The four Momsen children were 8 year old Alica, 10 year old Dick and their baby brother called Billy. A little later Beatrice, their new baby sister came. This arrival was after the events in this story. The adventure that happened occurred to Alica, Dick and Billy. At its end they became known as the Zeppelin children. It was their luck to travel by airship from Rio to Akron. This took place in 1933. The airship was the famous and majestic Graf Zeppelin. The children were Americans who lived in Brazil with their parents. Their father was a lawyer. His law firm took care of the legal affairs of the Brazilian subsidiary of the Goodyear-Zeppelin Corporation.
t was Count Zeppelin in Germany that built the first rigid structure lighter-than-air craft. Here was primarily concerned with military applications. His Zeppelins were used unsucessfully in World War I, but found some commercial success until the cartratrophic Hindenberg disaster. The related non-rigid blimps proved to have greater military value. They were used by the British as barage balloons during the Battle of Britain (1940). There real importance was the use by the American Navy in the Battle of the Atlantic (1942-45).
Their father was Richard Paul Momsen, a lawyer who had obtained his law degree while living in Washington D.C. He studied at George Washington University. After he graduated Richard joined the American diplomatic service. He was sent to Rio in 1913. He made this city his home. He studied for a Brazilian law degree so that he could practice law in this country. Richard was the first American to be accepted to The Brazilian Bar. In 1919 he left the diplomatic service and opened a law firm in Rio. Richard met Dorothea Harnecker in Rio. She was travelling with her father on a tour of South America. In 1919 he proposed to her and they were married in 1921. They made Rio their home. In 1923 Richard became the Goodyear-Zeppelin representative in South America.
There were four children. Dick was born in 1923. Two years later in 1925 Alicia was born. Billy was born in 1933. The forth child was Beatrice but she was born after the 1933 adventure. They liked to tease each other. In the company of adults they behaved politely. At moments of great interest they were civil to each other. At home they sometimes squabbled and fought each other. In their anger the yelled and slammed doors. On the Graf Zeppelin they were very well behaved.
Alicia wrote that Billy was dressed in a pink silk romper suit and wore a white wide brimmed hat. Dick wore an open necked white shirt, a short pants suit. White ankle socks and shoes. The shirt sleeves are neatly rolled up. He wore a watch on his left wrist. Alicia wore a berry, a light coloured dress, ankle socks and strap shoes. Both Alica and Dick had smart jackets and these they carried over their arm.
The children were taught at home by a governess from Switzerland. She taught a main stream school curriculum but had been selected because she could also teach them French and German. Her name was Marthe Christen. Billy had a nurse to look after him. Her name was Mrs Ruegg. She came from Scotland.
The children had a good loving relationship with their parents. When there was an opportunity to travel The Monsem’s took their children with them. The children had travelled to Chile by car. They had gone over the Andes Mountains by mule back. They had travelled through the Panama Canal.
The children would often be called to the veranda of their home to watch terrific electrical storms or to see important occurrences. One such event was watching the Graf Zeppelin fly by in May 1930. This was the maiden flight of the airship between South America and Europe.
Dick and Alicia where thrilled by the Graf Zeppelin. They may have wished to travel on it but they never thought they would. Three years later an opportunity came.
Their father wanted to visit the Chicago World Fair Exhibition. He planned a family holiday travelling by liner to America. When the Goodyear Company learnt of the holiday arrangements they suggested that he travel to Chicago on the Graf Zeppelin.
He liked the idea but he knew it would not happen if his wife did not like the idea. He knew his children would not flinch at this chance but it was mother who had to be won over. Richard took his wife to see the airship. The children must have been tense with conflicting emotions of joy and disappointment. If mum said ‘no’ then they would be disappointed because this adventure would not happen. If mum said ‘yes’ the children would be elated with joy because they would travel on the Graf Zeppelin.
Dick and Alicia waited impatiently for their parents to return from visiting the airship. The afternoon passed slowly. They waited and waited for the news. Their anticipation seemed to make time slow down. Every second seemed an hour and each minute an eternity. At last they returned. The children knew immediately that the flight was going to happen. They danced around the lounge overjoyed and very elated that they were going to travel on an the Graf Zeppelin.
Even so it was a close run thing. When mother first saw the airship she thought it looked so fragile that she was scared to death. She changed her opinion when she saw the splendour inside the gondola and the comfort it offered. To the children’s delight mother agreed to travel on it.
The children were excited by the prospect of a journey in an airship. The days went slowly despite there being such a lot of preparations to do. The biggest headache for the family was making sure the weight allowance was strictly adhered to. The maximum baggage weight was 22lbs. Much of this was taken up by the baby’s needs. There was not a lot left afterwards for everyone else’s things.
The flight was on October 19th and by then everyone was ready. Those going were the three children and their parents and Nanny Ruegg to look after the baby. The governess travelled by liner and would join the family later in America. The family’s luggage had been taken to the Campo de Affonso Army Base where the Graf Zeppelin moored upon reaching Rio.
