Mysterious airships wee apparently crossing the Atlantic Ocean over 100 years ago. William Corliss of the Sourcebook Project mentions in his Unexplained Phenomena calendar for 1999 that the captain and crew of the Lady of the Lake, a British steamer in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of West Africa, south of Cape Verde, observed a strange sight on March 22, 1870. It was a gray object divided into four connected sections. Behind it trailed a long “hook” connected to the center of the UFO. Positioned below the clouds, it flew against the wind and was visible for half an hour.
In 1873 at Bonham, Texas, workers in a cotton field suddenly saw a shiny silver object in the sky that came streaking down at them. Terrified, they ran away, while the “great silvery serpent” as some people described it, swung around and dived at them again. A team of horses ran away and the driver was thrown beneath the wheels of the wagon and killed. A few hours later that same day in Fort Riley, Kansas, a similar “airship” swooped down out of the skies at a cavalry parade and terrorized the horses to such an extent that the cavalry drill ended in a tumult.
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Airships, often with powerful searchlights at their front, plied the skies of North America and other continents during the 1880s and 1890s and finally culminated in a huge wave of sightings in 1897.
These sightings and contacts started in November, 1896, in San Francisco, California when hundreds of residents saw a large, elongated, dark object that used brilliant searchlights and moved against the wind, traveling northwest across Oakland. A few hours later reports came from other northern California cities such as Santa Rosa, Chico, Sacramento, and Red Bluff; all describing what appears to be the same airship, a cigar shaped craft. It is quite possible that this craft was heading for Mount Shasta in northern California.
The airship moved very slowly and majestically, flying low at times, and at night, shining its powerful searchlight on the ground. However, the airship, clearly not a typical balloon or gas-filled airship of the time, did at times move erratically; sometimes it would depart “as a shot out of a gun,” change course abruptly, change altitude at great speed, circle and land and, a previously mentioned, use powerful searchlights to sweep the countryside.
These mysterious airships were seen across the United States, from California to Nebraska, Texas, Colorado, Kansas, Iowa, Missouri, Wisconsin and Minnesota, including many heavily populated urban areas such as Omaha and Milwaukee. On April 10, 1897, thousands of people in Chicago reported seeing a cigar shaped airship.
Jerome Clark reports in The UFO Encyclopedia that on February 1, 1897 the Omaha Daily Beef ran a story of a “large, glaring light” which hovered, ascended, descended, and moved at a “most remarkable speed,” over Hastings, Nebraska.
It is generally agreed that the many accounts of these airships could not be attributed to known airships or technology of the time. The first powered flight was Giffard’s steam airship built in 1852, while the Tissandier brothers built the first electric airship in 1883. Renard and Kreb’s electric airship, the La France, was first flown at Chalais-Meudon in 1884. The Schwartz aluminum rigid airship was first flown at Tempelhofer Field, Germany, in 1897 and the first “successful” airship, the Lebaudy was test flown in Paris in 1903.
A great deal has been made of the airship flap of 1897 in UFO circles, typically seeking to prove that the airships were extraterrestrial vehicles. Yet, as Jacque Vallee points out in Dimensions, the evidence does not point toward extraterrestrial occupants because those airship operators who engaged in conversation with witness “were indistinguishable from the average American population of the time.”
The airship wave of 1896-97 will never be fully solved. Does it involve time travelers? Of the 100 or so reported sightings across the country, some were obvious hoaxes and fabrications based on the many newspaper articles appearing at the time. Yet, with those genuine sightings, considerable doubt remains as to the nature of these craft.
Says Wallace Chariton at the end of his book The Great Texas Airship Mystery: “Many 1897 witnesses said they heard a peculiar whirring or whizzing sound that could not be identified. There were several reports that the flying machine hovered in one spot for some time then quickly disappeared traveling at a high rate of speed. There was always at least one light that was often said to be considerably more powerful than any incandescent light, which was the only kind they had in 1897. Some witnesses said they saw a bright, fluorescent glow about the ship and many others claimed there were multicolored lights along the sides. If you do any research into reported modern UFO sightings you will find that similar statements occur frequently.