BETHLEHEM, Pa. — Lucky Lindy had more than luck when he made the first nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean a little more than 90 years ago.
Famed aviator Charles Lindbergh had the force of Bethlehem Steel behind him — well, actually, in front of him.
The single engine that powered Lindbergh’s “Spirit of St. Louis” through 3,600 miles from New York to Paris included parts made at the company’s hometown plant, a longtime source of Bethlehem pride.
“If that engine failed, he was a dead man,” said Robert van der Linden, curator of the Spirit of St. Louis exhibit at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. “He bet his life on that engine.”
One of the Smithsonian’s affiliates, the National Museum of Industrial History in Bethlehem, has now acquired a forgotten memento of Lindbergh’s historic accomplishment — an original telegram congratulating Bethlehem Steel for its part in the making of that landmark flight.
On May 22, 1927, the day after Lindbergh reached Paris, Wright Aeronautical of Paterson, N.J., which made the monoplane’s engine, sent a Western Union telegram to Bethlehem Steel:
“CONNECTING RODS AND OTHER PARTS OF CAPTAIN LINDBERGHS WRIGHT WHIRLWIND ENGINE WERE MADE FROM FORGINGS FURNISHED BY YOU PERIOD FOR THIRTY THREE AND ONE HALF HOURS CAPTAIN LINDBERGHS LIFE DEPENDED ON THE QUALITY OF STEEL IN YOUR FORGINGS AND THEY DID NOT FAIL HIM”
At the bottom of the telegram is a notation that says (COPY), which suggests copies of the telegram were sent to several recipients, said Claire Treacy, spokeswoman for Western Union.
The telegram’s markings indicate it had been folded into the small Western Union telegram envelope, signaling it’s authentic, she said.
“It is reasonable to consider this telegram as original, but it is likely more than one of the same original telegrams were printed and distributed,” Treacy said.
The telegram was included with photographs of Lindbergh with his plane, a map of his flight path and photos of the engine rods in a commemorative booklet, “Bethlehem Plant Inspection 1927,” that was given to employees.
The telegram, still encased in a Depression-era frame, likely hung on an office or plant wall for decades but eventually was lost to history.
Brenda Stetler of Bethlehem found the item among the belongings of her late father, Garvin Kram, who died in 2009 at age 75. Kram worked for 31 years in the sales department for Casting and Forgings at Bethlehem Steel, according to his obituary.
Stetler said her dad, a history buff, had the telegram hanging on the wall in his finished basement after retiring in 1986. It had been stored in a box after her mother died in 2012, and Stetler decided to donate it after touring the museum, which opened in 2016 in an old Steel building.
“I think that’s where it belongs — a place where people could enjoy it,” she said. “It’s part of Bethlehem Steel’s past; it’s part of history.”
A penchant for adventure
The race to fly nonstop across the Atlantic began in 1919, just 16 years after the Wright brothers completed the first powered flights, when New York hotelier Raymond Orteig offered a $25,000 prize to anyone from the Allied countries who could fly from New York to Paris or Paris to New York.
Some of the attempts proved to be fatal, and well-known aviators of the day, including polar explorer Richard Byrd and barnstormer Clarence Chamberlain, were among those competing. By contrast, Lindbergh was a relative unknown at the time — an obscure U.S. Air Mail pilot with a penchant for adventure.
Several aviators competing in the mid-1920s, including Lindbergh, chose a single-engine over a tri-motor because there would be fewer places where something could go wrong, said van der Linden.
The J-5C Whirlwind radial engine was manufactured by Wright Aeronautical, a successor company to the one started by the Wright brothers. The engine had a self-lubricating head, and the pilot didn’t have to grease the arm. The pilots didn’t have to worry about an overheated engine or broken valves, van der Linden said.
At 508 pounds, the engine was not only powerful but light. That’s because much of it was made with aluminum, but the high-stressed parts — the cylinder liners, crankshaft, piston and connecting rods — would get the hottest and needed to be strong, van der Linden said.
For that, Wright Aeronautical turned to Bethlehem Steel.
The company had vaulted toward the top of the steelmaking industry by that time. Its rise began with military contracts during World War I and continued with the development of a special beam that propelled skyscraper construction after the war.
“We see this progression of pushing the limits, pushing the boundaries,” said Andria Zaia, curator of collections at the National Museum of Industrial History.
The steel for Lindbergh’s engine, she said, was likely made in the Basic Open Hearth Furnace, located at what is now a parking lot at Third Street and Founders Way. The steel was poured into molds created for the engine pieces, she said.
Some of those parts eventually found their way into the engine of the plane which 25-year-old Lindbergh piloted on that historic flight.
Among the mechanical engineers at Bethlehem Steel then was another young man, Earnshaw Cook, who signed for the telegram May 23, 1927.
Cook later took charge of the research department at the Open Hearth, where he developed a new method of steelmaking, but fame would find him long after he left Bethlehem Steel. Cook is, among other things, famous for his early research on sabermetrics, which analyzes baseball through statistics, as depicted in the movie “Moneyball,” starring Brad Pitt. Cook’s slide rule is logged with the Baseball Hall of Fame.
The telegram Cook signed for will be stored at the National Museum of Industrial History and available for researchers. It’s not on public display yet, but Zaia said it may be part of a special exhibition down the road.
She mentioned that the Smithsonian has the “Spirit of St. Louis,” jokingly suggesting that perhaps the museum might loan the plane to its affiliate in Bethlehem for such an exhibit.
“Pipe dreams,” laughed Glenn Koehler, spokesman for the National Museum of Industrial History.
But then again, the same could have been said of the obscure pilot who had the steel to fly the Spirit of St. Louis into history.
Information from: The Morning Call, http://www.mcall.com