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U.S. Census Bureau History: The 1937 Hindenburg Disaster


Launched in March 1936, the Hindenburg was the largest rigid airship ever constructed. The 7 million cubic feet
of hydrogen gas that held the Hindenburg aloft also fed a disastrous fire that completely destroyed the airship and
killed 36 passengers and crew members as it attempted to land in Lakehurst, NJ, on May 6, 1937.

Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.

On May 6, 1937, the rigid German airship Hindenburg arrived at its Lakehurst, NJ, Naval Air Station destination after departing Frankfurt, Germany 3 days earlier. A crowded landing field of newspaper and radio journalists, film and still camera people, family, friends, and ground crew waited for the airship despite arriving hours behind schedule. As the Hindenburg prepared to dock with its mooring mast, it suddenly burst into flames forcing passengers and crew to jump from windows to escape the inferno. In seconds, the airship was completely destroyed and 36 people were dead. The disaster was immortalized as the first major aviation accident captured by photographs, sound recordings, and motion picture film.

Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmbH built the rigid passenger airship Hindenburg (LZ129) between 1931 and 1936 at its facility in Friedrichshafen, Germany. The first in its class of rigid airships, the Hindenburg remains the largest commercial airship ever built and flown, measuring nearly 804 feet long and 135 feet in diameter. Constructed using treated cotton canvas fabric stretched over an aluminum alloy frame, the 242 ton airship was held aloft by more than 7 million cubic feet of hydrogen gas. Four diesel-driven propeller engines drove the zeppelin to speeds of up to 84 miles per hour, while carrying 50 passengers, 60 or more crew members, and more than 21,000 pounds of cargo. Completed at the height of the Great Depression, passengers nevertheless eagerly paid approximately $450 for a one-way ticket—more than $8,750 in 2022 dollars—for the 2- to 3-day voyage between Frankfurt, Germany, and Lakehurst, NJ. Sleeping quarters were spartan, consisting of private cabins with cots or bunk beds and a shared bathroom, but the airship's other amenities rivaled the finest ocean liners. Passengers had a selection of gourmet meals, including continental breakfasts and dinners that featured duck, goose, lamb, beef, and salmon. Cruising 700 feet above the Atlantic Ocean, passengers enjoyed sightseeing from the airship's promenade deck, reading a book or newspaper in the reading room, or drinking cocktails while a lightweight aluminum piano played in the lounge. Passengers could even smoke a cigar or cigarette in the Hindenburg's smoking room—a specially-designed, negative air pressure room that kept errant sparks from igniting the explosive hydrogen gas above passenger's heads.

Following test flights in March 1936, the airship departed Germany on its first roundtrip to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on March 31, and its first trip to New Jersey's Naval Air Station Lakehurst on May 6, 1936. Between transatlantic trips, Germany's Nazi government ordered the zeppelin to participate in a number of propaganda flights, including a flyover of Berlin's Olympic Stadium during the opening ceremonies of the 1936 Summer Olympics.

In 1937, Deutsche Zeppelin Reederei contracted with American Airlines to connect Naval Air Station Lakehurst with Newark Municipal Airport and dozens of other cities nationwide. Travelers could board an overnight "sleeper" flight from San Francisco, CA, to New Jersey, board Hindenburg for the transatlantic crossing, and arrive in Frankfurt, Germany, 67 hours after their journey began. Following the airship's first flight of the 1937 travel season—a round trip between Germany and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil—the Hindenburg departed Frankfurt's airport for Lakehurst, NJ, on May 3, with 36 passengers and 61 crew members aboard. After crossing the English Channel, the Hindenburg fought strong headwinds that slowed its crossing of the North Atlantic Ocean. The airship passed St. John's, Newfoundland on May 5. Thousands gazed skyward as the massive, torpedo-shaped airship lumbered over Boston, MA, and New York City, NY, on May 6. Although delayed further by thunderstorms and windy conditions in Ocean County, NJ, Naval Air Station Lakehurst cleared the Hindenburg to land at 7:00pm.

The Hindenburg arrived at the Naval Air Station's landing site at 7:09 p.m., but maneuvered around the field as it waited for the for the ground crew to complete their preparations. At 7:21 p.m., the zeppelin's crew dropped lines to the ground crew 295 feet below. Once attached to the airfield's mooring mast, the ground crew would use a winching system to lower the Hindenburg to the ground and hold it fast as passengers disembarked.

