A donor has given the University of Washington rare footage of Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 visit to Seattle, at the height of his fame.
In the basement of the University of Washington’s Allen Library last month, 82-year-old Beverly Hitt Akers and several library employees pried apart an 88-year-old canister of movie film, the words “Lindy in Seattle” scratched on the surface.
They crowded around a vintage, German-made movie viewer and reeled the film by hand through the machine.
Akers, the granddaughter of a famous, turn-of-the-century Seattle fireworks showman, had rescued the tin from a box in an open shed some years earlier. She’d been told that whatever was inside the tin had probably disintegrated.
But to her delight, the film was intact. And it showed exactly what she hoped: transoceanic pilot Charles Lindbergh visiting Seattle — a national hero at the height of his fame in 1927, being introduced by Seattle Mayor Bertha Knight Landes to a packed crowd at Husky Stadium.
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“It takes your breath away: There he is; it’s all on this film,” said Akers, who has donated the footage to the UW Libraries’ Special Collections in honor of her granddaughter Tara O’Neill, who graduates from the UW in two weeks.
The film captured a pivotal moment in aviation. Lindbergh’s solo flight across the Atlantic happened in May 1927, and his subsequent tour across the country a few months later “absolutely turned the corner for general aviation, and for enthusiasm for aviation,” said Dan Hagedorn, curator of Seattle’s Museum of Flight.
“He resolved he was going to touch base in each of the 48 states, and he did,” Hagedorn said. “It was a spectacular trip.”
His grandson, Erik Lindbergh, said researchers have estimated that one out of every four people living in the U.S. at that time saw Lindbergh on the 48-state tour. In addition to stopping for speeches, the 25-year-old pilot flew low over many cities and towns, often waving and dropping a proclamation from the airplane calling for the growth of aviation.
Lindbergh drummed up interest in aviation “in a very simple, pragmatic way that was successful,” said Erik Lindbergh, who lives on Bainbridge Island. “It was a pretty extraordinary shift in the world’s perspective about transportation.”
The rare footage is notable, too, because it is one of the oldest films in the UW’s Special Collections archive, said Hannah Palin, a UW film archives specialist.
The silent footage, about five minutes long, opens with The Spirit of St. Louis circling the Sand Point Naval Air Station airfield before Lindbergh sets it down on a primitive landing strip.
“Out of the sky he came yesterday to be acclaimed as no other man who ever visited Seattle,” said the Sept. 14, 1927, front-page story carried by the Seattle Daily Times, which devoted three full pages of stories and photos to the event.
In the footage, Lindbergh, who looks exhausted, emerges from the plane and is greeted by a crush of men and women — the men in hats and suits, many of the women wearing furs.
The footage then shows Lindbergh and his entourage taking the yacht Alarwee along the shore of Lake Washington to the stadium. He disembarks near the Husky crew buildings, and he is driven several times around Husky Stadium in a convertible limousine, where he is “greeted by a roaring mob of humanity,” according to the newspaper, which estimated the Husky crowd at 25,000.
Landes, the city’s first and only woman mayor, introduces him at the dais with these words: “Seattle is at your feet, men, women and children.” Landes then says the city is planning to build a municipal airport so “Seattle will take its place in the front ranks and become the aviation center it is destined to be,” according to the newspaper. (Less than a year later, Seattle’s first municipal airfield was dedicated.)
During Lindbergh’s 48-state tour, his speech rarely varied: “He wanted to basically promote aviation, wanted to demonstrate that aircraft were safe and reliable,” Hagedorn said. “He also advocated for commercial aviation — for the post office, for passenger flights … He had a bully pulpit, and he recognized that.”
At the time of Lindbergh’s visit, Seattle was not yet a major force in aviation; what was to become the Boeing Company was just 11 years old, and there’s no mention of founder William Boeing in any of the news coverage.
The film captures Lindbergh being driven down Second Avenue in a limousine, the parade route jammed with people. That night, he was the celebrated guest at a banquet at the Olympic Hotel, where he predicted the development of “huge passenger planes with several motors and carrying 15 or more passengers.”
The film then jumps to the next morning, when Lindbergh visits Volunteer Park, where an estimated 30,000 schoolchildren were waiting. It ends with a shot of Lindbergh flying away in the little silver plane — destination: Portland, with side stops in all the major cities in southwest Washington.
The newspaper claimed a half-million people in Washington saw Lindbergh, either in person or as he circled downtown Seattle, and later Olympia, Hoquiam and Aberdeen, from the air.
When he reached Olympia, “the plane flew around the dome of the Capitol three times, descending to a low altitude. The flyer then dropped a message of greeting and roared off.”
Palin, the film-archives specialist at the UW Special Collections, said the film is in fair shape, but she’d like to find grant money to have it restored and digitized, work that would cost up to $4,000 and allow viewers to see the footage in greater detail.
The film is a prize for the university, which is working to become a more comprehensive repository of film clips of the area’s history. Last year, Palin helped preserve high-quality film clips shot in the 1920s and ’30s that showed ordinary life in Aberdeen and Hoquiam. The 27-minute documentary, “Grays Harbor Happenings,” received several awards.
Did his grandfather ever talk about the flight, and the 48-state tour that followed? Erik Lindbergh laughed. “Pretty much no,” he said.
Charles Lindbergh wrote two books about the flight: “WE,” published immediately afterward, and “The Spirit of St. Louis” in the 1950s. “One of the consequences of being so world famous, and for so long, is that it overcooked him, so to speak,” Erik Lindbergh said.
“My uncle tells me that if anyone, even family members, asked him about the flight or that tour, he said, ‘Read the book.’ ”