Friday, 21 November 2008

Mystery Airships: The Steampunk UFOs Part One

On November the 21st 1783, Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier and François Laurent d'Arlandes ascended to the skies in the worlds first known manned flight using a hot air balloon. Seeing that anniversary the other day sort of reminded me about those anomalous flying machines of the late 19th Century; the "Mystery Airships"


New Hampshire in 1870

Things began to go bump in the sky in the 1870s. Paris was occupied by the Prussians and Alexander Graham Bell was tinkering with a prototype which would one day drive us all insane and in America strange reports were appearing of "airships" in the sky. Over the next few decades the sightings continued, mostly in sporadic bursts, right up until the foo fighters took their place as the UFOs of the 1940s.

Although the major "flap" didn't occur until 1896 there were significant unidentified flying object sightings before that, with the below being the best known, and best documented, one.

On March the 26th 1880, in a small dot on the map named Galisteo Junction, New Mexico, a worker on the railroad and couple of friends were walking after a hard days work when they heard voices in the sky. The voices were in an unknown language, punctuated with laughter, and when they raised their eyes to the sky they were greeted with the sight of a gigantic craft floating above them occupied by a dozen or so men. They would later describe the craft as "fish shaped" because of it's cigar body shape with a tail, all driven by some sort of propeller.

The occupants threw out some objects and pieces of paper which were carefully examined by the men. The writing on the paper made them think of Oriental script and a cup was later described as being unlike any they'd seen before.

Later a strange visitor to town bought the objects and they were never seen again but, according to this site and the April 5th 1880 Santa Fe Weekly New Mexican, there is a postscript:

A party of tourists which included a wealthy young Chinaman stopped in the vicinity and found the stranger engaged in archaeological work. The young man grew excited on seeing the articles dropped from the airship, because among among them was a note in his fiancee's hand, and he explained that CHINESE EXPERIMENTS IN FLYING HAD AT LAST SUCCEEDED, meaning, the airship which crossed the skies of Galisteo Junction was THE FIRST FLIGHT OF a CHINA-TO-AMERICA airline.
China. To America. By Airship. In 1880. Hell, it's one heck of an idea!

But the real excitement started in 1896. Sightings began in California and over the next few months moved gradually eastwards.

In Sacramento in November 1896 some men "Not Addicted to Prevarication", as one newspaper put it, reported seeing a light moving across the sky and heard voices (in a remarkably similar manner to the New Mexico sighting that happened nearly two decades before).

"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 Mystery Airship Of 1896
A few days later even greater numbers of people observed the phenomenon in Sacramento and also in San Francisco. After that the sightings, and the claims about them, became increasingly weird and worryingly common. Sightings were reported all along the west coast from Canada down to California and people claimed the airships to be the works of crazy inventors or military machines destined for war against the Spanish (read any right wing blog and insert the word Spanish for Muslim and you'll understand America's feelings towards our European cousins in the late 19th Century). The feverpitch gradually dissipated and all was calm until... 

In February 1897 the airship(s) made another appearance, this time over Hastings, Nebraska and few days later 40 miles away in Invale. Soon they were again coming from all over with one farmer reporting:
"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 Nebraska sightings grew so numerous many people began spending their evenings watching the skies, nearly one hundred years before Mulder and Scully! The sightings moved into other states near and far and that's when things got a little weird... 

The airship was first spotted in Kansas on March 26, and reports came in through April and early May. The most amazing account out of Kansas came from a farmer named Alexander Hamilton, in the little town of Le Roy. According to Hamilton, the airship had dropped down on his farm on the night of April 20. The pilots lassoed a heifer from Hamilton’s herd and carried it off into the air. Mr. Hamilton even produced a notarized statement from twelve prominent men of Le Roy, attesting to his honesty and truthfulness.

The small town of Aurora, Texas, had an even more dramatic incident. On April 19 the Dallas Morning News reported that the airship had crashed into a windmill in Aurora and exploded. The body of the pilot was recovered, and was identified as a native of the planet Mars. Despite this, the remains were buried in the local Masonic cemetery.

Chicago awaited the airship with great anticipation, and was not disappointed. The mysterious lights reached Illinois at the beginning of April, and lasted through the first half of the month. After a handful of reports during the first week of April, a spectacular series of airship sightings swept Illinois and Indiana during the week of April 9-16, with 110 reports over the course of seven nights. It was spotted all over Illinois, frequently in different parts of the state on the same night.

In nearby Wisconsin, a farmer found a letter, apparently from the pilots of the airship, describing its construction in Tennessee. Other letters turned up in Michigan and Texas, obviously practical jokes. The most celebrated “airship message” was found in Astoria, Illinois. It was addressed to Thomas Edison, and was seemingly a coded report to him from the pilot of the mystery airship. The great inventor called it a “pure fake.”

After Illinois and Indiana, the sightings began to taper off. They did not end at once; reports were still being published in June of 1897. But they were scattered and few in number. The great wave of airship mania had broken and receded. The Amazing Airship of 1896

I believe the below picture to be one taken in Chicago at the time of the ships appearance there, although even then it was widely assumed to be a fake.



Things didn't end there.... Mystery Airships: The Steampunk UFOs Part Two

Further Reading

Mystery Airships In The Sky - Steven A. Arts (UK Amazon, US Amazon)

Solving the 1897 Airship Mystery - Michael Busby (UK Amazon, US Amazon)

The Great Airship Mystery - Daniel Cohen (UK Amazon, US Amazon)

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