What do the Cycling Craze and the Hindenburg tragedy have in common? Both took the world by storm. Before the automobile, biking was man’s successful attempt to get around by land faster. Flying dirigibles was man’s successful attempt on crossing the Atlantic faster. One’s popularity kind of just fizzed out, while the other came crashing down as a flaming pile of molten steel. Both were replaced by the internal combustible engine. But there's something else that puts both of these movements under one roof. That roof sits on top of a stucco home at 734 Hutchinson.
After being delayed half a day due to headwinds over the ocean, the Hindenburg made it to New Jersey. Nelson and Bert were watching landing operations from the windows alongside the starboard passenger lounge. After circling the air station, the ship turned to line itself up with the ground crew.
Then a sudden gust of wind pushed it off to the right of the mooring mast, intriguing the passengers to walk over to the portside windows to get a better look at the final landing maneuver, but the two men stayed put on the starboard side watching the ground crew tether the airship’s landing ropes to the ground.
Morris likened it to a rifle being shot from 20 feet away. The concussion was not enough to knock them off their feet, but the tail drop created a 45 degree incline forced them to hold onto a nearby post for dear life.
As the ship came tumbling to Earth, Burtis Dolan and Nelson Morris prepared to brace for impact and escape out one of the windows. Dolan took Mildred’s rosary out of his pocket and held it tightly as he waited to jump. Wreckage was already starting to fall in front of the starboard observations windows as Morris jumped, followed closely by Dolan. A maze of twisted, red-hot steel girders and wires surround the two men. Morris recalled the metal rods snapping like paper to clear his own path. Once he looked back, Bert Dolan was nowhere to be found.
Back in Chicago Edward Morris, the only one who knew of their Hindenburg adventure, drove straight to 734 Hutchinson after he heard the news. One of the daughters answered the door. Mildred came walking down the stairs. Before even making it down to the landing, Edward Morris thoughtlessly blurted out “Prepare yourself Mildred. Bert’s gone down with the Hindenburg!”
Mildred refused to believe Edward. Burtis promised her he would not fly. She telephoned anyone she thought would have the official passenger list, but information coming from Lakehurst was sketchy. All they could do was huddle around the radio, listen, and wait.
They started hearing there were survivors. With newfound hope, the Dolan family went off to mass the next morning, and prayed. Mildred picked up the morning newspaper that they learned Bert had been on the official passenger list, but was still considered “missing”. They held belief that Burtis, having been a multi-sport athlete, used his athleticism to make his escape.
That afternoon, a priest from New Jersey telephoned Mildred. (PAUSE) Bert was dead. The priest identified him by his passport. He gave him his last rites the night before. When they found Bert in the wreckage, he was still clutching onto the rosary Mildred gave him 4 months earlier.
His body was returned to Chicago. His wake was held inside their home and the funeral at St. Mary of the Lake church down the street. Some possessions were returned along with Dolan’s remains in addition to the rosary: his watch, passport, and the scorched, but still readable letter addressed to Mildred.
“I know I promised not to fly on this trip, but this was an opportunity I had to take. If anything happens to me, none of us know the Lord’s will”
Special thanks to Patrick Russell and his amazing blog “Faces of the Hindenburg”. To Dennis Kromm, who interviewed the Dolan family for these immeasurable specifics. And above all, special thanks to the Dolan family. I’m sure retelling this story reopened some deep,painful memories.
All of the credit for this Burtis Dolan story goes to these people.