Two very excited children along with the rest of the household were up at the crack of dawn. It is doubtful that Dick and Alicia had had a restful sleep the previous night because they were so excited about the flight. When everyone was ready they travelled to the army base.
The airship had not yet landed when they arrived. This enabled the many spectators, the adult passengers and the children to watch, as the Graf Zeppelin, slowly and graciously came into land. Her engines rotated smoothly. Ropes were sent out from the Zeppelin. These were grabbed by the 200 army personal who got the airship safely moored. During this procedure everyone watched in excited silence and awe. The time was 6 am. The morning was clear and cool as the children boarded the bus that took them across the field to the airship.
As the bus travelled towards the airship Alicia thought that the shape reminded her of a cigar. She and her brother had seen the airship from many different angles. Some made the Zeppelin look graceful but other views made the airship look like a monster.
Nanny Ruegg carrying the baby was the first to climb the ladder to the gondola’s entrance. Just at that moment a gust of wind tugged the Zeppelin and the ladder lifted a little. It was just enough to unbalance her but a crew member took the baby and prevented her from falling and helped board safely. The children and their parents followed.
On entering the gondola Dick and Alicia met the 15 other passengers. Later they met some of the 47 members of the crew. The children were filled with awe as they looked about their surroundings. They were now on board the Graf Zeppelin. This was at that time then pride of Germany and the Zeppelin Airship company
Dick and Alicia did was to race to an open window as the airship cast off exactly at 6:30. They watched as they slowly rose higher and higher. They could hear the spectators cheer as their airship rose into the sky. It was a clear morning so the view they had was marvellous for they saw houses, green fields mountains pass by. The panorama from the zeppelin was so magnificent that the children were made spellbound by what they so. The occasion stopped them from teasing each other and instead they showed civil behaviour to each other.
That morning they flew over the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema. The children saw that the rolling surf looked like tiny wavelets. The airship circled Corcovado Mountain with its statue of Christ at the top. They saw the statue from a very different angle than their usual view of it.
They saw the airships shadow on the water and headed to the salt flats of Cabo Frio and then they saw the fishing fleets and the flocks of seagulls that followed it below them’ The S.S. Santa Rosa came into view. The Graf Zeppelin and the liner exchanged salutes as they passed by. The children thought this quite an amusing incident.
After watching the ever changing panoramic views they decided to explore the ship. They first looked around the gondola. They were in its living room. They thought this area was comfortable. It became the dinning room at meal times. They could just about hear the humming of the ship’s motors from there. They liked being here. The windows were curtained and Alicia liked the red –flowered carpet that they walked across to explore the front of the gondola.
They found that the control room, the chart and radio rooms and the galley were at the very front of the gondola. The ten staterooms came next. There were five rooms on either side. All had similar flower-pattered wall paper. Each had a closet, end tables and sofa beds. These became double-decker bunks at night time.
The children found the staterooms were they would be during the flight. They had two state rooms. Dick and his father were in one room. Alicia, her mother, Mrs Ruegg and the baby were in another. Dick and Alicia slept in the top bunk of their respective rooms.
That first day the Graf Zeppelin flew at an altitude of 2,000 feet and at a speed of 50mph. By evening the weather was windy and cloudy. Even so the airship travelled smoothly.
It was soon time for dinner and the Momen family sat down to feast. They had roast goose then boiled fish followed by veal cutlets, red cabbage boiled potatoes and for desert apple and custard pudding. The food was served on china plates that were edged in cobalt blue and gold. They drank out of crystal glasses.
That night Dick and Alicia retired to bed tired but happy children. Clearly these children realised that they were having a very memorable experience that they would never forget.
They were very well behaved. It was thought that the reason was being in adult company and having father around for most of the time. Alicia said mum marvelled at the difference in their behaviour. ‘You constantly fight each other, you kick, yell, slam doors and pull each others hair and here you are very well behaved,’ said a mystified Mum.
The Momsen baby was a favoured child. Billy was the first baby passenger to travel on the airship. Everyone made a fuss of him and took delight in helping nanny and Mrs. Momsen look after him.
Dick and Alicia played with their baby brother. His favourite toy was a stuffed dog everyone called, ‘Dodo.’ He had other animal toys these were a goat, a fish and a rubber duck. Alicia liked to play peek-a-boo through the sides of the crib.
On the third night of the journey the children were playing with their baby brother as usual when a wonderful thing happened. Billy was so excited that he stood upright and walked around his play pen without holding on to the edge. The children were elated by this development. Unfortunately Billy too was over excited by what he had done and had a restless sleep that night.
Nanny Ruegg took Billy to see the chief. He was a big man and to celebrate the first baby to enter his galley he cooked a special meal. Unfortunately it was too rich for the baby and he was unwell for a short time.
