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There has remained a percentage of the total, in the order of twenty percent of the reports, that have come from credible observers of relatively  incredible things..."

Major General John A. Samford
USAF, Director of Intelligence

The Great Airship of 1897: Hoax, UFO
or Cutting Edge Technology?

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The Great Airship of 1897: A Provocative look at the most mysterious aviation event in history

--by J. Allan Danelek

We normally assume that the modern era of ufology began with Kenneth Arnold’s sighting of mysterious objects—later dubbed “flying saucers” by the press—over Mount Rainier, Washington in 1947. As such, many are surprised to learn that it actually began much earlier than that—during the time of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells to be exact—with the “great airship flap” of 1896-97, an event which has remains as big a mystery today as it was over a century ago.


For those unfamiliar with this event, it all started on the evening of November 17, 1896, when a bright light suddenly appeared over Sacramento, California, silently making its way over the city (and against the wind) before disappearing into the dark rain clouds as suddenly as it had first appeared. It was seen by literally hundreds of witnesses, and though most described it as simply a bright, slow moving light, others maintained that this light was being suspended beneath a massive, “cigar shaped” vessel of considerable size. A few even claimed to spot what appeared to be oversized propellers and rudders on its undercarriage, with one man even describing it as having wheels on its side like those on “Fulton’s old steam boat.” After making several repeat appearances other both Sacramento and San Francisco (once appearing over both cities on the same evening!) within a few weeks the reports abruptly ceased, suggesting that the mysterious visitor had departed as mysteriously as it had first arrived. Its absence was to prove short-lived, however, when in early February the same mysterious light/craft began being seen across the prairie states of the Midwest, apparently making its way eastward at a slow but steady pace.


This fanciful drawing of the Sacramento airship appeared in the November 22, 1896, edition of the San Francisco Call newspaper.

Reports of the craft continued to be made with some regularity throughout the spring of 1897 before once again abruptly vanishing—this time apparently for good. What was the strange light that was seen over California that autumn of 1896, and later over much of the Midwest the next spring? No one knows. Debunkers, of course, maintain that the whole incident was nothing more than a hoax—a product of “yellow journalism” of the era designed to boost newspaper sales—mixed with naiveté and a type of mass hysteria in which people imagined any light in the sky (there is speculation to the possibility that it was an especially bright appearance of the planet Venus) to be the rogue “airship.” I suspect, however, such a premise to be highly presumptuous. First, there is no evidence that people living a century ago were any more likely to mistake the planet Venus for an airship than people are today; in fact, it might even be maintained that those living in final years of the nineteenth century had a knowledge of a considerably darker night sky that was often superior to that of the casual star gazer of today. Second, it fails to account for why reports of the ship tended to move from west to east, or why they would began and cease so abruptly. Even if we assume the majority of reports were spurious or mistaken, it is curious how “mass hysteria” is capable of effecting only people living along a particular path. Further, it is uncertain how many Midwesterners would have been aware of the earlier California sightings and so be inclined to imagine that the mysterious “airship” was headed their way; newspapers rarely picked up general interest stories from other parts of the country, preferring instead to stick with national headlines and stories of local interest. In this case, however, media coverage of the sightings tended to follow the appearances, not precede them as would be the expected norm if the media was simply priming the country for more stories. And, finally, would some of the largest and most influential papers of the day be so willing to compromise their journalistic integrity—and with it, their political clout—all in some feeble effort to sell a few more papers? Clearly, the mass hysteria/yellow journalism theory leaves us with as many questions as it answers.

Then there is the extraterrestrial theory so popular in some quarters today. Could the lights have been evidence of alien visitation, as some maintain? Obviously, in the era before manned flight, any light traveling through the sky was significant, making the prospect that they were not something from this world plausible. But if we are to take the many eyewitness accounts seriously (or, at least, the most reliable among them) how do we account for the fact that many witnesses described the craft as possessing propellers, wings, rudders, and undercarriages—all appendages unlikely to be seen on an extraterrestrial vehicle? And why did it move in a slow, ponderous fashion so in contrast to the stunning aerial feats modern UFOs seem to be capable of performing today? The craft sounds a bit too prosaic to be evidence of alien technology, even by nineteenth century standards.

