ST. LOUIS • The silver airplane broke through mist and smog over East St. Louis and headed for the Eads Bridge. Crowds of skywatchers cheered. Whistles screamed, horns honked and two Naval Reserve submarine chasers fired salutes. Behind it flew a buzzing swarm of Army pursuit biplanes.
Young Charles Lindbergh was back in town.
Lindbergh, then 25, returned in his Spirit of St. Louis on June 17, 1927, almost a month after his nonstop flight from New York to Paris, a feat that riveted the world. He put wheels down at Lambert Field at 3:27 p.m. Among the 12,000 there to greet him were U.S. Secretary of War (and tennis great) Dwight F. Davis and airport watchman George Herwig, who was Lindbergh's checkers buddy during his air-mail days.
For six days, St. Louis celebrated Lucky Lindy. Admirers lined the sidewalks 10 deep for a parade, packed Sportsman's Park to standing room, filled Art Hill for a flyover and speech, and jammed the Municipal Opera for a disappointingly brief cameo. By then, the shy Lindbergh was exhausted.
Born in Michigan, he was a barnstormer and Army pilot before he got a job here to fly the mail to and from Chicago. He bet his $2,000 savings and won over a group of St. Louis businessmen to buy a Ryan monoplane so he could chase the $25,000 Orteig Prize. Pilots had crossed the Atlantic Ocean, but nobody had made it nonstop from New York to Paris. Lindbergh did it in 33½ hours on May 20-21.
Many cities honored him, but St. Louis had its special claim. On June 18, people crowded along eight miles of parade route from Forest Park to a ticker-tape storm downtown. The Post-Dispatch described Lindbergh as "grave, dignified and interested, but never excited" as he rode in a white convertible.
At Art Hill, he gave a serious speech to 100,000 people on St. Louis' potential as an aviation hub — and mentioned a frustration that resonates today: "It takes nearly as long to go from St. Louis to the air terminal as it does to fly to Chicago." On June 22, he flew to Dayton, Ohio, en route to Washington.
His airplane is in the Smithsonian Institution in that city. Lambert-St. Louis International Airport displays one of Lindbergh's other personal aircraft, a 1934 Monocoupe. And a Ryan-built plane resembling the Spirit of St. Louis hangs in the grand Hall at the Missouri History Museum in Forest Park, which also has hundreds of the gifts and awards that were heaped on the young barnstormer who established St. Louis in world aviation.