At 7:25 p.m., witnesses on the ground reported seeing a flame or spark near one of the Hindenburg's tail fins. Motion picture and still photographers quickly turned their cameras skyward as an enormous ball of fire engulfed the airship's stern and a powerful explosion shattered windows miles away. In seconds, flames engulfed the Hindenburg, fed by the millions of cubic feet of hydrogen gas stored within the zeppelin's frame. Crashing into the mooring mast and airfield tail first, passengers and crew leapt from windows and the ground crew ran for their lives. Reporting for Chicago, IL, radio station WLS, journalist Herbert Morrison's eyewitness account of the tragedy is still regarded as one of the most famous broadcasts in the history of radio journalism:

"The ship is riding majestically toward us like some great feather. Riding as it was mighty, mighty proud of the place it’s playing in the world’s aviation. The ship is no doubt bustling with activities. It's practically standing still now. They've dropped ropes out of the nose of the ship, and it's been taken ahold of down on the field by a number of men. It's starting to rain again. The rain had slacked up a little bit. The back motors of the ship are just holding it, just enough to keep it from . . .

It burst into flame! Get out of the way! Get out of the way! This is terrible! This is one of the worst catastrophes in the world! It’s a terrific crash, ladies and gentleman . . . the smoke and the flames now. And the frame is crashing to the ground, not quite to the mooring mast. Oh, the humanity!"

In less than 40 seconds, the Hindenburg had been reduced to a smoldering heap of collapsed metal airframe and debris. Plumes of black smoke poured into the sky as diesel fuel burned. Of the 97 people onboard the Hindenburg, 13 passengers and 22 crewmen were dead. One member of the naval air station's ground crew—Allen Hagaman—was also killed by the falling airship. Nearly all the surviving passengers and crew had been injured. Families, friends, journalists, and airfield staff were left speechless by the tragedy. In the days that followed, horrified moviegoers sobbed as they watched newsreels of the first major aviation disaster captured on film. Many ignition source theories have been proposed in the decades since the disaster, including sabotage, lightning, static electricity, and an engine backfire, but none have been conclusively proven.

You can learn more about the Hindenburg and the United States in the 1930s using census data and records. For example:

