Thursday, December 12, 2013
A medallion that disappeared from an Old Orchard Beach aviation monument more than 30 years ago was returned to its proper place last month.
The round brass medal 6 inches in diameter depicting aviation hero Charles Lindbergh and his surprise landing on Old Orchard Beach in 1927 mysteriously vanished and was presumed stolen several years after the monument's unveiling in 1971. No one knows exactly when it disappeared.
Its return triggered a makeover of the monument that was rededicated in a ceremony last week. It also has given history buffs a chance to recall the town's colorful aviation past.
That began with Harry M. Jones, an aviator who owned an airport and flight service business in Old Orchard Beach from 1919 to 1939. His hangar stood exactly where the Friendship Motel swimming pool sits on East Grand Avenue today.
"He was one of the earliest aviators in the United States and trained with the Wright brothers," said Dan Blaney, town historian.
Jones was well known in aviation circles, so when Lindbergh got lost in fog on July 24, 1927, on his way to the Portland Airport, located in the Scarborough salt marshes, he thought of Jones, said Blaney.
Lindbergh was on the first leg of his 48-state victory tour in the Spirit of St. Louis after his historic trans-Atlantic flight between New York and Paris earlier that year. When he spotted a beach below, Lindbergh decided to land on it, figuring it had to be near Jones' hangar.
"Down he came on July 24, the biggest hero in the United States right here on Old Orchard Beach," said Blaney.
A motorcade was dispatched from Portland to pick up Lindberg, who appeared with state dignitaries at the Eastland Hotel while his plane, housed at Jones' hangar, was guarded by local and state police.
Jones used the occasion to get the word out to the country's aviation community that Old Orchard Beach was a much better spot for trans-Atlantic takeoffs than New York, the traditonal takeoff point. The country's fledgling aviation industry was locked in a battle to build and fly ever faster aircraft, with millionaires and companies offering cash prizes and sponsorships for new aerial records. Winners became instant media sensations.
Old Orchard Beach's seven miles of sand is 200 miles closer to France, where most of the contests terminated. The shorter distance allowed airplanes to carry less fuel, which saved weight and helped the aircraft reach greater height and speed, said Blaney.
Jones' hangar offered a place where aviation teams could tweak their planes between test flights. Between 1927 and 1939, Old Orchard Beach was the scene of eight trans-Atlantic takeoffs.
Among the most memorable, Blaney said, was the Oct. 23, 1927, flight of Frances Wilson Grayson, a niece of President Woodrow Wilson, the only female pilot to attempt a trans-Atlantic crossing from Old Orchard Beach. She developed engine problems and had to turn around.
The craziest trans-Atlantic flight out of Old Orchard Beach, in 1939, was also its last. Thomas Smith was trying to break the speed record in a tiny plane.
"Everyone said he was crazy," said Blaney.
Thomas took off from the beach and was never found again. His plane turned up in Newfoundland a few years ago "with a note that said, 'I am freezing. I am walking out for help,'" said Blaney.
The most sensational flight took place June 13, 1929, when an American team flying the Green Flash was to race the French Yellow Bird. The beach was packed with thousands of spectators.
The Green Flash flipped on takeoff, but the Yellow Bird made a successful takeoff. It wasn't until the French plane was on its way over the Atlantic that the crew discovered they were carrying the world's first airplane stowaway, Portland resident Arthur Schreiber. Schreiber, 22, managed to slip into the plane as it was being hauled over the sand before takeoff.
Blaney said while the French crew members were furious because the added weight slowed them down, Schreiber was feted as a hero in Europe.
"They put him on a boat back to Portland," said Blaney, who later shared a correspondence with Schreiber.
The Old Orchard Beach Historical Society and the Maine Aviation Historical Society installed the monument in 1971 in Memorial Park. The medallion's disappearance was discovered about a year later.
Then suddenly it resurfaced last year. Loren Harmon of Kennebunk, a retired airplane mechanic, was at his shop at the Biddeford airport when a friend walked in with another man carrying a flat brass object depicting an airplane.
"The fellow said he had found it in his deceased father's garage, and his father was a junk collector. He was curious about it," said Harmon.
Harmon called his friend Norman Houle, founding member of the Maine Aviation Historical Society.
"Norm is a major aviation historian and he loves a mystery," said Harmon.
Houle paid a visit to Old Orchard Beach's Libby Memorial Library, where a librarian directed him to the monument. Harmon said it was immediately obvious that the mystery object was the missing medallion.
The monument was not in great shape. In 2005 a gazebo was built right next to it with the monument facing into the gazebo. Shrubbery had grown around it.
It took about a year to have the 2,000-pound rock monument turned around the right way and refurbished. The medallion has been bolted sturdily into its rightful place.
It was rededicated at a small ceremony Wednesday.
"It was a wonderful feeling to bring the monument back," said Harmon.