THE NOT-SO-MYSTERIOUS AIRSHIPS OF 1896-97
By Louis Winkler, PhD
(MUFON Consultant in Astronomy)
The mysterious airships of 1896-1897 have long fallen into the category of the unexplained or unidentified. But in the last decade or two, a new investigative
tool has emerged in academe which sheds an entirely different light on the mysterious airship flap. The tool is a variety of microforms and readers that are
used in connection with a nation-wide, interlibrary loan system which provides service copies of microforms. With this instrument it was possible for this
writer to make a generous sampling of daily newspapers from the major cities of the U.S. from late 1896 to the spring of 1897, and draw new conclusions.
The sampling provides detailed evidence of a number of real balloon craft which were steerable or powered (airships). The areas most involved show an initial
progress of activity from the west coast to the east coast, over a 5-month period. Reports of the flap start in the San Francisco area, then move to Omaha,
Chicago,Nashville, and finally return to the central portion in Texas. News was quickly disseminated with the telegraph and appeared in countless newspapers.
By the time the phenomena reached the Midwest, thousands of people were having sightings. And many of the reports would include landing accounts or interaction
with the pilot, inventor, or passengers. The nation was a 'twitter with the idea that American inventors were close to discovering the "secret"
of powered navigation. These balloon aircraft would just be the first of other major developments soon to follow in the field of transportation by air.
Sightings of one or more airships in the U.S. originated in the central coastal area of California during the late fall of 1896. The San Francisco Chronicle
published a series of articles in late November regarding an airship seen-in the Sacramento area with the initial weak suggestion that it was a hoax. Some
reports were to the effect that it was cigar-shaped with a framework underneath for two men to sit on bicycle-like structures. Other reports were that it was
oval with outstretched wings and propellers, and in one instance the operators could be heard singing. By November 22 the Chronicle and the Oakland Tribune
reported that "thousands" of people saw an airship in the Sacramento area.
With this ripple, a lawyer, George D. Collins, came to the forefront and explained that his client, E. H. "Aluminum" Benjamin, was the inventor and
had been working on the ship for 7 years. Collins also described some of the flights of the ship, and indicated that many parts of it were manufactured in the
eastern U.S. The ship apparently was dubbed the "U.S.Collins" and upposedly belonged to the Aerial Navigation and Irrigation Co.
The sensation was so great the San Francisco Call carried an engraving of an elongated airship with wings, causing the San Francisco Examiner on December 5,
1896 to publish a stiff rejection of the whole affair:
Fake journalism has a good deal to answer for, but we do not recall a more discernible exploit in that line than the
persistent attempt to make the public believe that the air in this vicinity is populated with airships. It has been manifest for weeks that the whole airship
story is pure myth.
If this amount of airship coverage bothered the publisher, Mr. Hurst,then what happened in the following months must have made him furious, because by
mid-April of 1897 there was a deluge of accounts of airships throughout the country.Additions to and variations of the accounts of the first sightings in
California appeared in eastern newspapers during April. The New York Herald of the 12th reported that the first cigar-shaped flying machine was seen on
November 16th in the Sacramento area, and Collins revealed that this airship was 150 feet long, had two wings, and was controllable. C.A. Smith, president of
the Atlantic and Pacific Aerial Navigation Co., indicated the airship would fly to the east coast soon. Another story of the first California sighting appeared
in the April 18th issue of the Pittsburgh Press. The report here was that the first sighting was in Maryville, some 75 miles northeast of San Francisco.To what
extent these California sightings are related is not clear.
Reports of airships died down during the winter months, but according to the Pittsburgh Press an airship spent several weeks crossing the Rockies,and passed
over Kansas and Iowa. Newspaper accounts were renewed when the Chicago Tribune reported on April 7, 1897 that hundreds saw an airship the night before in the
Omaha area. The St. Louis Post Dispatch of April 10th, however, reported that Omaha heard of the airship 6 months earlier, suggesting news originated in
October of 1896. The New York Herald of April 12th said that the first sighting in the Omaha area was made on- March 29th. Sightings in mid-April were so
numerous that the St.Louis Post Dispatch of April 14th and 16th indicated that hundreds had seen it in Nebraska and Oklahoma, and even thousands around St.
