It was recently announced that best-selling author Gary Krist (The White Cascade, Extravagance, Chaos Theory) has contracted to write AMERICAN COLOSSUS: An Epic of Chicago. The book will be "a narrative history of twelve extraordinary days in the life of Chicago in the summer of 1919, the events of which -- an aviation disaster, a race riot, a crippling transit strike, and a sensational murder -- helped define the city's identity at a critical moment in its evolution." American Colossus is in its early stages and probably won't be published until 2011, (you heard it here first!) but I'm already anxious to read it. 1919 was one tough year in the history of Chicago and the month of July may have been hardest of all.
Prohibition came to Chicago. (18th Amendment would go into affect January, 1920, but Illinois lawmakers ratified the amendment in 1919.) Beer and wine were still legal, for awhile, but "John Barleycorn" had left the building. (Republicans in Washington, however, were working to repeal a tax on ice cream sodas. See July 17, 1919 Chicago Tribune if you don't believe me.) A transportation strike was called for and Armour and Swift were trying to find ways to appease their packinghouse workers. Garbage men went on strike and workers at International Harvester. Strikes were crippling the city. The Goodyear dirigible, Wingfoot, crashes into the Illinois Trust and Savings Building at 231 South LaSalle Street. And, a stone throwing incident between blacks and whites on the 29th Street Beach plus the drowning death of Eugene Williams, a young black swimmer, erupts into racial violence around the city. That's just a sampling of what Chicago endured that hot summer. Of course, there was also the World Series scandal to look forward to in the fall...
Of particular interest will be Krist's findings on the Wingfoot air disaster of July 21st. I've been searching and very little has been written about the tragedy. To my chagrin, I could not even find it listed in the Encyclopedia of Chicago. If I've missed something, please let me know. There is a brief entry in Wikipedia and I found a short article by Duncan Rice titled, "Wingfoot Air Express - The First Airship Disaster."
On Monday 21st July 1919 the Wingfoot Air Express (owned by the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company) crashed into the Illinois Trust and Savings Building in Chicago, with the loss of 13 lives. This was the worst Airship disaster in the USA until the Zeppelin Airship, Hindenburg crashed in 1937. Of the 13 who died, one was a crew member, two were passengers whilst the remaining 10 were bank employees in the building below.
The Wingfoot Air Express was carrying passengers from Grant Park to the White City Amusement Park when, at an altitude of about 1200ft, the craft caught fire above the Chicago Loop. Once the crew realised that the Airship was lost, the Pilot and the Chief Mechanic parachuted to safety along with a third person who broke both legs and later died in hospital.
The Illinois Trust & Savings Bank building on the corner of LaSalle Street and Jackson Boulevard, housed 150 employees who were closing up after the days business (the fire being reported to have started at 4:55pm) in the main banking hall. The main hall was illuminated by a large skylight and the remains of the Wingfoot Air Express struck the banks skylight directly causing flaming debris to fall through to the hall below. As well as the ten employees who were killed, 27 members of staff were also reported injured.
After the crash, Chicago City Council imposed a ban on hydrogen filled dirigibles from flying over populated parts of the city. The Airships home base, Grant Park Airstrip, was also closed shortly after the crash.
One would think there would be more on this significant event. Write fast, Gary.
Photo Credit: Chicago Public Library
Cartoon: John T. McCutcheon; Chicago Tribune, July 23, 1919