Lindbergh, Detroit’s native son, became a sensation

The aviation pioneer lived here only now and then, but his roots ran deep

Tim Trainor
Special to The Detroit News

Thirty thousand voices erupted in welcoming cheers as the single-engine aircraft with Spirit of St. Louis emblazoned on its gleaming fuselage descended from a cloudless sky and skipped along the grassy expanse of Ford Airport in Dearborn. It was August 10, 1927, and Charles Lindbergh was making a triumphal return to the city where his forebears helped mold him into the skilled and intrepid young man who, on May 20-21, had flown the single-engine plane with cloth-covered wooden wings from New York to Paris.

Charles Lindbergh visits Selfridge Field in Mt. Clemens in June 2017, a month after his historic flight. He served for years in the Army Air Service Reserve.

When Lindbergh lifted aloft from the muddy runway at Long Island’s Roosevelt Field on his 3,614-mile journey, he was an unknown former airmail pilot. Landing 33 1/2 hours later at Le Bourget Field, the 25-year-old aviator was most admired man in the world.

Alighting from the custom-built monoplane, the Lone Eagle looked every bit the handsome American folk hero: lean, six-feet-two-and-a-half, with dimpled chin, penetrating blue eyes, high cheekbones, and a boyish demeanor. Clad in aviator boots, Army breeches and leather jacket over white shirt and tie, he was a living symbol of the industrial era and an avatar for a new age of flight. Detroiters embraced him as their native son.

His mother, Evangeline Land Lindbergh, a chemistry teacher at Cass Technical High School in Detroit, was there to greet him. She had traveled to Long Island several days before his flight to wish him well, patting him on the shoulder, saying, “Well, goodbye, sonny boy, and good luck.”

Lindbergh waved to crowds lining the streets as he and his mother sat in the back seat of an open air, stretched-out Model T, escorted by a phalanx of motorcycle policemen to Northwestern Field, at Grand River near West Grand Boulevard.

Another exuberant throng of 50,000 admirers had gathered for outdoor ceremonies honoring their hometown idol. Speakers included Lindbergh’s great-uncle John C. Lodge, who served almost 30 years on the Detroit City Council and would be elected mayor later that year on a ticket advocating construction of the Ambassador Bridge. The Lodge expressway running the length of Detroit bears his name, even though he died in 1950 at age 87 and never drove a car.

Lindbergh spoke briefly about how America would become a “flying country” and that big cities such as Detroit would need airfields to accommodate and benefit from the coming boom in air travel. In a press conference later that day, he said he didn’t know if there ever would be planes big enough to transport 100 passengers.

The motorcade traveled east to the three-story, Queen Anne-style home at 1120 West Forest where Lindbergh was born, February 4, 1902, close to what is now the Wayne State University campus, for placement of a plaque memorializing his historic achievement and Detroit roots. Before his birth, Evangeline had made the 800-mile excursion by train and boat from Little Falls, Minn., where she was teaching high school science, so that her uncle, Dr. Edwin Lodge, could deliver her nine-and-a-half-pound baby boy in her parents’ home. Charles would be her only child.

Before setting off for Grand Rapids on the next leg of his national goodwill tour, Lindbergh invited 63-year-old Henry Ford for a spin in the Spirit of St. Louis. It would be the only plane ride of the auto mogul’s life.

Leveling off at 2,000 feet, they looked down on a Detroit transformed from the turn-of-the-century town where Lindbergh began his 72-year life of adventure and exploration, and where Ford was once the chief mechanic for Detroit Edison Illuminating Company. Population had exploded during the intervening years from 286,000 to more than 1.5 million, elevating the city to a world industrial power and the nation’s fourth largest behind New York, Chicago and Philadelphia. The flinty, grey-haired man sitting scrunched over on the pilot armrest was the catalyst for a much of that growth.

Never a dull day in Detroit

Lindbergh’s great-grandfather Dr. Edwin Albert Lodge (1832-1899) and grandfather Dr. Charles Henry Land (1847-1922) probably would have applauded the progress this dynamic cityscape represented. Highly intelligent, curious by nature, they were passionate in their beliefs and unwavering in achieving goals along independent paths. These same traits drove Lindbergh to successes in aviation, science, conservation, and authorship of seven books, including a Pulitzer Prize for “The Spirit of St. Louis.”