  • The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service's Philadelphia, PA, field office was responsible for processing immigrant arrivals at the Hindenburg's Lakehurst, NJ, port of entry. These records—including those for the ill-fated May 3–6, 1937, flight—are available from the National Archives and Records Administration and can also be accessed free of charge at the Church of Latter Day Saints Genealogy Website Link to a non-federal Web site. Among the "Alien Passengers" arriving at Naval Air Station Lakehurst aboard the Hindenburg on May 6, 1937, were members of the Doehner family. Mathilde Doehner and her sons Walter and Werner survived the disaster, but her husband Hermann and 14-year old daughter Irene perished. [When Werner Doehner Link to a non-federal Web site died in 2019 in Laconia, NH, the 90-year-old retired electrical engineer was the last survivor of the Hindenburg disaster.] Otto Ernst, aged 77, died in the fire, but his wife Elsa survived. She was hospitalized for more than 2 weeks before returning to Germany—by ocean liner—on May 22, 1937. Swedish journalist Birger Brinck, planned to travel to Harrisburg, PA, to interview Pennsylvania's governor and fly back to Lakehurst, NJ, for The Hindenburg's flight back to Germany. Moments before disaster struck, he returned to his cabin to retrieve his camera to film the airship's landing. Brinck was one of the last victims to be identified.
  • Many of the Hindenburg's American passengers participated in the 1930 Census. For example, Ferdinand Lamont Belin, Jr., was returning to the United States aboard the Hindenburg after studying in Paris, France. He survived the disaster after jumping from a window while his parents watched from the airfield below. Chicago, IL, native Burtis Dolan served with General John J. Pershing in Mexico in 1916 and France during World War I. Although Dolan promised his wife he would not fly on his European business trip, he wrote in an unposted letter found in his pocket that he could not pass up the opportunity to return to the United States aboard the Hindenburg. Dolan survived the fire, but died soon after at a hospital. Food importer and exporter Moritz Feibusch immigrated to the United States from German East Prussia (present day Poland) in 1865. He survived the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, worked as a dry goods purchaser, and eventually opened his own San Francisco grocery brokerage. Returning from an annual trip to Europe aboard the Hindenburg, Feibusch prepared a number of postcards informing family and friends of his arrival aboard the airship before the disaster. His body was found among the wreckage soon after the flames were extinguished. John Pannes was an agent with the transatlantic shipping company Hamburg-American North German Lloyd Line. Following a trip to Europe, the flight home aboard the Hindenburg was a much anticipated highlight for John Pannes and his wife Emma. When the airship burst into flames, John ignored pleas to jump from a nearby window, choosing instead to search for his wife who had returned to their cabin for a jacket. They died together as their youngest son Hilgard watched in horror from the airfield's viewing platform.
  • The Hindenburg disaster occurred as it was mooring to the ground at Naval Air Station Lakehurst, in Lakehurst, NJ. The naval air station was home to the U.S. Navy's rigid airship program and housed three of the service's four airships—USS Shenandoah, USS Los Angeles, and USS Akron. Incorporated in 1921, Lakehurst's population was 947 in 1930 and 827 in 1940. The Ocean County, NJ, borough has a population of 2,636 today.
  • The Hindenburg was filled with 7 million cubic feet of highly flammable hydrogen gas. Although hydrogen is no longer used in rigid airship or blimps, it remains a vital industrial gas used to manufacture fertilizer and solvents, power electric fuel cells, produce rocket fuel, cool electric generators and medical equipment, and process foods like "hydrogenated" cooking oil. In 2020, the U.S. Census Bureau's Annual Survey of Manufactures reported that the Industrial gas manufacturing industry (NAICS 325120)—which included production of hydrogen, argon, carbon dioxide, helium, nitrogen, etc.—had sales, value of shipments, or revenue of more than $10.3 billion in 2020. Industrial gas manufacturing establishments employed 12,097 employees who earned more than $1 billion annually.
  • Following the Hindenburg disaster, the zeppelin's owners—Deutsche Zeppelin Reederei—hoped to convert their airship fleet to much safer helium gas. The United States was the world's leading supplier of the lighter-than air gas, but the Helium Control Act of 1927 banned its export, grounding Deutsche Zeppelin Reederei's planned conversion. The fate of Germany's zeppelin fleet was sealed following the outbreak of World War II. In March 1940, Nazi Luftwaffe Commander Hermann Goering ordered the nation's zeppelin fleet scrapped so their aluminum alloy frames could be reused for fighter aircraft production. Today, the United States continues to maintain the world's largest helium reserve, with more than 1 billion cubic meters of the inert gas stored at a Bureau of Land Management facility in Amarillo, TX.
  • The United States has always had a substantial population of people born in Germany or claiming German ancestry. Seven years before the Hindenburg disaster, the 1930 Census reported that 1,608,814 of the nation's 123,202,624 people were born in Germany. Three years after the disaster, the 1940 Census found that of the nation's 132,164,569 people, 1,237,772 reported Germany as their country of birth. In 2019, the American Community Survey (ACS) estimated that of the 324,697,795 people in the United States, 43,038,145 claimed German ancestry.
  • The 1910 Census was the first to include inquiries about inhabitants' mother tongue and country of birth. In that year, 2,501,181 of the foreign-born White population reported being German and 8,817,271 reported their mother tongue was German. German was the second most common language spoken at home after English and Celtic languages (10,037,420) and was followed by Latin and Greek languages—which included Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian, and Greek (4,279,560); and Slavic and Lettic languages—including Polish, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, Bulgarian, Lithuanian, etc., (3,240,467). Data about the language spoken at home was collected by the census until 2000. Beginning in 2005, the ACS began collecting language spoken at home data. Data collected by the ACS between 2009 and 2013 showed that 60,361,574 people spoke a language other than English at home. After English—which was spoken by 231,122,908 people aged 5 and over—the most common languages spoken at home were Spanish (37,458,470), French (1,253,560), and German (1,063,275).
  • Long before hydrogen-filled zeppelins crossed the Atlantic Ocean, daring aviators were climbing thousands of feet into the sky aboard hydrogen-filled balloons. The first manned balloon flight in the United States was made by Jean-Pierre Blanchard in 1793. With President George Washington and future presidents John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe in attendance, Blanchard ascended more than a mile above his Philadelphia, PA, launching point and landed 15 miles away in Deptford, NJ. Nearly 170 years later, Paul "Ed" Yost made the first free flight of a modern hot air balloon in Bruning, NE. For his October 22, 1960, flight, Yost used propane burners to heat air inside a lightweight nylon balloon. As the air inside warmed, the balloon rose and stayed in the air for 1 hour and 35 minutes. Thanks to Yost's invention of modern hot air ballooning, Albuquerque, NM, Colorado Springs, CO, Reno, NV, and other cities attract thousands of visitors to colorful hot air balloon festivals and races.
  • Following the Hindenburg disaster, much of the airship's valuable aluminum alloy frame was returned to Germany, where it was reused to produce World War II fighter aircraft and bombers. A small memorial remembers the disaster at the landing site that is now part of Lakehurst Maxfield Field. An outline of the Hindenburg is marked at the crash site where Lakehurst, NJ, residents, military personnel, and dignitaries hold annual ceremonies to remember the disaster's victims.
  • According to the February 15, 1938, issue of American Aviation, the Air Transport Association estimated that 1,102,000 passengers flew on flights with segments in the United States in 1937. More recently, the Federal Aviation Administration reported that 1,057,645,399 passengers had flight segments in the United States in 2019—averaging 2,897,659 passengers every day. The Covid-19 pandemic resulted in dramatic reductions in air passenger traffic in 2020, with just 574,409,405 passengers traveling for the year and 1,569,425 each day.

