Family history researchers often come to a “brick wall” as to what happened to an ancestor. In some cases, those ancestors were involved with one kind of disaster or another. Disasters took many people to an unidentifiable and unknown end. Newspapers at the time of those disasters worked hard to print the names of all who could be identified. They even printed stories which mentioned people who were searching for their relatives in the many disasters which occurred across the country. Those papers are superb resources for researchers who would coordinate the disappearance of their ancestors with the dates of disasters of the time. If only we had searched those lists, many of us would be surprised to find that one or more of our ancestor in some manner related to such events.

Chicago was the scene of a large number of disasters of this type. The Iroquois Theatre fire of December 1903 and the Eastland ship sinking in the Chicago River in 1915 are useful examples of large lists of names printed in the papers concerning these disasters.

Although it did not result in nearly as massive a casualty list as other disasters, the “Wingfoot Express” Blimp disaster which happened 97 years ago today on 21 July 1919 caused the Chicago papers to print a fairly lengthy list of those Chicagoans who were killed and injured in that disaster.

While hardly remembered in Chicago history, the Wingfoot blimp event was one of surprising and shocking horror to the many standing on the downtown streets near LaSalle and Jackson who witnessed the event with uncomprehending eyes.

It was a fine clear summer day when the “Wingfoot Express,” a 186 foot long Goodyear company blimp was slid out of its hangar at the White City Amusement Park at 63rd and Cottage Grove Avenue. The plan was for the blimp to make a number of short trips around the city to make certain that it was ready to carry the eight passengers it was designed to hold. Blimp pilot Jack BOETTNER flew the twin gasoline fueled engine blimp to a landing in Grant Park by mid-morning. Following another short flight from and back to the park, the crew, including mechanics Henry WACKER and Carl WEAVER and White City publicity director, Earl DAVENPORT, along with a newspaper photographer, Milton NORTON, prepared to shove off for a final afternoon flight. Because the flight was considered to be experimental, all five men wore parachutes. Up they went and proceeded west over Van Buren Street to an altitude of 1,200 feet. (The Willis Tower in Chicago stands at 1,450 feet not counting its antennas.)

Turning north at LaSalle Street, pilot Boettner was horrified to notice that rear end of the hydrogen filled bag was on fire! Four men jumped from the rapidly burning blimp. Carl Weaver jumped but fire from the blimp caught his parachute on fire. He fell straight to his death. Milton Norton’s parachute also caught fire but remained inflated enough to allow him to survive his landing for a short time. Boettner and Wacker successfully parachuted from the flaming wreck. Earl Davenport was unable to get out of the gondola below the gas bag and crashed with the burning wreckage. Where did the wreckage go?

The Chicago Genealogical Society will be sponsoring a bus tour Notable Chicago Disasters That Effected Your Ancestor’s Lives. This will be a full day Genealogy Bus Tour with tour guide Craig Pfannkuche on Saturday, October 1, from 9:30am – 4:00pm. Register online at or print the registration form and mail in. Come learn about the “Wingfoot Express” Blimp Disaster of 21 July 1919 and many other notable Chicago disasters. Was your ancestor working downtown Chicago on the 21 July in 1919? Did they see the blimp?

Please note – the complete article on this disaster including what happened to the wreckage, who died and who were injured will appear in the Chicago Genealogical Society Quarterly later in 2016.

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Fire From The Sky: Chicago’s “Wingfoot Express” Blimp Disaster July 21, 1919