But if we assume the craft to be neither imaginary nor extraterrestrial, what is left? Only one possibility remains, and that is that the vessel seen in the skies over much of the United States in the winter of 1896-97 was a powered balloon or, more accurately, a dirigible, possibly being put through its paces by some intrepid inventor intent on bringing lighter-than-air flight to humanity.


It’s an intriguing possibility that is rarely considered by most skeptics today, who tend to dismiss the notion outright, confident in their assumption that such an explanation is inconsistent with the technological capabilities of the time. The world was still in its industrial infancy, they argue, and while many remarkable inventions had been introduced by then, most people still lived much as their forefathers did, using candles and kerosene lamps to light their homes and making their way about via carriages or on horseback. Yes, there were trains transiting the continent and steamships capable of crossing the Atlantic in a week, but in 1896 the Wright brothers were still seven years away from putting their tiny airplane into the air, and practical, reliable travel by air was still decades in the future. Even Von Zeppelin had not yet begun experimenting on his behemoth airships yet, so the idea that anyone could have constructed and flown a practical airship in 1896 must remain in the realm of science fiction—or so one would think.

But how accurate is this assessment of our ancestor’s technical acumen? Can we really be so certain that the technology to build an airship—even a fairly substantial one—was truly beyond the capabilities of a late nineteenth century inventor? A quick look into the history books will demonstrate how presumptuous this belief is.

The fact is that steerable airships had been constructed and successfully flown decades before the dawn of the twentieth century. Perhaps the first to do it was a Frenchman named Henri Giffard who, in 1852, built and flew an airship nearly 27 kilometers between Paris and Trappes, France at the remarkable speed at the time of ten kilometers per mile. In the 1880s, Charles Renard and Arthur Krebs built an electric powered vessel named Le France that made several successful flights, and in 1897 a Serbian timber merchant named David Schwarz built the first true dirigible, successfully test flying it over Templehoff airfield in Berlin on November 3, 1897. So considering that airships had been under development in Europe prior to the airship flap of 1896-97, what are the chances that an American might not have been among the first to have succeeded in creating a practical and long-range example in America—the product of which would become the source of six months of sensationalism and rumor?

David Schwarz’s ground breaking aluminum foil covered airship of 1896.

But what of the technological hurdles such a premise presents? While it is assumed that many of the materials and technologies needed to construct a practical airship were unavailable in 1896, the facts speak otherwise. First, the new light-weight metal, aluminum—essential in constructing the craft’s airframe—was available in commercial quantities in the 1890’s. Second, all the power-plants we know of today—steam, the internal combustion engine and the diesel, as well as electric motors—were all available in 1896 and, while still in their infancy and underpowered by modern standards, with a bit of ingenuity, any of them might have been refined enough to push even a fairly substantial craft through the air at a decent speed for several hours at a time. Difficult, I admit, but not impossible. With proof of concept already having been demonstrated decades earlier, the prospect of building a viable airship was simply a matter of acquiring the proper materials—certainly something within the capabilities of an 1896 inventor with adequate resources—and a building large enough to house the vessel.

In fact, I explore this very possibility in some detail in my book, The Great Airship of 1897, in which I lay out the case that it is entirely conceivable that someone—or, more likely, a small consortium of individuals with the resources to build a financially viable airship—may have been responsible for the whole affair. It would have taken some deep pockets and the services of a cutting-edge inventor or engineer—along with the facilities to house the whole affair in some secret locale—to make it all work, but it was certainly within the realm of possibility. How this might have been done and, more importantly, who might have done it, is purely speculative of course, but the idea is an intriguing one to consider.

