History's Headlines: Amelia Earhart carried her dream of flight to Lehigh Valley
The late Randolph “Randy” Kulp of Allentown had a lot of memories of the Lehigh Valley in the 20th century, most having to do with his passion for the region's streetcars. But as a boy in the late 1920s and early 1930s he recalled something else, the sight and the sounds of pioneer woman pilot Amelia Earhart’s bright red Lockheed Vega monoplane in the sky over Allentown.
“She would swoop over the city and give her engine a roar, it passed right over me,” Kulp said of Earhart, who disappeared 75 years ago over the South Pacific on a round the world flight. It still remains one of history’s great mysteries.
Kulp, then a young teenager, had no doubt it was Earhart behind the controls.
Newspapers from that era support his claims, noting her visits to the region in 1929.
She may also have been here in 1931 for a large air rally for what is now Lehigh Valley International Airport. He also believed her swoop was a signal to her friends John Henry and Dorothea Leh, the two most “air-minded,” as they said in the newspapers, people in the Lehigh Valley.
She also had an old college friend, Louise de Schweinitz, who came from a well-known Moravian family in Bethlehem, whom Earhart had visited in 1920. On that visit Earhart later recalled she, “visited the mine hole in Friedensville, boated on the Lehigh River and even swam in the river.”
What brought Earhart, the first woman to cross the Atlantic Ocean by air, to the Lehigh Valley in that era was her belief in the future of flight. Born on July 24, 1898 in Kansas, her early life was not an easy one. Her father was an attorney with a good job with a railroad. But when he showed signs of having a drinking problem he was fired. Her mother took Earhart and her sister to live with friends in Chicago. Later Earhart and her mother went to stay with her father, then living in Los Angeles.
By 1920 Earhart was planning a career as a social worker and took a graduate course at Columbia University. The same year she also discovered flying, taking lessons from Neta Snock, one of the first woman pilots in the country. But in the 1920s flying was still pretty much a man’s game. Although she had broken a speed record for aviation, Earhart was still not taken seriously.
It was probably inevitable that the ballyhoo publicity machine of the 1920s would produce a “female Lindy,” after Charles “Lindy” Lindbergh's solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927, and it was Earhart’s luck to just happen to be there when it did.
Book publisher George Putnam, later her husband, found her through a friend and, hoping for a bestselling book of her crossing, signed Earhart up to be a passenger on a plane flight across the Atlantic.
Earhart was furious that she would not be allowed to fly. But Putnam’s publicity for her book was not to be stopped. Although she had to learn to put up with newspapers constantly referring to her as “the flying flapper,” a phrase she found demeaning, she was now a celebrity.
It was sometime in early 1929 that Earhart met Dorothea Leh at an airfield in New York. Together the pair decided to create an organization for women pilots. Earhart sent out 107 letters asking female flyers if they would join such a group. She received 99 back and decided to call the organization the “99s.” Earhart was chosen its first president.
On September 4, 1929 Earhart responded to a request from the Bethlehem Rotary Club to talk about the future of flying. She was officially representing the Transcontinental Air Transport Co., which was attempting to establish cross-country plane service that was combined with train service. The day of Earhart’s arrival was not a good one for the TAT. The day before one, of its big Ford tri-motor planes crashed in New Mexico, killing all aboard.
The tragedy apparently did not mar Earhart’s reception from an overflow crowd at the Hotel Bethlehem. Earhart spoke glowingly of the future of the Bethlehem Airport, at what is now Interstate 78 at the Hellertown-Bethlehem border.
Unfortunately the airport became a victim of the Depression and was turned over to Bethlehem Steel in the 1940s, which later sold it.
Earhart’s journey to Allentown on November 4, 1929 was more of a personal nature. She arrived unannounced at the early Allentown Airport., a grass airstrip, and called Dorothea Leh, who drove out to meet her and brought Earhart to her father, Dr. M.J. Backenstoe in Emmaus. Later they drove to Allentown, where Leh was interviewed by the Morning Call. “All who met Miss Earhart…were charmed with her gracious and unassuming personality,” the newspaper said.
After attending a mystery movie, at Earhart’s request she returned to the Leh's Linden Street home, where the aviation legend spent the night. The next morning they rode out to the airport. Photographers took pictures of Earhart and Leh next to her plane. They show both women in dresses with Earhart in the popular cloche hat of the 1920s era.
Although Wall Street crashed that year Earhart’s career took off. Perhaps most spectacular was her 1935 flight from Hawaii to California across 2,400 miles of Pacific Ocean. On May 20, 1937 she took off on her round the world flight across the Southern Hemisphere with navigator Fred Noonan. It was on July 2 that the pair disappeared on their flight to Howland Island in the remote Pacific. “Lady Lindy Lost,” the headlines screamed.
The Lehs never spoke publically of Earhart’s disappearance. Dorothea Leh died in 1955. But in 1960 Earhart’s old college classmate de Schweinitz had this to say of her:
“She was a tremendously fine person; her loss was a great tragedy to the world.”
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