Step back 88 years to September, 1925 as we visit an observer, Ed Lehotay, a lively 97 years old. He and his family actually saw the giant Shenandoah airship that fateful morning before it crashed in nearby Ava, Ohio.
USS Shenandoah was the first of four US Navy rigid airships built at Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey. It made the first airship crossing of North America at speeds of up to 69 mph. On its 57th flight, this “strongest airship in the world” was on a publicity tour of Midwestern State Fairs when it was caught in a thunderstorm in the rolling hills of southeastern Ohio. Surprisingly, 29 of the crew of 43 survived the crash.
Nine year old Ed Lehotay recalled September 2 as being a dreary day with the threat of a storm in the air. They had gone to bed about 10:00 that night in their family home on Patton Hollow Road just south of Cambridge. Their house shook in the terrible storm with torrents of rain pouring down. As the lightning flashed and lit up the sky, their father had noticed a large airship pitching back and forth like a bucking horse directly over their house. His father woke the whole family at 4:00 in the morning on September 3, 1925. The children’s eyes were wide with wonder at the huge airship over their house being lit up by the lightning.
The Shenandoah moved slowly just over the rooftop. Their family was shocked to see the 680′ long airship with a diameter of nearly 80′ so close, rolling from side to side. That’s as long as two and a half football fields! When the sound of the roaring engines combined with the rolling thunder, the noise was unforgettable. From the living room window, the family watched the airship as it drifted across the road, over the barn, and up the hill nearly touching the top of their cherry orchard. The crew threw the spider lines from the airship in hopes they would either get tangled in the tree tops, or perhaps someone would be able to reach them and restrain the airship.
Ed and his family would never forget the sight of the USS Shenandoah (ZR-1) on that eventful morning. As the squall line continued to pummel the zeppelin, the ship eventually broke in half with part of it landing near Ava, Ohio in Noble County, and the rest being scattered about ten miles farther, with many of the crew falling to the ground along the way.
People made a beeline to the crash location in the continuing rain. Ed begged his family to let him go to the site, but they felt there would be too much confusion there for a youngster. Instead his brother drove to Ava through the mud roads in his new Willy’s Baby Overland. Once there they saw people cutting up the fabric of the airship for raincoats. Even though it was raining, people still needed drinking water so a local farmer, fearing his well would go dry from so many users, began charging for water – something rare in those days. Another young entrepreneur brought thirst quenching bottles of pop to sell at the site. Many took pieces of Shenandoah’s aluminum frame as souvenirs. Ed’s brother brought him a piece of aluminum, which Ed melted in their forge and fashioned into rings. His dad put on one of those rings with a diamond shape on top, wore it every day and was even buried with it on his hand.
Today the Shenandoah Memorial stands near the place of the crash. Originally, the memorial was back in the woods at the actual site of the crash, but today it has been moved where people can visit it more easily. It consists of a small metal replica of the Shenandoah airship inside a tall granite archway , which is surrounded by swirling metal storm clouds. A bronze plaque lists names of those who lost their lives in the crash.
At the southern end of Ava, there is a USS Shenandoah Memorial Trailer Museum beside Rayner’s Garage. Bryan and Teresa Rayner have saved many pieces of memorabilia regarding that crash in 1925. Bryan has a special interest since his family owned one of the farms where pieces were found.
A local high school in Noble County carries on the historic memory of this event by having their high school sports team called the Shenandoah Zeps. Their logo is a sleek dirigible.
How wonderful it would have been to view the Shenandoah in all its magnificence as it glided through the sky. Thanks to all those who help memories of the famous airship and its crash still live on!
To visit the Shenandoah crash site, take I-77 to Exit 28 , Belle Valley. From the west side of the interstate, take Hwy 821 North 5 miles to Ava. The monument is on the north side of town on the east side of the road and well marked. Rayner’s Garage and the Shenandoah Trailer Museum are on the south side of town. The museum has limited open hours.