Rather than the conventional christening with a magnum of Champagne, Miriam Denby pulled a cord and released carrier pigeons that bore President Calvin Coolidge a message concerning “the addition of the big [ZR-1] airship to the regular naval forces.” The New York Times reported these birds were actually doves and probably signified peace. And in fact, the Philadelphia Evening Public Ledger asked the next day, October 11, 1923, “Of what use are great airships in times when war is supposed to be going out of style?”
About 2500 spectators looked on at Lakehurst Naval Air Station, in Ocean County, New Jersey, as flowers were dropped on the “Shenandoah” from the top of its hangar and balloons bearing the American flag’s image were released ahead of the pigeons. Invitees numbering 200 were treated to a luncheon, and then the “Shenandoah”— a name meaning “Daughter of the Stars,” as the Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics newsletter pointed out—went aloft at 2 p.m. with 17 passengers including the branch’s secretary, Edwin Denby.
Back on the ground after an hour’s flight, Denby told reporters, “It’s a marvelous ship, the military value of which we have no idea as yet. This will be established in maneuvers now being planned.” The ship, built by the Zeppelin Company at Friedrichshafen, Germany, had already made a trial flight from Chicago to Lakehurst in 12 hours, consuming 654 gallons of gasoline at the cost of $150.
“I pray that it may never have to be used in attack on an enemy or in defense of this country,” Denby added.
As it happened, dirigibles were never of much military value and after the “Hindenburg” exploded at Lakehurst in 1937, they were abandoned for passenger service, too. But for a time they held an enchantment that still can be felt.
And soon after the “Hindenburg” disaster, it was proven that war hadn’t gone out of style.