The most renowned pilot in history is celebrated at his birthplace northwest of St. Paul, Minnesota.
By Bill Vossler
On May 20, 1927, the Spirit of St. Louis, loaded to the brim with gasoline, lumbered down the runway at Roosevelt Airfield in Garden City, New York. With its single engine roaring, it strained to lift into the air, touched down again, lifted once more, and finally struggled off the ground, climbing slowly. Telephone wires loomed at the end of the runway.
Had the Spirit not risen above those wires into the leaden skies, the name of 25-year-old airmail pilot Charles Augustus Lindbergh would merely have been a footnote consigned to the ash heaps of history, forgotten among others who had died since 1919 trying to win a $25,000 prize for flying across the Atlantic Ocean. (The money would be equivalent to nearly $260,000 today.)
But the plane did make it into the air, barely missing the wires, and by the next day Charles Lindbergh would become one of the world’s first media superstars, with tons of accolades, and eventually a Minnesota museum dedicated to him.
Deciding to go
In 1926 two members of French ace Rene Fonck’s flight crew died in an airplane crash as they prepared to fly across the Atlantic. After that, airmail pilot Charles Lindbergh decided he would attempt to leap the Atlantic himself. “I convinced myself a much-lighter plane with one person might succeed,” he wrote later.
Lindbergh appeared to be living on borrowed time anyway, as 36 of the first 41 airmail pilots had already died in crashes.
He found backers in St. Louis (thus the plane’s name), and convinced the president of Ryan Airlines of San Diego, California, to build him an airplane, into which Lindbergh installed an engine and instruments of his own choosing. On May 10, 1927, Lindbergh hopped in and flew it from San Diego to New York City, using a 50-cent railroad map spread across his knees for directional guidance. Once he made it to New York, he was socked in by bad weather for eight days.
The lanky pilot was matter-of-fact about his chances. To keep the load light, he would not take a radio, night-flying equipment, sextant, or parachute “” only five sandwiches and a quart of water. “If I get to Paris, I won’t need any more,” he said. “And if I don’t get to Paris, I won’t need any more, either.”
Newspaper and magazine writers called Lindbergh a “flying fool,” because the odds were so stacked against him.
After the Spirit of St. Louis barely missed the telephone wires and droned away into the fog over Roosevelt Airfield, it was spotted across New England, then over Nova Scotia, and then . . . silence. All that evening, all the next day. Nothing.
Then, 33 1/2 hours after takeoff, at 10:22 p.m. on May 21, the Spirit of St. Louis landed at Le Bourget Field in Paris. Lindbergh was met by quite a welcoming committee. He later wrote, “Never in my life have I seen anything like that human sea. Dozens of hands took hold of me, my legs, my arms, my body. I found myself on top of the crowd, in the center of an ocean of heads that extended as far out into the darkness as I could see.”
He had planned on seeing Europe once he got there, but that was not to be. “It didn’t make much difference if I wanted to stay over there or not. I was informed that it wasn’t an order to come back home, but there was a battleship waiting for me the next week.” The ship was dispatched by President Calvin Coolidge to give the American hero a ride home.
And what a homecoming! He was catapulted into a notoriety never before experienced in the history of the world. Four and a half million people greeted him in New York City alone. He received 3.5 million letters, 100,000 telegraph messages, and 14,000 packages. Four thousand poems and dozens of songs were written about “Lucky Lindy.”
And eventually a museum would be built in his honor near his hometown of Little Falls, Minnesota, on the banks of the Mississippi River.
Charles A. Lindbergh House State Historic Site and Museum is situated on the Little Falls farm where Lindbergh grew up. It is approximately 110 miles northwest of St. Paul.
The upswept museum roof at the site creates the sense of moving upward, of flying. Inside are the expected artifacts and information about his monumental trip: a duplicate of the Spirit of St. Louis in which visitors can sit, triggering the sound of the accelerating engine; actual propellers from Lindbergh”˜s aircraft; and maps of trips taken and routes started. Informational dioramas and newsreels chronicle the great undertaking, which Lindbergh attempted because, even though he had pioneered airmail routes (including one between St. Louis and Chicago), landed in farmers’ fields at night by flashlight, and survived two crashes, he had grown bored. “There was nothing to match myself against,” he said.