Of course, the prospect does present a few problems of its own. For example, if some intrepid inventor did go through the trouble of procuring the elements required to make his airship a reality, why don’t we know about it? After all, aviation pioneers of the era where known for their public exhibitions, and the size of such an enterprise would be difficult to keep secret for long in any case, so why no evidence of airship manufacturing on the West Coast in the 1890’s?

While at first this appears to be a valid consideration, it becomes less inexplicable once we consider the circumstances. The last half of the nineteenth century was a time not only of remarkable technological advances, but of tremendous competition as well, especially among inventors. The drive to be the first to the patent office was almost cut-throat in nature, with stolen ideas and even sabotage not unheard of. Additionally, they had to deal with pressure from investors eager to see a quick return on their money and, finally, they had the press—who could always be counted on to prematurely proclaim each new gadget a success or failure—to deal with. Considering that a single crash could easily scare away the necessary capital needed to continue working, it is understandable why this consortium would have wanted to work in secret.

And if that was the case, then California would have been the perfect place to work: it was still remote enough to guarantee privacy and yet it was near enough to rail lines and a major seaport to make it ideal. Further, in that San Francisco boasted the largest number of millionaires of any city west of the Mississippi at the time, it was also a perfect locale from which to secure investors. As such, it isn’t difficult to imagine that a reclusive and possibly even eccentric inventor might have been able to not only find the required investment capital to build and operate an airship, but secure locales where the necessary facilities could be constructed and operated in complete secrecy. Certainly, doing so should have been no more difficult to accomplish than it would have been for Bell or Edison—contemporaries of the era. It was simply a matter of having the necessary equipment shipped from the east coast to San Francisco, where it could be assembled in privacy and be kept hidden from the general public and the media among the barren hills of central California.

But if this mysterious inventor wished to work in secret, why then compromise that secrecy by flying over the largest cities in California and appearing to thousands of witnesses? Simple: the craft not only needed to be test flown over long distances—making the chances of it being seen by multiple witnesses almost guaranteed—but its appearance was designed to send a message to the vessel’s investor(s) that the ship was coming along quite nicely. Clearly, at some point the craft was going to need to be unveiled to the general public; perhaps the sightings of November and December of 1896 then were just a sneak preview.

But then how do we account for the shift in locale? If the craft was built and flown in California, how does it end up being seen over the Midwest a few months later? I always found it especially interesting that there was a two-month break between the California sightings in 1896 and the sightings in the Midwest that following spring. Isn’t it possible that after initial test flights were completed, the inventor was ready to unveil his new airship in the most spectacular fashion imaginable by over-flying America? Of course, he couldn’t have flown it over the Rocky Mountains, especially in winter, but couldn’t he have had the craft dismantled, transported by train over the treacherous Rocky Mountains, and then reassembled in Nebraska to continue its mission of over-flying the country? Consider how the growing attention of the public would have made acquiring new investors simple once the craft landed on the east coast in front of a stunned media.

If that’s the case, however, then what happened? Why no landing in New York or Washington to demonstrate to the entire world that the age of the airship had arrived? It’s uncertain. Perhaps the craft came to an ignoble end or tragedy struck; a Kalamazoo paper did, after all, report in an April, 1897 edition that the craft was seen to explode nearby and since it was likely filled with highly flammable hydrogen, such a possibility can not be ruled out.

In any case, whatever became of the remarkable craft and its crew remain an unsolvable mystery, but it should be enough to demonstrate that our knowledge of the past may be less complete than we assume. Perhaps there are many such failures strewn across the sands of time we are unaware of, and in that may be the most intriguing part of the entire mystery. And who knows, perhaps one day, one of them may be accidentally discovered to demonstrate to the world that technological genius is not confined to our era, but may have been a constant in humanities’ march towards the stars, and that we once have our very own Archimedes under our very noses—or, in this case, over our very heads—but we just failed to notice him.

