Shenandoah Airship Disaster
America had four zeppelins of its own in the 1920s and 1930s. One -- the Los Angeles -- was built by the Germans, flew successfully for a decade, and retired with dignity. The other three -- the Shenandoah, Akron, and Macon -- were built by Americans, and each crashed less than two years after its first flight.
The first, and the only one to crash on land (and thus be suitable as a tourist attraction) was the Shenandoah. On September 3, 1925, it was ordered to conduct an ill-advised publicity tour of Midwestern state fairs. Less than 24 hours into its flight "the strongest airship in the world" was caught in a thunderstorm, torn to pieces, and scattered across the rolling hills of Noble County in southeastern Ohio. Amazingly, 29 of its crew of 43 survived.
A Zeppelin crash site, like an elephant execution site, is something worth visiting, and the folks in Noble County have provided several locations where the modern traveler can ponder the calamity-prone sky whales of yesteryear.
The first is the official Shenandoah Memorial. It originally stood at the spot where the stern section of the Shenandoah fell to earth, but that was back in the wooded hills where few people could visit. The people of Ava have since moved it to a convenient spot along Hwy 821, two houses north of the Methodist Church. A small metal replica of the Shenandoah floats inside a tall granite archway, surrounded by swirling metal storm clouds ready to rip the airship apart. A weathered bronze plaque lists the names of the dead.
The spot where the Shenandoah's bow landed is marked with a sign: "Wreckage Site Number 3." It's on the north side of Hwy 78, four miles west of I-77 exit 25. The bow, partially buoyed by remaining pockets of helium, floated gently to the ground, with everyone on board alive. Ernest Nichols, the farmer who owned the property, tied the bow to trees to keep it from blowing away. For many years the trees, and later the stumps of the trees, were tourist attractions. Now all that's here is the sign, a single picnic table, and a tombstone with "USS Shenandoah" on it, with no explanation of what it means, or of what something with a USS in front of it was doing in a southeastern Ohio forest.
The premier airship disaster attraction in Ava is undoubtedly the Shenandoah Memorial Trailer, which is usually parked outside Rayner's Garage on the south side of town. It is the loving handiwork of Bryan and Theresa Rayner, who have spent their lives preserving artifacts and memorabilia related to the Shenandoah. Bryan was born to it, as his family owned one of the farms on which it crashed.
Some of the items on display include "The wreck of The Shenandoah" sheet music; a 78 rpm record, "The End of The Shenandoah;" a bottle of "Zep Up" carbonated beverage; bolts received from someone named Charles McNutt; and the cuff links of Captain Lansdowne (who died in the crash). Most of the items were donated by locals (their names are noted beneath each), but people are always trying to sell the Rayners things, which they can't afford. "This is just a hobby with us!" they protest, and Theresa says that a small piece of fabric from the Shenandoah recently went for $700-800 on eBay.
Theresa, who works at the post office, tried to get a commemorative stamp issued for the 80th anniversary of the crash, but the rule since 9/11 is that you can't have a disaster on a stamp. Bryan tells of how he and Theresa traveled to Lakehurst, New Jersey, in 1995, all excited to meet a man who had ridden on the Shenandoah. But he died before they got there.
The local high school sports teams are called the Noble-Shenandoah Zeps, but until recently their logo was a fat blimp. After much lobbying by the Rayners, the logo was changed in 2004 to a sleek dirigible. The Rayners still let school kids touch the airship parts in their collection.
Editor's note: We visited to research this story in 2004; Bryan Rayner passed away in 2013.