By mid-April the airship flap had the Midwest stirred into a frenzy and reports were coming from all directions, but the most developed data came from
sightings in the Chicago area. The Chicago Tribune of April 10th 'reported that hundreds sighted .an airship in the Chicago area, many seeing wings. On the
same day, the New York Herald gave insight into the nature of the elongated Chicago object. Max L. Harrhar, secretary of the Chicago Aeronautical Association,
said he was expecting the airship since he received word several weeks prior that a party of three had already left San Francisco.
Harmer described the vessel as powered and steerable, and it was just stopping off at Chicago in its flight to Washington D.C. Harrhar also explained that
Octave Chanute, president of the Chicago Aeronautical Association, had full information on the ship. Chanute was reported as being one of the wealthy sponsors
of this airship venture. According to the New York Times of June 3, Chanute was running a secret airship farm not far from Chicago, and the New York Herald-of
April 13 reported the patent papers for the airship were already on file in Washington, D.C.
The Chicago Tribune was able to provide most of the information regarding the inventor of the Chicago airship. On April 12th they reported that the
inventor's name was A. C.Clinton who lived in Omaha. The April 26th issue, however, suggested that A. C. Clinton was an alias and the probable inventor was
a violin maker Clinton A. Case, an anagram of the alias. According to Secretary Wakefield of the Omaha Exposition, Case requested 87,000 sq. ft. of landing
space at the exposition. Then, the next day' the Chicago Tribune reported that Case lived in Chicago and he was already -building model airships since
1892. in'Rock Rapids, Iowa. Perhaps Omaha was mistakenly reported as the home of: the inventor because another inventor, Alva J. -Grover, a civil engineer
who resided in Omaha, is reported as having shown plans for a steerable, powered, inflatedmachine.. But to make things even more confused the New York Herald
of April 13th reported that Oscar B.Booth; another airship inventor from Chicago, said the Chicago airship was Charles Clinton's who lived in Dodd City,
In the technical vein, the most compelling evidence for the existence of an airship seen in the Chicago' area was the two photographs taken by Walter
McCann which was reported in several of the major newspapers across the nation. Three other witnesses - G. A. Overstocked W. Hoodies, and E. L. Osborne - saw
the airship as well as McCann who took the photographs. These photographic plates were subject to "an acid test" and pronounced genuine. The
witnesses themselves could even see through a telescope a man steering the cigar-shaped airship. Unfortunately these photographs do not seem to have survived.
However, among the .more prominent sources which declared the photos a fake were the Chicago Tribune of April 12 and Donald B. Hanlon in 1970. - The Tribune
explains that it was a fake because of "too much scope of lens."(?)
Another area from which detailed reports issued was Nashville, Tennessee. On April 25th the St. Louis Post Dispatch provided a remarkably detailed description
of an airship shaped like a shad without its head and tail that landed in the Chattanooga area for repairs. In addition to wings and propellers there was a
9-foot passenger car beneath the balloon which carried two men. One of the pilots, Prof. Charles Davidson, reportedly left Sacramento a month
earlier.Interestingly enough, the May 7th issue of the Chicago Tribune gives a description of another airship, also in a very convincing style. Prof. Arthur W.
Barnard of Nashville • demonstrated take-off and control of a balloon before hundreds at the Tennessee Centennial Exposition grounds. His -balloon was
elongated with propellers and had a bicycle underneath for the pilot to use, primarily for take-off. The New York Times of May 7th specified the airship length
as 40 feet and width as 20 feet.