Lodge was Detroit’s leading pharmacist and homeopathic physician, fiercely resisted by an orthodox medical community that condemned this medical outlier. Articles in Homeopathic Observer, a magazine he founded, featured articles extolling the benefits of homeopathic medicine, which involves encouraging the body to heal itself by ingesting a highly diluted amount of the substance the body is fighting. Ads in the magazine touted such exotic palliatives as Lodge’s Indian Tonic Elixir and Lodge’s Chinese Dye Powder.

Grandfather Land, inventor and pioneer in the use of porcelain in dental restorations, exerted the greatest influence over Lindbergh during his Detroit youth. He had built a growing dental practice in Chicago, but the great fire of 1871 destroyed everything he owned. Undeterred, he hopped a Lake Michigan freighter and arrived penniless in Detroit. In 1875 he married Dr. Lodge’s daughter Evangeline, and they moved into a brick home where the David Whitney Building now stands, a long fly ball from Comerica Park. Twenty-seven years later their daughter, also named Evangeline, gave birth to her famous son.

During long visits throughout his boyhood, Lindbergh spent hundreds of hours in the basement laboratory of his grandfather’s home, learning how to conduct scientific experiments. “The basement and half the rooms of his house are filled with tools, machinery, and chemicals,” Lindbergh wrote in “Autobiography of Values,” his final book. “The benches we work on are littered with forceps and plaster casts, patterns for gas furnaces, old teeth, blowpipes and bottles with dust-covered labels. I never spent a dull day in Detroit.”

In 1922, with son Charles touring the country as an air circus acrobat, Evangeline Land Lindbergh returned to the city and taught chemistry at Cass Tech for the next two decades. She's seen here in 1927, enjoying newspaper coverage of her son.

Adventurous mother

One had to look no further than Lindbergh’s mother to find his good looks and spirit of independence. She attended Miss Liggett’s Private School for Girls, graduated from Detroit Central High School, and earned a chemistry degree from the University of Michigan, an overwhelmingly male institution, as were most colleges of the era.

With opportunities virtually nonexistent for women seeking careers in science, a teaching position in Little Falls, Minn., on the banks of the Mississippi River appealed to Evangeline’s sense of adventure and romance. She found both when she met and married 42-year-old Charles August Lindbergh in 1901. A Swedish immigrant and University of Michigan Law School graduate, he was 17 years her senior and a widower with two young daughters. He would serve five terms as a representative in Congress.

The marriage was a tumultuous mismatch, and in 1922, with son Charles touring the country as an air circus acrobat, she returned to the city and taught chemistry at Cass Tech for the next two decades. Still adventurous, she accompanied him on barnstorming tours and sat next to him on mail sacks when he was a pilot for the airmail service. Pilots flew without navigation equipment between unlit airstrips, and crashes were all too frequent, particularly in turbulent nighttime weather and thick fog. Lindbergh bailed out of two crippled aircraft during blinding snowstorms and made forced landings in others.

Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh, seen here in 1933, were married 45 years, until his death in 1974.

In 1929, Lindbergh married Anne Morrow (1906-2001), daughter of a wealthy Wall Street financier, and the couple settled in New Jersey while Lindbergh worked with Nobel Prize-winning surgeon Dr. Alexis Carrel to develop a heart pump. The kidnap and death of the Lindberghs’ young son and the circus-like atmosphere of the trial that followed prompted their move to Europe for several years.

Wounded duck seeks employment

Lindbergh’s return to the Detroit area in 1942 as a technical consultant at the Ford Willow Run Bomber plant was fortuitous. Evangeline, now 66, was in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease, and he persuaded her to retire. When she died in 1954, he dispatched telegrams to Detroit news media, asking, “Please allow me to bury my mother in peace.”

He rented a Bloomfield Hills mansion for $300 a month on a three-acre spread at the crossroads of Woodward Avenue and Cranbrook Road. While there, his wife Anne Morrow Lindbergh, by now a pilot herself and best-selling author, studied sculpture and art history at Cranbrook Academy. She also gave birth to son Scott at Henry Ford Hospital -- the couple’s fifth child -- and wrote the novella “The Steep Ascent,” the fourth of her 20 books. Anne remembered her time in the Detroit area as one of the happiest periods of her life.

