia.

  4. mike

    I couldn’t agree more, Roger.

    It’s also interesing to note the similarities in the public mind as well between the US Navy LTA program and NASA. I know I’m fascinated by both, possibly becasue of the very, I don’t know, rarity of the technology.

    And let us not pass over the vessel’s names. Although “Shenadoah” is supposedly an Indian word meaning “Daughter of the Stars”, it’s very definitely the name f a river.

    “Columbia” is the name of the goddess of liberty, and specifically that in North America; her image has been used to represent the United States essentially since the nation’s founding.

    Of course, it too is the name of a river.

  5. Dick

    Hi Mike,

    I am Roger’s brother. I remember our father (1909-1997_ describing having seen the Shenandoah fly over Cameron, WV the day of the crash.

    For many years I went past the lone flag waving at AVA, Ohio and always thought of the terrible accident that occurred there.

    Best regards,
    Dick Johnson Myrtle Beach, SC

  6. Eric Hanson

    Hey Mike,
    Quite a bit of interesting info. While I haven’t heard of the Shenandoah prior to this,I have been doing some research on a aviation incident that took place in Western NC back in 1946.
    It seems that a man by the name of Gen. Wurtsmuth was traveling from MI to the airbase in Homestead,FL when the B-25 he was in dropped altitude due to a severe storm. The problem was that the flight crew had not checked the topo maps for this area. They called in to the airfield in Asheville to check to elevation of Cold Mountain only to find out that they were 30 feet too low and didn’t have enough time to lift 30ft up and avoid collision. There is a website devoted to a now inactive airbase in MI that carries the General’s name. . I have a goal of hiking up in the spring w/ a few friends to investigage the crash site and just see if anything is left of the plane. I have been told of the possibilities of seeing one of the two radial engines that looters were not able to carry out from 6000 ft.

  7. Kim Frisby

    My great-aunt Maude Phillips Harrison, and her husband John Harrison, lived in Caldwell, OH. We have several family pictures of the wreck of the Shenandoah, including a man in Navy uniform who may have been a survivor. Although Aunt Maude and Uncle John’s involvement in the wreck has been lost over time, the pictures are quite real and diffent than any “official photos” I have ever seen. I can only speculate that the Harrison’s (or someone they knew) took them very soon after the crash.

  8. doug oliver

    I have a 20″x20″ piece of the Shenadoah passed on from my grandmother,Clyda Gardner, who grew up just a mile from where the ship crashed. i’m looking for a original or a copy of the Jeffersonian with the front page article.

  9. Robert McCoy

    At 5 years of age I was visiting my grandparents 3 miles from the wreck site. My mother read in the paper the day before that the Shenandoah would be passing over Zanesville the next morning. So when my grandfather went to the barn to milk about 4:30am he guessed what the roar in the sky was all about. He woke my mother and me and we sighted the Shenandoah in the cloudy morning distance and watched its deathblow struggles. After it disappeared over the neighboring hill we waited a bit and saw a piece of it rise above the hill and float away. Later that day my grandfather got a neigbor to take us in his car to the wreck site. There the local farmer was collecting one dollar per person to go to the wreck. So I was left on the hill to watch my mother go down to the wreck where (I hate to say it) she came away with a piece of the ship’s skin. And this piece I still have today. I cried myself to sleep that night for it was my first brush with death.

  10. Bob Fetter

    Just stopped by the I-77 Rest Area near Ava, Ohio this past Tuesday, July 22, where there is a historic marker describing the Shenandoah accident in September 1925. I may have been hasty in my reading of that sign, but I don’t think any mention is made about the survivors, and the assistance on the ground provided at the Nichols Farm. A Google Search on “Shenandoah & Ohio & 1925” takes you to many information sources.

    I still remember visiting the “Los Angeles” on display at Lakehurst in the summer of 1939, when I was stil Seven Years old. And, a little more than two years earlier, the Hindenburg disaster in 1937 had been one of those terrifying and unfathomable events during my earliest school years. Our Kindergarten teacher brought a newspaper clipping/photograph about that tragedy and posted it on our school room bulletin board in Berwyn, PA. Within a month, my family would embark on the S.S. Manhattan to cross the Atlantic. So at Age Five, all I knew was that “Travel” was a dangerous undertaking, so I became most apprehensive about that sea voyage!

    Bob Fetter, Roanoke, Virginia

  11. Bob Fetter

    Tried to convey comments about Shenandoah, but conntection keeps “timing out” before my message can be sent you.

    Suggestions? Alternatives?

    Thanks, Bob Fetter, Roanoke, VA 24014-3203

  12. Bob Fetter

    In my message 2-3 days ago, I mentioned going with my family and friends to see the Los Angeles in the big hanger at Lakehurst in the Summmer of 1939. I still recall the size and then the control station and the pullman car-like berths. All these years since, I have simply assumed that this marvelous airship would still be on display, should I return to Lakehurst with my children and now my grandchildren. But the wealth of Google information reveals the Los Angeles was scrapped in October 1939, soon after my visit as a Seven Year Old. That road side marker at the I-77 rest area really brings forth some sobering history.

    Bob Fetter, Roanoke, Virginia

  13. ed gilkey

    I was Christmas shopping Dec.20,2003, and discovered an Edison recording cylinder The Wreck of the Shenandoah which apparently is somewhat scarce. I have no idea as to the condition (play ability). Is anyone interested in obtaining the cylinder ? Thanks and may God Bless- ed gilkey

    Are there any survivors of the wreck?

