A Legend That’s Lighter Than Air
For decades I have heard the stories about Tulsa’s dirigible mooring mast. But lately it seems to have gained traction, despite a lack of any real evidence. Numerous websites, newspaper articles and Wikipedia all mention the mooring mast atop the 320 Boston Building. But is it true?
Art or Science?
I first heard this legend in the late Seventies. I had come across an unusual rendering while browsing through one of the many resale shops that dotted Archer and north Main Street. The image was a beautiful silver zeppelin floating against a clear blue sky above a building.
What I found may have been a painting, more likely a print. I remember the colors were subdued like a watercolor, and it was approximately ledger size or thereabouts. As I examined it I realized the building below the dirigible was indeed the distinctive tower at 320 S.Boston Avenue. Back then we knew it as the NBT Building.
At the time I dismissed this as the product of some artist’s fertile imagination. Possibly a foray into surrealism? Or maybe an engineering college what-if study? For some reason I didn’t buy darn thing. Bad move.
Years later I mentioned this rendering to friends and learned about the legend of Tulsa’s downtown zeppelin port. The story goes that the Exchange Bank building was supposedly intended as an airship terminal and designed with a dirigible mooring mast and boarding area in the upper tower. A section on the west side of the building juts out in apparent preparation for the airship’s gangplank. Today I look back on that painting and wonder: Was it possibly evidence to support this legend?
First In Flight
Tulsa’s love affair with dirigibles goes way back. The Wright Brothers invented the airplane in 1903, but it would be many years before paying passengers hopped aboard. In 1919 a plan to establish regular passenger service between Kansas City and Fort Worth was proposed by an outfit called the Commercial Airship Syndicate. They intended to fly dirigibles along a scheduled route twice-a-week. Their route was to include stops in Tulsa, Ardmore and Oklahoma City.
The Syndicate planned to use large zeppelins with a capacity of 144 passengers. To work out the kinks they planned a test run using a Pony Blimp recently purchased from Goodyear. The fact you could buy a blimp is pretty astounding. As the name implies, it was pretty darn small- only two passengers. Yet it was still almost a hundred feet long! Once filled with helium they plotted out their route and prepared to work out the kinks. But just hours before departure a thunderstorm destroyed their hangar, and the blimp along with it.
They had discovered the biggest airship kink of all: Weather.
The company was devastated financially and never made good on their promise of scheduled air service. Had they succeeded, it would have been the first airline in America. Like, the first airline of any kind– not just the first airship service!
While that endeavor didn’t get off the ground (ahem), it probably did catch the attention of entrepreneurs eager to cash in on all the oilmen traveling to and from Tulsa and the nearby oilfields. It’s not crazy to imagine, years later as the Exchange Bank is being topped off, that someone might have suggested cobbling a hook on the top of the tower for those new-fangled zeppelins.
The dirigible ZRCV-1, USS Tulsa was commissioned in 1940. It was lost at sea in the Atlantic with her crew during violent weather.
To The Skies
Through the Fifties, Sixties and much of the Seventies we knew that lovely Beaux-Arts tower in that mystery painting as the NBT Building. KOTV’s first television broadcast antenna was mounted on the top. The National Bank of Tulsa called it home for decades and heavily promoted their Weather Light, a flashing warning lamp which adorned the cupola for many years. Aviators used the light as a navigational aid in foul weather.
But when the building opened in 1917 it was called the Exchange National Bank. George Winkler was the architect and planned it in three stages. It was topped off in 1929, and became Oklahoma’s tallest building. That honor lasted a whole two years… but I digress.
The timing of the tower’s completion– 1929– I believe is critical to the legend of the mooring mast.
Aviation was hugely popular in the Twenties and Thirties, and Oklahomans were well represented on the forefront of this new technology. Oilmen like Frank Philips and W.G. Skelly were huge backers of the fledgling industry. Will Rogers loved flying. Wiley Post was a national celebrity after breaking altitude records wearing a diving suit so he could breathe in the rarefied air. Dirigibles were also in their heyday, and the U.S. Navy was operating a number of airships– some built by the actual Zeppelin factory as part of war reparations. But most importantly, it was in 1929 that a mooring mast for dirigibles was announced as an addition to the new Empire State Building. There was even a doctored photo circulated which was very reminiscent of my junk store find!
Airship Parking Only
The grandious plans for the Empire State Building’s airship terminal never materialized. In 1931 a small blimp took off from Lakehurst, NJ and managed to attach to the mooring mast. It took over two hours, and once he managed the feat the ship remained tethered for a whopping three minutes. It was so difficult no one even attempted it again!
The famous image of the USS Los Angeles hovering over Tulsa’s skyline certainly might suggest the legend to be true. But the ship is definitely not attached to a building. There are also a few troubling facts that get in the way. For instance, that particular zeppelin was over 600 feet long. If it had moored to the Exchange Bank the tail of the ship would have cast a shadow over 6th Street. Not to mention bumping into the Philtower Building!
Alas, fertile imaginations appear to be the closest Tulsa ever got to a downtown airship terminal. While it makes for romantic reading, the zeppelin legend appears to be just that— merely an urban legend.
More fascinating reading from around the interwebs…
Visitor from Above by Tulsa Gal
NBT Weather Light from Tulsa TV Memories
Tulsa’s Downtown Weather Warning System from Tulsa World
Buildings (actually) Designed with Dirigible Moorings:
- Empire State Building: the only one ever actually used.
- Huntington Building: Cleveland’s airship terminal
- Thomas Jefferson Hotel: claims the title of world’s last mooring mast