Amelia Earhart on Block Island
Block Island has had its share of celebrity visitors throughout the years. From summer residents like Christopher Walken, to weekend vacationers like former presidents from Bill Clinton to Ulysses S. Grant, our little island has seen a wide variety of famous people. So it should come as no surprise that 94 years ago during a publicity tour of America’s eastern seaboard, one of the most famous women of her time made her way to the island not only to relax but to take part in a new and exciting field of study.
Arriving by Air and Sea
On July 21, 1929 an amphibious plane left from New York City and landed in the waters off of Block Island. Behind the controls was Grover Loening; former factory manager for the Wright Brothers, founder of Grover Loening Aircraft Company, and innovator of the aeronautic aircraft. While a celebrity in certain circles, Loening’s passenger that day was someone that the entire country knew and admired.
Amelia Earhart was on her tour of America’s Eastern Seaboard when she made a stop in New Shoreham to visit George P. Putnum and his wife, Dorothy. Putnum, a well-known publisher and explorer, had published Charles Lindbergh’s best-selling autobiography 2 years earlier and had worked with Earhart to release her own autobiography, 20 Hrs. 40 Min, the year prior. Earhart would be staying with the Putnums on their yacht for a few days. While relaxation was on the docket, there was another reason she had made her way to Block Island. Specifically, in regards to experiments being conducted off shore.
Simon Lake built his first submarine in 1894. During his career he designed and built submersible ships for the navies of the United States, Imperial Russia, Germany and Austro-Hungry. After building ships for the U.S. during World War I, Lake was hit with some misfortune. Certain treaties were signed limiting the size of each country’s navy which would cause him to lose his military contracts to his competitors.
Not one to accept defeat, he switched his focus to submarines as salvage vehicles. These subs were equipped with lock-out chambers that allowed divers to leave and reenter the ship while submerged as well as wheels on the bottom to ride along the ocean floor. Refitting one of his former military submarines, in 1928 he officially launched “The Defender” from Bridgeport, CT. In June 1929, Lake set up a demonstration for the US Navy off the shores of Block Island as well as the Great Salt Pond. To drum up some publicity for the event, he had gotten in touch with Amelia Earhart and invited her to make a visit.
On July 22, Earhart found herself on The Defender getting suited up in standard diving dress. Although its name suggests a pleasant outfit to wear at the beach, in actuality the standard dress more closely resembles something worn by divers in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: a full body waterproof canvas suit, big weighted boots, and a huge, spherical copper helmet with small port-holes and a tube running to the surface. This suit belongs to Frank Crilly, a diver on the ship.
The plan was to make a 35-foot dive. However, as Earhart was being lowered into the water she began to tug at her signal rope. When they brought her back onboard, it was found that the wrists in Crilly’s suit were too big for Earhart and were letting water inside. Unfortunately, the dive that day needed to be called off.
The next day, having fixed the wrist issues, Earhart suited back up and made the dive down with Crilly. While on the ocean floor, she picked up a clam to bring back up to the surface as proof that she had done it. They stayed down for about twelve minutes. After surfacing, Earhart told reporters, “It was absolutely nothing. Many women have gone deeper and stayed longer.”
Later that day, the crew of The Defender took the sub down to an unspecified depth with Earhart and Dorothy Putnum. Wearing just their normal swimming suits, both women entered the lock-out chamber and exited the sub, swimming up to the surface. An astonishing feat for unexperienced civilians at the time.
That evening, Grover Loening loaded Amelia Earhart and the Putnums into his seaplane, flying back to New York and leaving Block Island and The Defender behind.
George P. Putnum would divorce Dorothy later that year. However, he and Earhart would continue their relationship as he became her personal promoter. Two years later, in 1931, they would be married. Amelia Earhart went missing during her around-the-world flight attempt in 1937. She was declared officially dead in January 1939.
Despite Simon Lake’s efforts, The Defender was not well received by the US Navy. The sub ended up in various ports near New London, eventually being left abandoned in Old Saybrook. In 1946, the Army Corps of Engineers towed The Defender to the Long Island Sound and skuttled it. In an interesting turn of events, in April of this year, after and extensive search of the area, commercial diver, Richard Simon, and his team rediscovered the missing sub.
For such a small place, the history of Block Island is full of these unique stories. So do some digging and explore the island. You never know what you might learn! And for all those little explorers out there, take a cue from Ms. Earhart and create your own adventures!
Go deeper, stay longer and Sail Away…