Hindenburg-American Airlines luggage tag

Airship proponents envisioned mail, freight, and thousands of passengers traveling between the United States, Europe, and South America by zeppelins instead of slower
ocean liners every year. The Hindenburg's owners—Deutsche Zeppelin-Reederei—contracted with American Airlines to shuttle passengers (who used baggage tags, as shown above)
from the Lakehurst, NJ, airship mooring station to connecting flights at Newark Metropolitan Airport. The airport—today's Newark International Airport—had recently opened
and been dedicated by aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart.

The widespread passenger airship service envisioned by the Hindenburg's owners effectively ended following the disaster. Despite completing construction of a sister airship
(Graf Zeppelin II) and having ambitious plans to expand its fleet using safer Helium gas, World War II and the United States' refusal to supply helium to Germany led to
the eventual scrapping of Germany's zeppelin fleet in March 1940.

Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution

Individual census records from 1790 to 1950 are maintained by the National Archives and Records Administration, not the U.S. Census Bureau.

Publications related to the census data collected from 1790 to 2010 are available at https://www.census.gov/library/publications.html.

Visit the National Archives Web site to access 1940 and 1950 Census records.

Decennial census records are confidential for 72 years to protect respondents' privacy.

Records from the 1960 to 2020 censuses can only be obtained by the person named in the record or their heir after submitting form BC-600 or BC-600sp (Spanish).

Online subscription services are available to access the 1790–1950 census records. Many public libraries provide access to these services free of charge to their patrons.

Contact your local library to inquire if it has subscribed to one of these services.

For the Record

Amelia Earhart courtesy of the state of Hawaii

In the decade before the Hindenburg disaster, aviators made the first solo airplane flights between the United States and Europe.

On May 21, 1927, Charles Lindbergh became the first pilot to complete a solo transatlantic crossing, flying his Spirit of St. Louis between Mineola, NY, and Paris, France.

Lindbergh became an international star, but retreated from the public eye after the 1932 kidnapping and murder of his 20-month-old son. His fame prevented him from active-duty military service during World War II. He chose instead to work as an aeronautics consultant and technical advisor. After the war, he lived in Darien, CT, and spent his final years in Hawaii, dying at his Maui home on August 26, 1974.

Five years after Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. After taking off from Harbor Grace, Newfoundland, Canada, on May 20, 1932, she arrived at Culmore, Ireland, 15 hours later on May 21.

Earhart's aviation feats culminated with plans for the longest circumnavigation of the globe ever attempted—a 29,000 mile flight along the Earth's equator with navigator Fred Noonan. Departing on May 21, 1937, Earhadt stopped at cities in the United States, South America, Africa, and Southeast Asia.

Earhardt left Papua New Guinea on July 2, 1937, but never reached her Howland Island destination—now part of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument. Her disappearance remains one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of the 20th Century.

Learn more about these aviation pioneers at our Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart webpages!

This Month in Census History

The 1926 Philadelphia World's Fair opened on May 31, 1926.

The Census Bureau won a gold medal for its exhibit featuring census artifacts, a population clock, and illustrated maps and tables containing census data and vital statistics.

Learn more about this and the Census Bureau's other World's Fair appearances at our 1893 World's Fair webpage!

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Source: U.S. Census Bureau | Census History Staff | Last Revised: May 16, 2022