Copyright by J. Allan Danelek
Presented with permission of the author

Note: The above article is an introduction to The Great Airship of 1897: A Provocative Look at the Most Mysterious Aviation Event in History

About the Author

Researcher/author J. (Jeffrey) Allan Danelek has been writing on the paranormal and Fortean subjects such as Bigfoot, UFOs and things that go bump in the night since 2000. The author of five non-fiction books and several works of fiction, he has been a frequent guest on numerous radio shows, including Coast to Coast with George Noory, Dreamland with Whitley Strieber, and many others. He currently resides with his wife, Carol, and two sons in Lakewood, Colorado.

He can be contacted through his website at

His books are also available from Llewellyn.com

Subject Related Resources: Books, Magazines, DVDs

The Great Airship of 1897: A Provocative Look at the Most Mysterious Aviation Event in History

by J. Allan Danelek (Author)

In November of 1896 residents of California watched a mysterious bright light-often described as being suspended beneath a "cigar shaped" craft of considerable size-pass slowly over their cities on several occasions, sparking a media frenzy. A few months later, what appeared to be the same craft was seen in the skies over the sparsely populated prairie states of the Midwest making its way methodically eastward and appearing to literally hundreds-if not thousands-of witnesses.

Then, as suddenly as the reports began, they abruptly ended, leaving a mystery that has never been satisfactorily explained by either science or historians to this day. Was it evidence of a nascent technology, appearing a full decade before Von Zeppelin began building the first of his behemoths in Germany, or was it all merely a media hoax generated by the yellow journalism of the time in an effort to increase sales? Or, most provocative of all, was it a visitor from outer space, making an early appearance? Each theory is examined in turn before J. Allan Danelek finally presents his provocative theory that the mysterious vessel was a terrestrial craft years ahead of its time that may have been destroyed just as it was on the verge of being publicly acknowledged. Admittedly controversial, the hypothesis leaves it for the reader to decide for themselves whether the history of aviation is complete as we know it or if it's merely waiting for the final chapter to be written.

This book is also available from adventuresunlimitedpress.com


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What happens after we die? What is the purpose of reincarnation? How does it work? What is the role in this mysterious process of the soul, free will, karma, soul mates, and God? Paranormal investigator J. Allan Danelek presents a compelling exploration of reincarnation that sheds light on both the mechanics of rebirth and its spiritual purpose. Addressing all aspects of reincarnation—including how the next physical life is chosen, the influence of past lives, the difference between the soul and personality, the necessity of evil, and what happens between lives—Danelek illuminates this transcendent yet practical mode for perfecting the soul. The Case for Reincarnation presents a fascinating, thought-provoking examination of reincarnation and the elements involved: The Divine • The eternal soul • Spiritual lessons • The link between the spiritual and physical worlds • Linear time • Past-life memories • Karma • Choosing our next incarnation • What happens to souls drawn to evil • Ghosts

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When an author claims to make a "case for ghosts," the reader expects documentation--lots of it. One expects case histories of documented occurrences, statistical analyses of representative events, and a rational, good-faith attempt to find both normal and paranormal explanations for these events. Unfortunately, Danelek's book fails in each of these expectations. More a philosophical and phenomenological treatise, Danelek expounds on why ghosts might exist and how they might be documented. A seemingly reasonable explanation for a phenomenon is not proof that the phenomenon actually occurs, as Carl Jung pointed out 100 years ago. Jung studied poltergeists, yet Danelek never even mentions him-nor does he cite the near-death experience scholarship of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and Raymond Moody (Life After Life), which may represent the best evidence so far for the survival of souls after death. The book contains a few anecdotes, but none of these are documented. To add insult, Danelek's writing style is frustratingly roundabout-why use two words when eight will confuse the reader even further? Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Is 2012 the end of the world as we know it? From 2012 to global warming to worldwide pandemics, doomsday scenarios play an increasingly large role in our lives. Do any of these apocalyptic scenarios pose a real, urgent risk? Why does our modern culture continue to embrace these bleak beliefs, and how are they affecting our world?
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J.Allan Danelek: The Great Airship of 1897: A Provocative look at the most mysterious aviation event in history
Hoax, UFO or Cutting Edge Technology?