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Thursday, July 11, 2024 | Back issues
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The legacy of Amelia Earhart lives in the Kansas town where she was born

The deep sea explorers who believe they may have found the famed aviator's airplane will be in Atchison, Kansas, during the annual Amelia Earhart Festival.

(CN) — In a small Kansas city on the banks of the Missouri River, it’s hard to escape the legacy of Amelia Earhart.

In Atchison, a city of 11,000 in the northeast of the state, there’s the Amelia Earhart Birthplace Museum. The Amelia Earhart Hanger Museum. A giant one-acre landscape portrait of the great flyer. Since 1997, there has been an annual Amelia Earhart Festival. The city has incorporated her image into its logo.

The bridge over the Missouri River is named after her, too. So is the post office.

“Atchison is extremely proud that Amelia was born in Atchison, loved Atchison and has become our famous daughter,” said Karen Seaberg, founder and president of the Atchison Amelia Earhart Foundation. “Amelia truly is the most important thing that happened here in Atchison.”

In 1937, Earhart, a pioneering aviator whose accomplishments included being the first woman to fly alone across the Atlantic, and navigator Fred Noonan disappeared over the South Pacific while attempting to circumnavigate the globe.

Despite the most expensive air and sea search in American history to that point, Earhart and Noonan were never found, creating one of the most enduring mysteries of early aviation.

During the annual Amelia Earhart Festival next month, the Hanger Museum will host the scientists of Deep Sea Vision, a South Carolina marine robotics company, who may have located the aircraft Earhart was piloting, a twin-engine Lockheed Electra, 16,400 feet below the surface of the Pacific Ocean near Howland Island, her and Noonan's destination after departing Lae, New Guinea, on July 2, 1937.

Confirmation or refutation of the find is likely years away; the suspected wreckage is roughly 4,000 feet deeper than the remains of the Titanic.

A sonar image of what may be Amelia Earhart's airplane next to a diagram of the aircraft. (Courtesy Photo/Deep Sea Vision via the Amelia Earhart Hanger Museum)

Earhart was born on July 24, 1897, in a Gothic Revival home overlooking the Missouri River that was built by her maternal grandfather. The house now serves as the Amelia Earhart Birthplace Museum.

She displayed a sense of adventure from a young age, reputed to have tobogganed down the many hills of Atchison during Kansas winters, at one point going right between the legs of a horse.

Another time, she attempted to build her own roller coaster after being denied a ride at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904. Her father had to dismantle it.

 “She was a daredevil from the time she was little,” Seaberg said. “She was an at-risk kid at times, too.”

Indeed, it wasn’t an idyllic childhood. Her father was an alcoholic and the family moved around a lot. She lived in the house on the bluff on and off through eighth grade, according to the Birthplace Museum, before moving elsewhere in the Midwest, living in Des Moines and Chicago.

She graduated high school and attended college but had to drop out because she ran out of money, Seaberg said. She worked many types of jobs, including working with immigrants as a social worker in Boston.

“Amelia probably had 30 jobs by the time she was 28,” Seaberg said.

It was a 1920 ride on an airplane that prompted Earhart to take flying lessons, and she soon earned her pilot’s license, according to Encyclopedia Britannica.

In 1928, Earhart became the first woman to fly across the Atlantic — and an international celebrity. But she was a mere passenger on that trip. She wrote a memoir and flew an autogiro to a record-setting altitude, but she burned to pilot a plane herself across the Atlantic.

In 1932, she flew solo in a Lockheed Vega from Newfoundland to Northern Ireland, making the trip in record time despite numerous mechanical difficulties and lousy weather.

Throughout the 1930s, Earhart made record-setting flights, becoming not only the first woman to do something, but the first anyone, including being the first person to fly solo from Los Angeles to Mexico City.

Earhart and Noonan disappeared flying a twin-engine Lockheed Electra 10-E on an equatorial circumnavigation route, making the voyage uniquely difficult in terms of distance and finding places to land safely — particularly over the expanse of the Pacific.

The mystery of the disappearance is embraced at the Amelia Earhart Hanger Museum, which opened in 2023. Its centerpiece is an Electra 10-E restored to a condition identical to the airplane in which Earhart and Noonan went missing. It's named “Muriel” after Earhart’s younger sister, who died in 1998, and organizers said it's the last remaining original 10-E.

Those who tour the museum can take a survey and guess, choosing between several options, what happened to Earhart and Noonan. The most popular is that she disappeared over the Pacific.

But other possibilities, such as that she was taken prisoner by the Japanese, or that she returned to the United States to live under an assumed name, get plenty of votes, said Mindi Love Pendergraft, the Hanger Museum's executive director.

Earhart’s legacy in Atchison and beyond

Besides honoring Earhart's story, organizers say the Hanger Museum is one that blends history and STEM learning to help children and adults understand how technology changes the world.

In 21st century educational circles, science, technology, engineering and math curriculum is all the rage. In the 1920s, aviation was relatively new. Understanding how tech drives changes is important at a time when the internet and artificial intelligence may make the 20th century seem unrecognizable, Pendergraft said, and can build critical thinking skills.

“The stature of her fame rivals a lot of people today, in terms of influencers and social media,” Pendergraft said. “When you look at Amelia’s story, we would call her an early adopter. She wasn’t afraid to jump in.”

The Lockheed Electra is an example of that. It was relatively new in 1937 but was already being surpassed by the Douglas DC-3 as a commercial airliner. The DC-3 could carry 20 people; the Electra only 10. That’s why there were only 14 of the 10-E model made, Pendergraft said.

“There are consequences of those things,” Pendergraft said about rapidly developing technology. “It’s important to have those conversations.”

"Muriel," is the centerpiece of the Amelia Earhart Hanger Museum in Atchison, Kansas. The last remaining Lockheed Electra 10-E, it is a replica of the aircraft in which Earhart disappeared in 1937. (Courtesy Photo/Amelia Earhart Hanger Museum)

The museum also features a display about Noonan, an accomplished maritime and aerial navigator. Visitors can learn about astronomy and how he navigated using the stars.

There are displays on Neta Snook, who taught Earhart to fly and died in 1991, her husband, publisher and Arctic explorer George Putnam, and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, whom she was close to.

The festival will take place July 19-20, during which the museum will present two programs featuring the explorers who found what may be Earhart's Electra, one moderated by Dorothy Cochrane, a curator in the Aeronautics Department at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Among a host of other activities will be a Friday night show on the waterfront by country music band Diamond Rio.

There’s more to Atchison than Amelia Earhart, Seaberg pointed out. Lewis and Clark camped in the area during their expedition up the Missouri River. The city dates to before the Civil War and features brick residential streets lined with leafy trees and homes from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

“But there is something about Amelia that just stirs people’s adventurous spirit,” Seaberg said. “So we’ve latched on. She’s our favorite daughter and one of the favorite daughters of Kansas.”

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Categories / History, National, Science, Technology

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