Since we presently live in the .age where humans have been landed on the moorrrepeatedly, it is difficult for us to imagine the sensation created in
the horse and buggy days by the appearance of a controlled balloon. The Tribune report indicated that in the case of Barnard's demonstration "people
refused to believe their eyes." The New York Herald of April 14th expressed exasperation with the airship situation and said it "seems impossible to
get anything reliable now about the airships." They then proceeded to describe a steam driven airship named "Pegasus" which had solved the
problem of aerial navigation and had spent the last month flying about. This airship was supposedly assembled 10 miles from Lafayette,Tennessee with parts from
Chicago, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis.
Numerous other accounts of inventors at work were briefly given in newspapers that spring. According to the Dallas Morning News of April 6th another pioneer,
G. M. Padgitt of Springfield, Missouri, had been making balloon ascensions in the several weeks past. And among the inventors with a reputation who were
secretly working at the time was Samuel P. Langley of the Smithsonian Institute.As early as May 14, 1896 the New York Tribune reported that Alexander G. Bell
described Langley's invention as a steam driven aerodrome which
looked like a large bird. On April 13th the St. Louis Post Dispatch indicated that Prof. Henry S. Pritchett of Washington University claimed that Langley's
invention was able to carry a man several hundred feet.
By no means were all the news-|paper accounts . along the lines of pioneering efforts by inventors of air:ships, secretly or openly. A few of the! stories
seemed distinctly different in character because of features difficult or impossible to believe. The New York Herald of, April 12th reported that John A.
Hernon, electrician from San Jose, by December 1 had already been on a trip with the inventor of an airship. Over a 2-day period they were supposed to have
made a trip to Honolulu and back. This was a trip of over 4,000 miles which had to be made at an average speed of 80 mph. It is difficult to see, how the
westward trip against the prevailing winds could be accomplished in less than 2 days when powered flight of balloons was in its infancy. While the schedule for
the trip to Honolulu -stretches the imagination, the schedule for another airship reported by the. Pittsburgh Press is an outright.lie. Here the timing
of a flight is given as Jacksonville, Florida 9:43; Havana, .Cuba 9:47 and Duluth, Iowa 9:50.
The Dallas Morning News of April 19th contained .a unique account involving a crash landing of an airship with retrieval of the pilot's body in the Aurora,
Texas area. Part-time reporter E. E. Haydon even provided information that the pilot originated from Mars and had on his person papers with unknown
hieroglyphics. No material evidence regarding the airship, pilot, or his papers was ever recovered and the report of the incident is regarded as a hoax. While
a few other hoaxes were identified in the newspapers, their perpetrations
were relatively simple-minded and rather weakly documented.
Among the more curious accounts of airships is the one provided by George Dunlap via the Dallas Morning News of May 16th. Dunlap indicated he inspected a
75-foot long steerable, powered airship near Lake Charles,Louisiana. The airship supposedly carried four passengers in its travels through Texas and Mexico and
had an inventor named Wilson and engineer, Waters. Although Dunlap indicates he was invited for an ascent, he declined. Incredibly, Wilson was reported as
building a total of three airships, the other two supposedly in
Arizona and Mexico. Could one of these airships have been the one so widely reported by the Dallas Morning News on April 16th and 17th when it was reported
that the pilot was seen working on his craft outside the Dallas area?
In both Europe° and America balloonists had been making ascensions with passengers for more than a century. As .early as 1783 Jean F." P. Rozier'and
Marquis d'Arlandres made a free-flight, trip at LaMuette, France and 10 years' later the first Balloon flight'in the U.S. was launched from
Philadelphia. Jean P. .Blanchard flew 15 miles across the Delaware River and reached more than 1 mile in altitude. But then what happened between 1793 and 1896
in America does not seem to have been documented in much detail. In Europe,however, there is considerable documentation during the period. By 1880 the first
powered airship was flown in Leipzig, Germany by Wolfert and Baumgarten, but it ended in disaster. Even up to 1897 Europeans were having difficulties with
their attempts to achieve successful,controlled, powered flight. In 1884 C.Renard and A. C.. Krebs flew their 170-foot-long "La France." The balloon
returned to its starting point after achieving a speed of 12 mph. By 1897 a European dirigible had been powered by a Daimler engine, but unfortunately their
trip ended too in
disaster as their engine emitted sparks which ignited the hydrogen gas in the balloon. In the same year another partially successful flight . ended in disaster
when a Swede, Solomon A. Andree, left Danes Island in an ambitious attempt to cross the North Pole. Because of incidents like these the New York Herald wrote
on April 15th: In Europe there are at least a dozen well-known scientists working, on the problem (of a powered, steerable airship) and many half successful
effects of flights have been made.
