Historical Article in Anderson Valley Advertiser

The Airship Mystery of 1896-97

by Malcolm Macdonald, October 10, 2018

William Held and Dr. Case, of Ukiah, were riding northbound in a buggy on an early December evening, destination Centerville in the Potter Valley district. Their horses shied as a light flared from the darkness. Reining the team to a standstill the two men gazed skyward to the west, where they plainly saw the outline of an elongated craft suspended beneath what appeared to be a balloon or some sort of gas reservoir.

Jim Thornton also heading toward Centerville, but a few miles behind Dr. Case and Mr. Held, struggled with a startled team when he, too, saw a similar object. James Spotswood, of Pomo, and E.E. Holbrook, the proprietor of the Centerville Hotel, spied the strange craft, too, as a light disappearing into the distance at a wonderful speed.

Just another unidentified flying object? Perhaps, but this sighting occurred in the late autumn of 1896, seven years before the Wright brothers first flew. Yes, there had been hot air balloon flights dating to the initial one by the Montgolfier brothers in 1783; however, that trip was sans passengers. The next Montgolfier balloon flight did hold passengers: a basket containing a sheep, duck, and rooster. 

The first manned, and non-tethered, free ascent of a hot air balloon occurred about six months later. Chemistry teacher Pilatre de Rozier and the Marquis d’Arlandes soared aloft over Paris for twenty-five minutes, traveling about five and a half miles. Ben Franklin was among those who witnessed the event. As is often the ironic case, de Rozier proved the first victim of a hot air disaster. In 1785 his attempt to cross the English Channel in a hydrogen filled balloon ended in a fatal explosion.

Of course, manned balloon flights in the late 18th century and on through the nineteenth century were performed with something like a basket, of varying size, secured beneath. What the witnesses around Potter Valley saw in 1896 was much more like the UFO sightings that became more and more common after the Roswell incident of 1947.

The Mendocino County residents of 1896 weren’t alone. In the same week, Case Gilson, a young electrician from Oakland noticed an unusual aerial traveler moving north then westward at what he estimated to be 1,000 to 1,500 feet above him. He described it as resembling “a great black cigar with a fish like tail. The body was at least one hundred feet long, and attached to it was a fish like tail, one apex being attached to the main body.”

Gilson sighted the craft twice, at 8 and 8:30 p.m. on a clear night with a brisk north wind blowing. He was accompanied by others who backed up his claims. Gilson’s description went on, “The surface of the airship looked as if it were made of aluminum, which exposed to wind and weather had turned dark. I saw all this distinctly, and I am willing to take any oath to the truth of what I say. The airship went at a tremendous speed. As it neared Lorin [south Berkeley] it turned quickly and disappeared in the direction of San Francisco. At half-past 8 we saw it again, when it took about the same direction and disappeared.”

Sightings were not confined to California. Similar descriptions of an airship near Mount Tacoma in Washington occurred in late November, 1896. As word of the unidentified object(s) spread, so did mistaken sightings. The San Francisco Call noted, “An amusing phase of the airship mystery was developed last night, when that inoffensive planet Venus, sinking in the west, was mistaken for the clipper of the clouds scudding across the empyrean.”

The airship phenomena had legs, beyond the west coast and into the following year. Folks in Nebraska, Kansas, and Iowa viewed it in early April, 1897. Seemingly sober inhabitants of Chicago, Evanston, and other locales around Lake Michigan swore to the veracity of their descriptions of an airship with a white light in the front as well as green and smaller white lights on its side, along with more green lights extending at its tail end. In mid-April, two warehouse men, a pair of merchants, and four city officials claimed to see an airship above Clarksville, Tennessee. On the same night, at Russelville, Kentucky, a comparable report, emanated from a physician, a long time merchant, and several other reputable citizens.

Prior to that time, airships that vaguely resembled 20th century dirigibles had taken limited flight. In 1863, Solomon Andrews, a doctor, claimed to sail one in the sky above New Jersey as you would a sailboat. However, it must be noted that Andrews’ “ship” was closer to a basket than the type of elongated vessel described in 1896 and 1897.

There’s no clear cut answer to the airship mystery of 1896-97. Stories grew more fantastical during 1897 as the stories spread. Present day readers should note that this was an era of “yellow journalism,” when editors were sometimes prone to manufacturing the news rather than report it. A preponderance of the California stories started in the pages of one paper, the San Francisco Call.

Still, apparently normal citizens like the Mendocino County residents or the Bay Area electrician, Case Gilson, swore to the objectivity of their sightings. In April, 1897, an Aurora, Texas report claimed an airship crashed into a windmill. The occupant of the airship was dead and mangled beyond typical identification methods. The craft was supposedly made from a silver and aluminum mix, weighing several tons. Witnesses said that hieroglyphic like figures were visible on the outside of the wreckage.

Facts and hoaxes detailed at malcolmmacdonaldoutlawford.com 

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