The same could not be said of her husband. Prior to his barnstorming days, Lindbergh had graduated from military flight training as a 2nd lieutenant in the Army Air Service Reserve, antecedent to today’s U.S. Air Force. In 1941 he resigned his commission in protest to President Roosevelt’s war preparation policies. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor he tried to re-enlist but the White House refused to reinstate him, branding him a “Nazi sympathizer” and “ruthless enemy of American democracy” for his inflammatory speeches and radio broadcasts opposing America’s involvement in the war in Europe.

Henry Ford hired the 40-year-old Lindbergh in 1942 to help manage B-24 bomber production at the Willow Run plant.

Aircraft companies offered him high-level posts but backed off after threats from the administration. The Lone Eagle was a wounded duck, prevented from bringing his special knowledge and skills to a war dominated by air power.

Henry Ford learned of his dilemma and came to the rescue. An avowed enemy of President Roosevelt, he was only too happy to hire the 40-year-old aviator. Lindbergh agreed to come aboard for $666.66 per month, the same pay he had been receiving as a colonel in the reserves. Both Ford and Lindbergh had seen their reputations plummet due to expressed anti-Semitic prejudices. It didn’t help that, prior to the war, the Nazis awarded them Order of the German Eagle medals adorned with swastikas.

Lindbergh the perfectionist

Willow Run’s vastness stunned Lindbergh. He called it “the Grand Canyon of the mechanical world.” Everything about the one-level colossus 33 miles west of Detroit was the biggest and the most. At 3.5 million square feet, it exceeded Empire State Building’s floor space by 20 percent. Forty-two thousand workers, including 12,000 Rosie the Riveters, built new B-24s every hour for a total of 8,645 before the plant closed in 1945.

Achieving this goal was bumpier than a ride in a Model T on a rutted country road. Problems plagued the startup operation early and often. By November 1942, the $65-million, Ford-financed factory had produced one forlorn B-24, earning the derisive sobriquet of Willit Run.

Fixtures in background hold bomber wings during assembly at Ford's vast Willow Run plant during World War II.

This was the situation that greeted Lindbergh, the obsessive perfectionist. Appalled by the poor quality of parts and components passing inspection, he convinced management to form an engineering quality team dedicated to fixing design defects and operational malfunctions. He identified many during test flights and interviews with pilots who had flown the bulky warbirds into the deadly proving grounds of aerial warfare.

Corporate life, with its endless meetings and management infighting, wasn’t meant for someone of Lindbergh’s independent temperament. “There is nothing I dread more than being bound by the opinions of others and being tied to a permanent routine,” he wrote. “I felt revolted by the regimentation of life that resulted. Looking down from an airplane when shifts changed, I saw thousands of men and women streaming through entrances; they made the plant seem a giant anthill.”

A civilian, flying combat missions

By 1943, still consulting with Ford, Lindbergh took on assignments with United Aircraft in Hartford, Conn., testing the company’s Corsair F4U fighter and teaching combat tactics to novice pilots. The following year he arrived in the South Pacific as a technical representative for the company to evaluate fighter planes in battle conditions. Over the next five months he flew 50 combat missions in Corsairs and P-38 Lightnings, all as a civilian. In one engagement he shot down a Japanese fighter.

Many missions involved escorting Willow Run B-24s on bombing raids over enemy-held islands. Eight thousand miles from Detroit, the famed aviator was protecting planes he had helped make safer and more effective. The Lone Eagle had flown full circle, and brought Detroit with him.

Following the war Lindbergh and his family settled in Connecticut. For the next 15 years he wrote books, served on boards and commissions to advance aviation and space technology, and helped organize the Strategic Air Command. His only connection to Detroit was anonymous visits to his ailing mother.

He emerged from self-imposed obscurity in the 1960s as champion of the worldwide conservation movement. During his final years, he and his wife lived in a simple cottage in a remote area of Maui, Hawaii. He died of cancer there, his simple tombstone noting the bare facts and a phrase from a psalm:

Charles A. Lindbergh

Born Michigan 1902

Died Maui 1974

“lf I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea ...”