Aloft, August 22, 1934

The kind of stories photographs tell are short on words. In the best ones the language is formed by a sense of marvel with characters fixed in a visual narrative and the action carried along entirely by imagination.

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Here is such a story as the airship USS Macon circles downtown Tacoma and a handful of excited observers swirl around the roof of the Pantages Theatre. The Macon and twin ridged frame airship the Akron were the largest helium-filled rigid airships ever built. They could carry five Sparrowhawk aircraft that flew without landing gear to be launched and retrieved solely in mid air by the flying aircraft carrier.

The airships were built at the edge of known

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USS Macon under construction, 1932-3

construction limits using light weight aluminum to shape massive frames encasing gas cells filled with  the Nobel gas helium. Like the zeppelins built in Germany, the Macon carried eight 12 cylinder, 500 horsepower engines to drive a swarm of propellers that would pivot to lift or descend the behemoth airship. The combustion engines burned a huge amount of gasoline stored near the passenger areas for ballast.

The further the airship traveled the lighter it got and the more gas it burned fighting the skyward pull of the lighter than air helium inside. The Macon was a visual beauty against the clouds, floating along that late summer day over Tacoma. It was the kind of elegant engineering the city loved on full display in a vessel that was only 15 months old. Less than six months later the airship would be caught in a windstorm off Monterey Bay and sink after hitting the water and burning.

But from the rooftops in Tacoma on August 22nd 1934 that was unthinkable, like the collapse of an elegant new suspension bridge six years into the future. There was just the spellbinding movement of a silver skyship over head, a low murmur in the distance and a story to be told in pictures and memory.

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Trib 8.22.34.en
Tacoma News Tribune August 22, 1934

Images from the Richards Collection at Tacoma Public Library

Written by TacomaHistory

This site is about the way history, in this case of a city and it's surrounds, is remembered or recorded in stories and small bits of memory. It's also about the way images and stories go together, how they inform and enrich each other and how we as thinking people fill in the content between a narrative and a visual document. So here is my city in time past, the way it looked and the people and events that create its character. For more than 20 years I have taught a 5 credit course on the History of Tacoma at the University of Washington Tacoma. With an average of 30 or 40 students a year, each doing a research paper as their primary focus for the course, I have benefited from many paths of inquiry and many researched and assembled stories. Here are some of them in the retelling along with the treasures of photographs and images in the collections of the Washington State Historical Society, Tacoma Public Library, University of Washington Digital Archives, Washington State Archives at the Office of the Secretary of State, Library of Congress, Washington State University, Alaska State Library, and many other archives, libraries and private collections.

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