  14. marc vanco

    i am a truckdriver who passes the memorial of the aft section (which can be seen from I-77)thanks for the article on this i am now more educated on the site and can explain better to other drivers who ask about the site on the CB thank you

  15. Karen

    Thank you very much for this very informative site. I have a picture taken of the Wreck of the Shenandoah. The back of the picture says Ava, Ohio, the wreck of The Shenandoah. Sept. 3rd 1925. I believe the photo was taken by my late husband’s grandfather, Ray C. Shear of Lore City, Oh. It very much resembles one of the images on the sheet music, the one on the top right. I would be glad to scan the photo and send it by jpeg to anyone interested.
    p.s. I thought the previous poster was very crass posting the username he used. I wish you could eliminate it from an otherwise GREAT site.
    Thank you,
    Karen Shear,
    Wooster, OH

  16. mike

    Karen, I have no idea what post you are referring to. I am quite interested in helping you to share your picture. Feel free to send it on.

  17. Karen

    It is the oddest thing. I swear there was a lewd username just prior to my entry. It is gone now so enough of that. I am emailing you copies of the front and back of the photo I have. Enjoy. I wish I had a family story to tell, but they are all gone now. The Shear family had family living all over that Noble/Guernsey County area and I “inherited” the photo after my husband passed away. Karen

  18. Mike

    I lived near this area for 17 years before I left for the Marines. My dad called me one day to say that some group was putting a monument up at the crash site, about 200 feet from our old house. I never knew about the crash because, and I’m guessing here, that it just was something everyone thought everyone else knew. I have quite a few pictures of the area prior to the monument being erected. Our barn was across the road from the monument. It was a
    40 acre hay field when I lived there.

  19. jim shrader

    I saw part of the movie “The Court Martial of Billy Mitchel” a few months ago and the Shenandoah officer knew Billy Mitchel and may have been some relation of his , not much detail that I can remember.

    I also work in Cambridge and live in Marietta, both cities in Ohio. and I pass the crash site six days a week, and I always give a salute to and always wonder, about those that died there.

    I am Navy retired and they were Navy so I have a sense of camradery, although I was born 9 years after the crash.(Navy Enlisted)

  20. Tom

    I pass the Interstate 77 rest area marker, dedicated to the Shenandoah,near Ava,Ohio frequently. Last Saturday I had some extra time and decided to find Ava and look for any other markers,etc. A local resident steered me to the nearby towing service,where I found the local experts, Shine and Bryan Rayner(father and son). Bryan dropped everything and personally showed me around the two AVA crash sites plus his trailer full of memorabilia. Bryan then sent me on down State Route 78 to site #3 a few miles to the west,and on my way to my home in Southern Ohio. A truly enjoyable and educational afternoon.
    My grandfather, W. H. Sutphin was a NJ congresssman, member of the Naval Affairs Commitee in the 1920’s and 30’s. I was always told he helped secure the funding for the Lakehurst base, which was near his home. We have a few pictures of Rosendahl, the Akron, The Macon and Lakehusrt…all of which I will send scans to the Raynors, or anyone else interested.
    Family legend states that my grandfather rushed to the Hindenburg disaster, approximately 30 minutes from his home in Matawan, NJ. We were always told he took some important officer to the hospital and there was blood on his back car seat. Family legends are just that….legend! I do not know if this was true. As a young boy,I certainlt wanted it to be true. Regards, Tom Bennett Athens, Ohio

  21. Susan

    My father used to comment about the Shenandoah disaster. He remembered it firsthand, having grown up in Athens County, Ohio. It was big news, much like a spaceshuttle disaster is to us today. He associated it with the fact that his mother bought him his first pair of long pants that day. He never spoke of one without speaking of the other. My dad was born in 1913. Can you imagine wearing short pants until 12 years of age? Until I saw this article, I thought he must have been 6 or 7 at the time. Thank you for taking the time to research and write this article.

  22. ralph frampton

    cleaning out my parents house after my mothers death i uncovered a framed 30X8 picture of the ill fated uss shenandoah it shows the crashed remains of #4 & 5 engine cars. the pic is too large to send copies and i do not want to take it out of the frame at this time.

  23. shanan gilby

    My great grandfather, Julius E. Malak which I never got to meet was a survivor of the four dirigibles. He was aboard the Macon, Los Angeles, The Akron, and the ill fated Shenandoah. I have been researching my family tree and came across pictures of some of the disasters. I also got a newspaper article that he was rescued at see when the Macon plunged 2,500 feet and sank in the Pacific. In the newspaper article it states “Malak leads a charmed life. As a member of the ill-fated Shenandoah he was aboard the morning of September 3, 1925, when the Navy’s pride of the air crashed while crossing Ohio, taking a toll of 14 lives. Forty-four were aboard the Shenandoah and Malak, with two companions, hung to a beam as the huge ship was torn apart by the storm. Malak escaped without injury.” “Three weeks later- April 4- the Akron went down taking a toll of 77 lives, including Rear Admiral William A. Moffet. Having also served on the Los Angeles, Malak is one of few enlisted men to have served on the four dirigibles- two of which went out from under. I am glad to share my family story with all of you. I am very proud of my great grandfather and all his escapes from death. Thank you Shanan Gilby Lakehurst NJ

  24. dan mowry

    my grandfather has three organal photos of the crash one of the front view one of the rear view and a photo of the whole crew. Do you know what these would be worth to someone


    I have the original sheet music in good condition, of THE WRECK of the SHENANDOAH. I am willing to contribute to the preservation of the memory of the crash. Contact me at

  26. d stafursky

    I recently purchased a 1911 Kimball player piano and with it came over 100 music rolls. Some of these are very old so I have been documenting them and doing a little research as I do. I came across on that is titled “Wreck of the Shenandoah”, by M. Andrews. Played by Carl Ellis. It is roll number 0763 put out by the Ideal World Roll, copyright 1925 by Shapiro, Pernstein & Co. N.Y. Also saw “The Rose Valley Co. Phila PA

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