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March 1, 2024

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Images From the Attic: Lindbergh in Clark County

By , Columbian freelance contributor
Published:

Vancouverites felt slighted in September 1927 when Charles Lindbergh landed across the Columbia River in Portland and not at Pearson Field, the site of many early aviation firsts. Still, three stories connect Southwest Washington to the famous pilot. One about a fly-under, one about a flyover and one about camping.

After Charles Lindbergh recovered from his 33½ solo hours crossing the Atlantic, landing at Le Bourget Airport in Paris on May 22, 1927, he toured the United States, promoting commercial airmail and passenger travel. His daring flight and tour boosted widespread interest in aviation for airmail and travel. Pacific Air Transport started airmail flights locally a year before. After Lindbergh’s Atlantic flight, its volume increased dramatically.

Rumors lingered about Lindbergh flying under the Bridge of the Gods for years. When Lindbergh toured the Pacific Northwest, he flew down the Columbia River Gorge toward the bridge. Evidently, his flight was preannounced, giving people time to gather at the bridge. Wayne Mann of Stevenson, then a child, recalled leaving school to watch. Bill Iman, a Columbia River bargeman, remembers seeing the plane “go under the bridge.” Val Thompkins, Cascade Navigation Canal lock tender, recorded that at 1:09 p.m., he observed the Lone Eagle pass down the river “under the Bridge of the Gods” and Lindbergh “wave to the operating crew in passing.”

Lindy was on his way to land at Portland’s Swan Island Airport the first day it was open. An article in The Columbian explained that Lindbergh said he wasn’t invited when asked why he didn’t land at Pearson. Still, Clark County wasn’t giving up easily. The local American Legion post commander, D. Elwood Caples, spoke with Pearson commander Oakley Kelly, a 1924 world endurance record holder, and urged him to contact the famous flyer.

Kelly somehow found Lindbergh, gaining his promise to fly over the field and drop a message the morning of Sept. 16, 1927. On the promised morning, Lindbergh flew over the Columbia River and Pearson Field. Circling, he tossed out a weighted message. Caples ran to it first. He had the message framed and hung for many years in the American Legion building before it was stored. (Sadly, attempts to find it have failed.)

The Columbian reported the message said: “Because of the limited time and the extensive itinerary of the tour of the United States now in progress to encourage popular interest in aeronautics, it is impossible for the Spirit of St. Louis to land in your city. This message from the air, however, is sent to express our sincere appreciation of your interest in our tour and in the promotion and expansion of commercial aeronautics.” The next day, Lindbergh flew to San Francisco.

Lindbergh’s brother-in-law, Aubrey Neil Morgan, who married Anne’s sister, Constance, lived in the Ridgefield area. Charles and Anne Lindbergh visited him there. Morgan wrote to the editor of Clark County History, telling of the Lindberghs’ frequent visits. While Morgan couldn’t recall the specific dates of these visits, he did remember one in 1948 while living in a house near the Lewis River dike, saying, “Charles and Anne Lindbergh parked their trailer in a field nearby.”

Lindbergh did land at Evergreen Airport sometime in the mid-20th century, a cherished memory of Wally Olson, its owner. According to a story by Gordon Baxter in Flying Magazine, Lindberg sat in Olson’s hanger. “He took a hop in my old Aeronca, paid for it, shook hands and left,” Olson told him. Evergreen Airport closed in 2006.

Martin Middlewood is editor of the Clark County Historical Society Annual. Reach him at ClarkCoHist@gmail.com.

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Columbian freelance contributor