San Diego history: Toliver’s ill-fated dirigible
by Johnny McDonald
Published - 11/11/11 - 11:22 AM | 3265 views | 2 2 comments | 5 5 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Charles Toliver’s infamous dirigible sits in a construction pit just days before its ill-fated attempt to fly to San Francisco on Nov. 11, 1911. The airship was constructed in what is today the Golden Hill neighborhood, near 32nd and B streets. Photo courtesy of the San Diego Air and Space Museum. Illustration by Kendra Hartmann
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Long before anyone envisioned airline travel, enterprising Charles H. Toliver convinced San Diegans that he had an airship that would transport people to Los Angeles and San Francisco. The big “lift off” day would be Nov. 11, 1911.

His whale-like dirigible — 250 feet long and 40 feet in diameter — became the awe of many, including several gullible investors. 

It had four 18-horsepower engines driving six propellers, one on each end of the envelope and two on either side. They were mounted so they could be adjusted in any direction and thus eliminate the need for a rudder. Each of the engines had 25 gallons of gasoline and 10 gallons of oil available for the trip.

Nine years of work at a cost of $60,000 went into the Golden Hill project at 32nd street, between B and C streets, to ensure the Toliver Aerial Navigation Company had the premier mode of transportation on the West Coast. It was to accommodate 40 passengers.

Curious crowds, including a nervous group of stockholders, gathered in anticipation of a great day in aeronautical achievement.

Toliver’s wife, Kate, determined to be at her husband’s side in the ship’s control room, had brought aboard about 20 fried chickens and four crates of sarsaparilla for the crew, hopefully enough to last for a long-distance journey to San Francisco.

Toliver believed his moment had arrived. The anchoring lines were cut and the men at the handling lines were at the ready. The engines were started, one at a time. Then, Toliver looked out of an open window and gave the command: “Let her go!”

The men at the handling lines obeyed the order and stepped back. The engines revved, maybe in agony. “Let her go! Let her go!,” was the repeat command. Then he ordered all ballast be released.

The gas-powered engines started and the aluminum propellers spun. The San Diego Union would report: “It quivered for a few breathless moments, threatening to rise, then settled down again.”

The spectators’ disappointment was nothing compared to that of the inventor at that terrible moment when his airship did not respond. His pride and joy was stuck in a pit.

Afterward, he believed he might have been successful had he made the attempt later in the day, when the sun could warm the hydrogen enough for takeoff.

Six days later, newspaper headlines declared the Toliver I a deadly menace to the community.

Toliver was ordered to remove the danger immediately and let all the gas out of the envelope. A city councilman suggested someone make holes in the envelope with long wooden poles, explaining that would not cause sparks that could ignite the dangerous gas.

But treacherous storm winds on Dec. 20 reduced the airship to a shredded pile of silk, aluminum frames and miles of piano wire. It released the hydrogen that still may have remained in the hull and had frightened city officials. It looked like a giant had stepped on it.

Toliver, meanwhile, soon faced other issues. Some investors complained their shares of stock were unmarketable. One shareholder filed a lawsuit, alleging problems with Toliver’s bookkeeping. 

The city Health Department then announced the remaining hydrogen in the airship had become “highly explosive and exceedingly dangerous” to the community. Toliver was ordered to “abate the nuisance” by deflating his airship “forthwith.”

Toliver’s ambitions, in turn, were deflated as well. As for his investors, they didn’t take too kindly to his failed attempt at a foray into the air travel business.

On the evening of May 25,1912, Herbert G. Lewis, Toliver’s former secretary and chauffer — and, more importantly, a disgruntled stock investor — waited in the shadows as Toliver and his wife returned home from an evening out. As they pulled into their garage, Lewis emerged and shot them both to death. After the police captured him, Lewis admitted his guilt, saying simply, “He ruined my home; if I had not done it, someone else would have had to.”

Such is the dramatic end to the tale of Charles Toliver and his ill-fated airship.
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Mike Miller
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July 19, 2017
Correction to your story: the engines were 32 horsepower, not 18. They were connected to the propellers with bendable shafts so that the ship could be pushed up or down.(See Herman Van Dyke's excellent article in Bouyant Flight) Toliver spent a great deal of money to get these engines which were considered to be the most up to date available at the time. It is a shame that his venture into the dirigible field is considered foolish by today's standards. He was entering a field very new in its day and about which the "gullible investors" of San Diego knew no more than the investors in the New York stock market. If he had only known and understood what Count von Zeppelin was putting into his airships he would be celebrated as a San Diego pioneer in flight!
Mike Miller
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July 08, 2017
Well it wasn't actually the end. Lewis's trial was a show unlike most in San Diego of the period, with Mrs. Lewis giving conflicting "evidence" about her relationship with her husband and Toliver. There was much made of seances and the Tolivers forcing her into sexual acts (tho' they are not mentioned as such in the local papers of the day,the Sun and Union), just hinted at. The all male jury found Lewis innocent by reason of temporary insanity then quickly found him sane again. The prosecutor got himself in trouble with the judge. Stuff from which soap operas are made. Perry Mason would have loved it! The Lewis's made off to LA after the trial, but that is another story.
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