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meteor crater lindbergh

This is the first aerial photograph ever taken of Meteor Crater, captured in 1929 by famed aviator Charles Lindbergh as he flew over northern Arizona.

One of the many things I enjoy about reading books is the unexpected discovery of some obscure fact or story that connects one passionate interest to another. Years ago, for instance, while reading astronaut John Glenn’s memoir, I was astonished to learn that his frequent wing man while flying combat missions in the Korean War was baseball legend Ted Williams.

I recently uncovered another strand of literary connective tissue while reading a book published back in 1953. Recalling a family trip across the United States, the author wrote,

There’s a great, steep hollow in the mist...hard, reddish yellow walls, broken, crumbling slopes, cupping a mile-wide crater. See the deep, blue sky above, through which a meteor once hurtled to make this giant pockmark on the earth. My mother, my Uncle Charles, and I stand on the blasted rim, near Winslow, Arizona. A hot wind blows dust against our eyes, and whistles through stone crevices. Almost a thousand feet below us lies the brush-spotted desert floor, a group of abandoned mine buildings in its center. Far in the distance, a puff of dust marks another car’s struggle with the sands. Beyond that, there’s not a sign of life for as far as we can see.

It’s late summer of 1916. I’m driving our Saxon car from Little Falls (Minnesota) to California. We’ve been over thirty days on the road, and we’ve been pushing fairly hard. Weather and mechanical troubles have held up—a worn-out timer-trigger in Iowa, mud in Mississippi (oh, those dismal hotel rooms, where we waited for the roads to dry!), a broken spring-bolt in Kansas, a wheel shimmy that started on the Raton Pass. The list is long; we add a few items almost every day, and we still have half a thousand miles to go. My uncle picks up a chunk of brownish rock. I wish we could find a fragment of the meteor.

While brief, the account is interesting for several reasons. First, it offers a glimpse of a significant time in the history of American tourism and travel. Henry Ford had pioneered the process of automobile mass production in 1913 with his introduction of moving assembly lines. Soon, families could afford their own cars and were eager to use them to travel across the country. This led to the development of a better and more extensive road system, including a transcontinental highway called the National Old Trails Road. In the West, this route often followed historic trails such as the Beale Wagon Road; it would later serve as the basis for part of Route 66 and, eventually, Interstate 40. The National Old Trails Road passed through Northern Arizona in 1915. Our author and his family, traveling just a year later, likely took advantage of this new roadway on their journey west.

The second noteworthy aspect of the account is that it recalls an early visit by tourists to the feature commonly known today as Meteor Crater. At the time, Daniel Moreau Barringer was still mining the crater in the hopes of discovering the very large and—in his mind, valuable—mass of nickel that had created the depression. We know today that Barringer was searching for a ghost, since modern science shows that the majority of the impactor had vaporized. Yet Meteor Crater still proved valuable, not for its mineral riches but for its combination of scientific significance (as the best preserved impact crater known on Earth and an ideal analogy to similar features on the Moon) and as a destination for tourists. This duality is common at other sites around Northern Arizona, from other natural features such as the Grand Canyon, Sunset Crater, and San Francisco Peaks, to facilities including the Museum of Northern Arizona and Lowell Observatory.

The third, and perhaps most breathtaking, feature of the story involves the identity of the author and circumstances relating to his recollection of the Meteor Crater visit. The book, titled The Spirit of St. Louis, is Charles Lindbergh’s autobiographical account of his 1927 solo flight from New York to Paris. Throughout the narrative, Lindbergh injected memories of his life that came to mind as he struggled to stay awake during his 33 ½-hour journey.

Seventeen hours into the flight (and 38 hours since he had last slept), while dead reckoning his way over the Atlantic, he dreamily thought of that long-ago visit to Northern Arizona as a 14-year-old. Thus did a memory of Meteor Crater become a footnote in the story of one of the most celebrated and remarkable events of modern times.

The Lindbergh/Meteor Crater story doesn’t end there. In the summer of 1929, two years after his transoceanic adventure, he flew over Northern Arizona while helping develop the infrastructure for the first commercial transcontinental flights. During that expedition, he took the first aerial photograph of Meteor Crater.

As an aside, Lindbergh was born on February 4, 1902, six years to the day before Pluto discover Clyde Tombaugh. In another part of Lindbergh’s book, he recalled flying over Streator, Illinois (Tombaugh’s hometown) in 1926 while hauling airmail between St. Louis and Chicago. Tombaugh wouldn’t have noticed Lindbergh’s plane because by that time the Tombaughs had moved to Kansas. But perhaps Tombaugh did see Lindbergh during his 1929 flight over Northern Arizona, since Tombaugh had started working at Lowell Observatory just a few months prior to the flight.

Finally, Lindbergh played an important role in the development of space studies. Not only did his famous flight help advance air travel, but he became a close friend and staunch advocate of physicist/inventor Robert Goddard. Lindbergh spearheaded an effort to raise funds that allowed Goddard to develop the liquid-fueled rocket, which was critical to the development of missiles and the evolution of space travel.

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Kevin Schindler is the Lowell Observatory historian.

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