The bathrooms were at the back of the gondola. The tiny aluminium sink was just the right size for Billy’s bath time. His splashing and enjoyment of his bath time caused much delight among the passengers and crew.
At meal times the passengers were enthralled and watch Billy drink his milk. The speed at which he did this caused everyone to laugh. Nanny Ruegg and Billy were welcome visitors to the captains table. Each day Captain Eckener gave Billy a treat.
Captain Eckener was also kind to Dick and Alicia. The children thought he looked very old but they liked him. There came a day when the captain invited the children into the control room. They enjoyed this visit. They had a wonderful view.
He said to Dick, ‘Would you like to steer?’ Dick replied in the affirmative. The boy stood erect as he put his hands on the wheel and steered. He imagined taking the airship to fabulous lands to fight pirates and find treasure.
After a while Alicia asked if she could have a turn. Captain Eckner’s reply shocked her.’ Sorry but a girl can’t steer a ship!’ Alicia was furious with the captain. He was nice and kind but at that moment she did not think he was fair. Had he let her steer he would have been her knight in shining armour but not now. Oh how she longed to have had the chance to steer the ship. She was very disappointed.
Dick and Alicia spent a lot of time playing draughts [checkers] and read books. At other times they looked at the view out of the window. Alicia liked to look up at the sky. She liked watching the water as the Zeppelin crossed the sea. Overland it was fun to wave to the people they saw. They always waved back.
The first stop was at a city called Receif. It was 5:30 am when they arrived. It had been raining earlier and as the airship came into land Dick and Alicia saw a circular rainbow. This was a special moment for them to see natural phenomenon. By 7 am everyone was ashore and on their way to the Central Hotel. The children were taken on a tour of the city. In the afternoon they spent time on the beach and had a very enjoyable day. They returned to the Graf Zeppelin in the evening.
As in Rio spectators had come to watch the Zeppelin. There was also a band which played as they went on board. As the airship left the band continued and the music grew fainter and fainter as the Zeppelin cruised north.
When they reached Natal in the state of Rio Grande do Norte a lighted wreath was parachuted into the Atlantic Ocean. This was to remember Augusto Severo, a famous Brazilian aeronaut who had perished in an airship accident in 1902.
Captain Eckener steered the airship over the Amazon. Dick and Alicia were mesmerised by all that they saw. The children saw flocks of egrets fly into the sky after being startled by the Graf Zeppelin. They saw hungry looking alligators sunning themselves on the river bank. They could see the rest of the jungle which was a mass of green foliage.
The children were thrilled to learn that they and their parents had been invited to see inside the hull of the airship. They climbed a ladder and looked around. Above them they saw the girders and gas bags. Below the children saw the water and fuel tanks. It was like being in a spacious warehouse. The children walked carefully along a metal catwalk. They went from one end to the other. Alicia got butterflies in her tummy when she lifted up a canvas flap. She saw the engine and looked down at the tree top far below. She was glad when she climbed back down the ladder and was back inside the gondola. The children’s interesting afternoon was over.
There was still interesting things to see. When they flew over French Guiana the children saw a large bush fire. Its flames leaped high into the air. Devil’s Island was pointed out to them.
The flight took them over Trinidad. The airship changed direction to avoid an approaching storm.
Monday October 23rd the Graf Zeppelin arrived in Miami. The children learnt about a possible protest about it flying the Nazi Swastika. Hitler had recently come to power and ordered that this be displayed. There was heightened security but in the event the airship was greeted by excited crowds and friendliness. The children were interviewed by many reporters. Alicia was exhausted by this media attention and asked to be excused further questions.
The children spent the day in Miami and enjoyed the beach. The airship was due to leave at 7pm but a rainstorm prevented them from leaving for a further two hours. Eventually they left and continued on to Akron. Again the airship changed direction because of bad weather and took a course were the weather was better. The journey to Akron was a difficult one. The airship constantly changed course to avoid bad weather.
It was dark when the Graf Zeppelin arrived at Akron. Unfortunately the airship could not land because there were high winds blowing at 30mph. The airship could not land until the wind had died down to 15mph. The airship hovered over the area for 12 hours until it was safe to land.
It was very cold inside the gondola. The children shivered with cold and could they could not sleep. Alicia says that father built a bed out of two chairs for Billy who was then able to sleep now that he was much warmer. Dick and Alicia also slept on chairs in the lounge. Eventually the wind dropped and the Graf Zeppelin was able to land.
The bad weather, the 12 hour delay and the cold night were factors in the decision for them to disembark at Akron. At 7pm the Graf Zeppelin left Akron for Chicago and the Momsen family continued their journey overland to Chicago. The journey of a life time, in the comfort and luxury of an airship, had ended. It was one that Dick and Alicia would never forget.
Pathe News reel film –- The 22nd Crossing. Pathe Clip 735-31.
Momsen Muller, Alicia. "From Rio to Akron by Graf Zeppelin 1933", Internet publication. April 20, 2002
Photographs obtained from this web page.
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