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The Mystery Airship of 1896

What was the strange airship seen in 1896? (Copyright Lee Krystek 2004)

Eighteen ninety-six was marked by a strange occurrence, an amazing phenomenon that those that saw it probably never forgot. People, by the thousands, living across North America, from San Francisco to Chicago, observed strange lights in the sky. The lights, reportedly an airship, crossed the continent from west to east while the country watched.

The excitement started on November 17, 1896 in Sacramento, California. It was a rainy, dismal night. Then, through the dark clouds, appeared a bright light. It moved slowly west appearing to be about a thousand feet above the rooftops. Hundreds of people saw the light including George Scott, an assistant to the Secretary of State of California. Scott persuaded some friends to join him on the observation deck above the capitol dome and from there they thought they could see three lights, not one. Above the lights was a dark, oblong shape.

 

Check out our Flash Film Mini-documentary on The Mysterious Airship of 1896.

The most detailed report of the evening came from one R.L. Lowery, a former street railway employee who said he heard a voice from above call, "Throw her up higher; she'll hit the steeple." When he looked up he saw two men seated on a bicycle-like frame, peddling. Above them was a "cigar-shaped body of some length." Lowery said that the thing also had "wheels at the side like the side wheels on Fulton's old steam boat."

The story was in the newspapers the next day:

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CLAIM THEY SAW A FLYING AIRSHIP

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Strange Tale of Sacramento Men Not Addicted to Prevarication

Viewed an Aerial Courser as it Passes Over the City at Night.

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What Was it?

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The title "airship" soon stuck. Other papers were more reserved and reported a "mysterious light" or "wandering apparition." A few ridiculed the stories suggesting that the whole thing had been a hoax or the result of a natural effect like glowing swamp gas. The story soon faded.

An eyewitness sketch of the "airship" over Sacramento on November 17, 1896.

Then, five days after its first appearance, the "airship" came back.

It was Sunday night and weather conditions were as before: dark and overcast. The light appeared from the northwest and when straight over the town, running against the wind. One witness, Jacob Zemansky, had a small telescope and reported the lamp was "an electric arc light of intense power." He also observed that the light didn't move in a straight line, but seemed to bob in the wind up and down. Another witness with field glasses, Edward Carragher, reported seeing a dark body above the light.

It took thirty minutes for the thing to cross the city and disappear to the southwest. During this time thousands of people observed it including the city's deputy sheriff and a district attorney.

That same night the "airship" also appeared above San Francisco some 90 miles away. There it was observed by hundreds, including the mayor. It cruised as far as the Pacific Ocean, above the famous Cliff House, where its searchlight, a beam that stretched out over 500 feet, reportedly frightened the seals on Seal Rock sending them plunging into the safety of the sea.

Over the next few days airship sightings were made not just in California, but from as far away as Washington State and Canada. The newspapers went wild, some supporting the idea of an airship, some ridiculing it. Stories began to suggest that the airship was the work of a mysterious inventor who was testing his device at night lest his ideas be stolen. This didn't seem outrageous to most people. Balloons capable of carrying people had been around for almost a hundred years and it seemed that the key to powered flight might soon be discovered.

Patrons got a good view of the "airship" from San Francisco's Cliff House.

One San Francisco attorney, nicknamed "Airship" Collins, claimed that he was representing the eccentric and wealthy inventor who had constructed the thing at a secret location in Oroville, just sixty miles north of Sacramento. According to Collins the airship was 150 feet long, and could carry 15 passengers. "It was built on the aeroplane system and has two canvas wings 18 feet wide and a rudder shaped like a bird's tail," he told people, "I saw the thing ascend about 90 feet under perfect control." When the mysterious inventor never appeared Collins found himself the object of ridicule and he backed off his earlier claims.

Another San Francisco attorney took his place, though, claiming that there was not one airship, but two, and they would be used to bomb Havana. William Henry Hart, a former attorney general, stated, "From what I have seen of it I have not the least doubt that it will carry four men and 1,000 pounds of dynamite." Hart's airship never was made public either and by early December the lawyer, as well as the lights in the sky, had disappeared from the scene.