One display offers visitors a chance to “Pack the plane for its trip to Paris. What would you take with you?” The amount of fuel required increases or decreases as the visitor makes choices.
The museum also contains displays and information about his marriage to Anne Morrow Lindbergh; the birth, kidnapping, and murder of Charles Augustus Lindbergh Jr.; the couple’s subsequent attempts to shrink from the limelight; and their move to a remote area of Hawaii.
Lindbergh’s achievements garnered him the Congressional Medal of Honor; the French Legion of Honor; the British Air Force Cross; the Silver Buffalo from the Boy Scouts; a life-size bronze monument on the grounds of the state capitol in St. Paul; and the Pulitzer prize for literature. Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s books also are noted at the museum.
Lindbergh was more than an aviator. He volunteered as a test subject to determine the effects of high altitude on a body in a simulation chamber. During World War II he showed other pilots how to save gasoline, thus extending their flight time and distances. (He himself flew 50 sorties.) With Nobel Prize-winning French surgeon Dr. Alexis Carrels, he invented the glass perfusion pump, a forerunner of today’s artificial heart.
He was inventive in other ways, too, as indicated in the actual family home where he grew up, which still stands about 75 yards away from the museum.
The Lindbergh House
Massive vandalism and damage were inflicted to this house soon after Lindbergh’s flight, for at the time no one lived in the residence or watched over it. Souvenir hunters stole pots, pans, doorknobs “” anything that was not tied down, and some things that were. But today the residence looks as it would have in the 1920s. The family’s Saxon automobile still exists, too. It has been restored to its former glory and is now displayed in the basement.
Signs of Lindbergh’s personality and inventiveness exist everywhere throughout the house: ax marks on the kitchen floor where he chopped wood for the stove; burn marks on the parlor floor from a fire that occurred when he forgot to turn off electric chick brooders he had made; a gas engine; and a pump in the basement where Lindbergh and friends dug a well by hand. One of his regular chores was bringing huge chunks of ice from the icehouse a hundred feet away into the kitchen icebox, so he rigged up a series of levers and pulleys to simplify the process. He even built a cement duck pond and engraved his name in the wet concrete.
Lindbergh slept on the screened porch during all seasons, including the cold winter. Before bed he warmed himself at the pot-bellied stove, wrapped up in a blanket, opened the window, and crawled out onto his bed. Then he turned and shook hands with his mother, a practice they continued for many years.
Although his mother was a high school teacher, Lindbergh was not a good student. He gladly skipped his senior year because of a World War I emergency decree that granted some young men leave of school if they would farm, which helped the war effort. He dropped out of college to learn how to fly, and the single heroic act of flying solo across the Atlantic Ocean inspired an aviation revolution that has changed the world forever. The “Flying Fool” suddenly became the “Lone Eagle.”
Charles A. Lindbergh Historic Site
1620 Lindbergh Drive S.
Little Falls, MN 56345
e-mail: [email protected]
The historic site is across the road from Charles A. Lindbergh State Park, which was named after the senior Lindbergh, a Minnesota state legislator. It is two miles south of Little Falls, Minnesota; signs off Minnesota State Route 15 direct visitors. In summer it is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., Sunday from noon to 5:00 p.m., and is closed Mondays except for holidays. In September and October it is open only on weekends.
Admission is $7 for adults, $6 for seniors, $4 for children ages 6 to 17, and free for children under 6.
Charles A. Lindbergh State Park
P.O. Box 364
Little Falls, MN 56345
Offers 38 sites, 15 with electricity; toilets, water, shower, tables. RV length limit 50 feet.
Innsbrook Motel & RV Park
120 Sixth St.
Randall, MN 56475
Quiet with grassy parking spots; 30- and 50-amp service; picnic tables. Located approximately 11 miles from Little Falls with area lakes and a golf course nearby.
Lindbergh remembered first seeing an airplane when he was 9 years old. “I was playing upstairs in our house on the riverbank, the sound of a distant engine drifted into an open window. Suddenly, I sat up straight and listened. No automobile engine made that noise. It was approaching too fast. I ran to the window and climbed out onto the tarry roof. It was an airplane!”
As he was about to land in Paris, he thought: “Looking down on Europe, I felt my world compressed. Miles and hours were disjointed after my transatlantic flight: New York and Paris, less than a day and a half apart! New York and London, closer still! Man’s concepts of world geography must change as he took to his airplane’s wings.”