Was there even money to build such a port? Possibly. Ots claimed he had sold 172,000 shares at 25 cents each in Portland alone (The Oregonian, Jan. 5, 1908). The Daily Abstract ads implies that he thought he could sell them for even more: $1 a share. And this was despite a prospectus that promised dirigibles and services that were absolutely unprecedented: the longest ship ever built (1,250 feet long) with an unproven carrying capacity (500 passengers, 40 crew members, 40 tons of mail), and the first-ever transatlantic service (New York to London).
The promised Portland-San Francisco service was equally without precedent in distance, speed (80 miles per hour), and passenger capacity (100).
You may wonder why anyone would buy National Airship stock. But this was during an era when the national and international press was producing a continuous stream of stories about aeronautical experiments of all sorts. The future was in the sky!
Hadn’t Portlanders gawked at the powered blimps piloted so skillfully by the amazing 18-year-old Lincoln Beachey at the Lewis and Clark Fair of 1905? The Oregonian of January 5, 1908 remarked that “thousands of people saw Beachy [sic], and perhaps that is why the [National Airship] stock has sold so well”.
No wonder agents selling the stock found these lines from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem “Locksley Hall” ’the hottest stuff of their entire spiel’:
“… [I] saw the heavens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails.”
So why shouldn’t stockholders believe that a farm boy from Kansas like John Andrew Morrell, president of the National Airship Company, be one of the many, many inspired inventors?
By the time the Daily Abstract ads were run, things were starting to turn sour for the National Airship Company and Morrell. Stockholders were bringing charges against Morrell for obtaining money under false pretenses. The United States Postal Service was investigating him for possible fraudulent stock sales. Morrell was arrested on felony charges in March, 1908. Ots closed the Portland offices in May.
With mounting pressure, Morrell may have felt compelled to test his prototype airship earlier than he was ready to— or so he would claim. Whatever the motivation, he decided to move his prototype balloon from its San Francisco construction site to a vacant lot in Berkeley for a trial run back.
Early in the afternoon of May 23, 1908, Morrell’s gas-filled, 485-foot non-rigid dirigible rose slowly to a height of 300 feet as thousands of onlookers cheered below. Suddenly the ship slumped, then tilted; sending gas to one end which apparently was what caused the stretched-oiled cloth to rip. It began to descend, first slowly, then rapidly.
Most of the 16 crew members and passengers clung on to the netting and superstructure. The crowd fled in panic. Some of the aeronauts jumped, but most were trapped beneath the heavy cloth and metal structures. Hearing their cries for help, the observers came back to their rescue. Most of the men on the airship were badly injured, including Morrell, who suffered one or two broken legs (depending on which newspaper account you read).
Had the Ariel flight not failed, had Morrel continued building as he vowed he would, had a Portland-San Francisco finally proved feasible, perhaps an airship port would have actually been built— maybe even in Montavilla.
I was hoping this would prove to be true. It would have been cool to know that Montavilla once had a port from the earliest history of aviation. If it had been or if it was even in the planning stage, I would have expected the Montavilla Board of Directors to be ecstatic, but there was not a peep from that group in the press.
So I have to say, the story is very unlikely; but it was a fascinating story to research.
Historical story ideas? Questions about Montavilla’s past? Also share a love for neighborhood history?
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