Everything was quiet for two months. Then, on February 2, 1897, the "airship" showed itself over the town of Hastings, Nebraska. On February 5th it was seen forty miles further south near the town of Invale. Reports started to flow in from all over the state. On February 16th it was sighted over Omaha. More stories appeared. A farmer claimed he'd encountered the airship on the ground, under repair. "It is cigar shaped, about 200 feet long and 50 feet across at the widest point, gradually narrowing to a point at both ends," the farmer said.

Soon the airship had been sighted all over the mid-west including in Texas, Kansas, Iowa and Missouri. More stories about encounters with the crew on the ground appeared. Finally in April the excitement reached it's zenith when the "airship" arrived in Chicago. On April 11th a photograph of the thing was reportedly taken, probably the first UFO photo in existence. Some experts pronounced the photo to be fake.

On April 15, near Kalamazoo, Michigan, there were reports that the airship had crashed and exploded. "They declare the report to have been like that of heavy ordnance and to have been immediately succeeded by a distant sound of projectiles flying through the air," a newspaper story proclaimed.

Despite this, airship sightings continued for a few more days. Some expected the thing to continue on to the east coast, but instead reports about it suddenly faded and by the end of April the flap was over.

So what was it? What was this thing that had apparently been seen by thousands of people across the west and mid-west? There were no airplanes then. The Wight Brothers didn't make their first, short flight till 1903. Neither did a working model of a powered dirigible, which airship descriptions most closely resemble, exist.

One likely culprit is the planet Venus. At the time the sightings started it was prominent in the sky. When the sightings stopped it was becoming increasingly less visible. Venus is the brightest object in the sky, except for the Sun and Moon, and under unusual atmospheric conditions can appear to move, blink, or look like multiple colored lights. It well may have been responsible for many of the reports.

What about the many stories with people meeting the crew or seeing the airship crash? It's hard for us to imagine, in our day and age of radio and television, how much a part of 19th century entertainment centered on the tall tale and the hoax. Journalistic hoaxes, even in the largest newspapers, were standard fare. Readers were expected to guess about which stories were true and which were fictional. Almost every small town had a "lair club" where tall tales were swapped. (Alexander Hamilton's famous "Cownapping" story came out of the airship flap). As a result of these two institutions almost any unusual tale in a 19th century newspaper can be in doubt.

Was there actually a mystery inventor who built a powered dirigible a decade before anyone else? (Copyright Lee Krystek, 2001)

In addition, as today, practical jokers did not hesitate to send balloons lighted with candles into the sky, or kites with lanterns, if they thought they could put one over on the public. Others may have created "crash" sites complete with debris. One newspaper, the Peoria Transcript, sent up lighted, colored, paper balloons to "test" people's imaginations. A number of "airship" sightings was the result.

So if we remove the misidentifications and hoaxes from the airship phenomenon is there anything left? Could it have been an extra-terrestrial spaceship? One of the most striking things about the airship flap was that almost none of the stories surrounding it have anything to do with extra-terrestial beings. (The story of a crash of a Mars airship at Aurora, Texas, was an exception). The airship was piloted by "plain" Americans and designed by the human mystery inventor.

So what about the final possibility? Was there really a mysterious inventor who secretly built an airship and flew it around the country? Certainly the public had been primed to accept such a story. Science fiction in this era often used the "mystery inventor" as a character. Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea featured a mystery inventor, Captain Nemo, who constructed a submarine. Verne's later book, Robur the Conqueror, featured a mystery inventor that built an airship and the similarities between the book and some of the airship stories are uncanny. Robur was published about ten years before the wave of airship sightings.

If there was a real airship genius why didn't he ever make his invention public? Could he have really kept the construction of a flying machine out of the press? Was he really ten years ahead of his contemporary inventors?

If he did exist he certainly was successful in hiding his secret. It remains unknown even today.

Copyright 1996 Lee Krystek. All Rights Reserved.