It is difficult to compare European and American achievements before 1897 since American reports are not as complete. Nevertheless, American flights also
seemed to have their difficulties. Numerous instances of landings were cited by Hanlon, Jacques Vallee, and this writer, and of all.of these, five were
reported to be for repairs. However, only the St. Louis Republic for April 14th reported a major crash landing, in Kalamazoo, Michigan.-Here G. W. Somers and
W. Chadburn witnessed a blow-up of the airship which showered propeller blades, electric : wire and steel splinters. A measure pf. the ballooning activity from
late l 896 to, the spring of 1897 is the number of sightings'and landings .reported. Hanlon specifies
150 sightings in 19. states, and this writer adds 1 sighting in each of 4 additional states and Cuba and Mexico from newspaper sources. Vallee and Hanlon
documented 22 landings in 12 states, and this writer adds 13 additional landings in 8 states: In America there were at least a dozen inventors working on the
problem, however, most were not as well known as were
the Europ'ean inventors. It is hardly a surprise that the state of dirigible technology in the U.S. was" as advanced as it was with the long arid
involved history 'of ballooning in Europe and" America.
To the detriment of UFOIogy and the history of ballooning, one of the first analyses of the mysterious airships of 1896-1897-was.made by.the debunker Donald
Menzel. In-his customary glib style the airships were:. . . created from imagination - imagination inflated by the newspaper stories''A? in the 1947
saucer scare, hoaxers and jokers ready to capitalize.on the event, quickly entered the picture." Naturally this same approach to, the phenomena of
1896-1897 was taken by another debunker, Philip K. Klass. His version is that:.When the public has been conditioned by the news media to believe that there;
are strange flying objects in the skies many persons will report having seen such objects - even when the objects do not really exist.
Apparently Menzel and Klass would have us believe that half of the major newspapers in the country are not capable of-differentiating between a real phenomenon
and a psychological one. . In keeping with their general', approach .to UFOs, Menzel and Klass are not only glib, they are absurd: In spite of the
activity' with powered, controlled,, elongated airships in the areas of -San (Francisco, Omaha; Chicago, Dallas and Nashville, Klass writes: At the time of
the rash of mysterious airships sightings there were no large powered craft in
the U.S. . . . Such things as airplanes or airships simply did not exist. Menzel of course has his own explanation of how thousands of people over the U.S. had
erred even though they saw details with and without optical aid: The dark, cigar-shaped gas bag in many cases was only a lenticular cloud or mirage, which
would have escaped notice except for the special significance momentarily attached to an object of this shape.
The view of the 1896-1897 phenomena taken by Vallee is different from that of Menzel and Klass, and not as glib. Vallee suggests that the airship was a figment
of the imagination,and in 2 of the 21 landing cases he discusses in connection with the airship, he shows that there are similar circumstances in Medieval
annals of folklore from the British Isles. Vallee also attempts to show that 4 of the remaining 19 landing events are fairy-tale-like. Most of the
interpretations of the flap found in the general UFO literature, however, take the view that the airships are not an explained phenomenon. Hanlon closes his
Flying Saucer Review article of 1970 with the statement:It is clear that the origin of the airship is still very much an open issue. It is also clear that the
mystery surrounding its appearance at that particular time in history has deepened. What is so surprising of the analyses mentioned above by Menzel, Klass,
Vallee, and Hanlon is that none considered a conventional man-made object explanation. Debunkers and UFOlogists are represented, but no one chose to treat the
mountain of compelling data as just part of the history of ballooning.
At the time of the airship sightings there did not appear to be any outspoken debunkers with the reputation of Menzel and Klass. But indeed,there were a few
astronomers who simply suggested without much technical defense that thousands upon thousands of people could not distinguish between a point of light such as
Venus, Mars, Alpha Orion, or Betelgeuse, and structured aircraft.Although numerous people saw details of the construction of the ships,including passengers,
and although many reliable witnesses made observations with optical aid, the astronomers failed to explain how the observers could have so erred.
Perhaps more convincing than the technical arguments of the man-made nature of the flap are the contemporary opinions of reliable sources.Some of the first
supportive commentary comes from Pritchitt in the St. Louis Post Dispatch of April 10th and 14th. There is too much corroborative evidence and it comes from
too many quarters to treat the matter any other way (than an airship). The newspaper also reported that the populace itself was convinced of the true nature of
the phenomenon:It is general belief that an airship is floating over the states of Missouri, Illinois, Iowa and Kansas . . . The majority ridicule the idea
that anything beyond the natural has been seen.Even the French newspaper Figaro commented on the believability of the American reports: The news seems to be
more than a canard, seeing the details and preciseness in which are related in the (New York) Herald the exploits of this airship.Although the Philadelphia
Inquirer carried little on the airship, in the April 17th issue they comment: Airship stories of an apparently entirely reliable character are coming in in
rapid succession and all seem to hang together.
More than 3,000 newspaper issues from among three dozen titles covering the period during late 1896, and between mid-March and mid-May of 1897 were searched
for this article. It is very likely that considerably more data remains to be uncovered on the subject of the mysterious airships from newspapers alone.
Further, Lucius Parish has informed me that he has had for some time in his possession several hundred pages of airship material. But, although there is much
work remaining to be done in constructing the story of airships in the U.S. during the 19th century, the work done to this point is sufficient for this writer
to deduce the true nature of the mysterious airships of 1896-1897. It seems much more reasonable to interpret the airship sightings simply as airships which
were various models in the development of the dirigible. Consequently these airships should no longer remain in the realm of UFOs.
BIBLIOGRAPHY AND REFERENCES
Chicago Tribune April 10, 12, 26 and 27 1897
Dallas Morning News April 6, 16 and 17, 1897
Figaro mid April 1897
Flying Saucer Review 1966, v. 12 n. 5; 1969 v. 15 n. 1; 1970 v. 16 n.4
Knoxville Journal May 8, 1897
New York Herald April 10, 12, 13, 14, anH IS,1897
New York Times May 7 and June 3, 1897
Oakland Tribune late November 1896
Philadelphia Inquirer April 17, 1897
Pittsburgh Press April 18, 1896
St. Louis Post Dispatch April 1,13, 14, 16 and 25,1897
St. Louis Republican April 14, 1897
San Francisco Chronicle November 19, 20, 23,25, 26, 27, 1897
San Francisco Examiner December 5, 1896
Clarke, Basil. History of Airships. (1961, St. Martin's Press).
Parish, Lucius (Private communication dated May 30, 1979).
Fort, Charles. Books of Charles Fort. (1941,Holt).
Frey, Carroll. First Air Voyage in America.
(1943, Penn Mutual Life Insurance Co.)
Klass, Philip. UFOs Explained. (1974, Random House).
Menzel, Donald. Flying Saucers. (1953, Harvard University Press).
"Newspapers in Microform/United States/1948-1972" (1973, Library of Congress).
Poole, Lynne. Ballooning in the Space Age.(1958, Whittlesey House).
Vallee, Jacques. Passport to Magonia. (1969,Regnery).
This writer expresses his gratitude to the extensive, courteous gratis service provided by the interlibrary loan and microform groups at the central library of
the Pennsylvania State University. Appreciation is also expressed to the Flying Saucer Review for the extensive photocopy service in connection with this
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