- One of the first, and greatest waves
of UFO activity in the United States began in the San Francisco area of
California in 1896. According to Daniel Cohens excellent study The Great
Airship Mystery, A UFO of the 1890s (Dodd, Mead Co., 1981), people first
reported seeing odd lights strung together and apparently suspended from
what appeared to be a large cigar-shaped, or egg-shaped envelope. The
lights, some bright, some with the intensity of searchlights, moved slowly
through the night sky. These sightings occurred as early as September
20th, 1896. Later, others got a closer look at the craft, and invariably
the word "airship" was used to describe what was seen. Cohen
pauses in his investigation to wonder why the term "airship"
was used in the early newspaper accounts, when in fact, many of the reports
involved merely seeing bright lights and a dark structure behind them.
He finds this nomenclature to be unusual and ascribes it to "Americas
preoccupation with the possibility of building a successful powered airship...."
- I, on the other hand, believe that there
is a simpler explanation for the popular use of this word in the California
press of the time, and indeed for the whole wave of airship sightings
in the San Francisco area. Contrary to what most commentators have written
concerning the absence of any successful airships in the American West
in 1896, there is direct and compelling evidence to believe that the reality
of cigar-shaped, lighter than air flying machines was an accepted fact
to most San Franciscans as early as January 1st, 1894, over two years
before the first "mysterious" sightings began in the skies of
Sacramento. A rare, accordion-paged souvenir booklet titled California
Midwinter International Exposition San Francisco; California January 1st
to June 30th 1894, holds the key.
- Apparently the Midwinter International
Exposition was San Franciscos answer to the World Fair. It was staged in
Golden Gate Park, covered many acres of land, and presented hundreds of
exhibits highlighting California (and global) history, industry, agriculture
and technology. A lavish "Mechanics Art Building," stood near
the impressively domed "Agricultural and Horticultural Building"
shown with pennants snapping in the breeze. In addition, there was a giant
"Electric Tower," and an "Electric Theatre," built
in the shape of an Egyptian temple. There was "An Ancient Phoenician
Home" that looked remarkably like a San Francisco town house. There
was a replica of Anne Hathaways cottage, a Swiss restaurant, an "Esquimaus
Village," a chamber of horrors, a ferris wheel, a roller coaster,
an "Obelisk of Oliver Oil," ostriches, fine arts, and tamales.
Truly, this was a grand affair, a celebration of the economic burgeoning
and consequent optimism of San Francisco and its people. No doubt the Midwinter
Exposition was attended by thousands of people who lingered to enjoy the
many unusual sights.
- Among the most unusual exhibits presented
in this lithographed booklet (published by Leigbton & Frey Souvenir
View Co., Portland Maine) was one that was certain to catch the eye. On
page eight appears an enigmatic drawing, and an equally enigmatic title,
which says, simply: "This machine will fly." Beneath it we see
what is unmistakably a cigar-shaped dirigible with a wing-like, rotary
appendage, presumably repeated on the opposite side, not visible to us.
[See Illustration.] Guy wires lead down from the belly of the dirigible
to what appears to be an undercarriage, from which a basket, or other
payload, could be suspended Two rudders, or steering-type devices, one
at the front and one at the back, form part of the undercarriage. Four
tiny men are shown holding ropes connected to the nose of the floating
craft. Two more men are shown directly beneath the cross-bar of the undercarriage
standing next to an anchor, or hitch, that keeps the back part of the
dirigible on an even keel, as well as providing a mooring station for
the machine. If we are to believe the makers of this souvenir booklet,
here then, was a functional airship in the San Francisco Bay area over
two years before the "mysterious" airship of 1896! Apparently
this dirigible was on view on and off for over six months in Golden Gate
Park. Certainly the word "airship" was one that everyone who
attended San Franciscos grand exhibit knew and used to describe the machine
that appeared floating in the air before their eyes.
- Did the airship of 1894 actually exist?
The lithograph appears to have been drawn from a photograph. Outside of
that, no mention is made in the booklet of the dirigibles owner, or its
schedule of flights. Further research in the San Francisco newspaper accounts
of the Midwinter Exhibition is required to flesh out our picture of what
transpired during those heady, turn of the century days.
- Was this indeed the airship that inspired
the remarkable accounts of two years later? I believe it was. A dirigible
of this type and size could have easily hoisted lanterns into the air
along with a passenger or two. Whether the inventor of this dirigible
had a sophisticated propulsion and steering device that would have allowed
it to cruise above Cliff House, or make long-distance flights, as the
later accounts state, I cannot say. From examining the dirigible in this
picture, my opinion is, probably not. This is not to say that the same
inventor could not have built larger, more sophisticated versions of this
- The most important point, however, is
that this rare little book does indeed show us that the idea, and perhaps
the reality, of a workable airship was present among the residents of
northern California well before the "flap" of 1896 began. Media
coverage of a few bona-fide dirigible reports, mass hysteria, misinterpretations
of astronomical phenomena, as well as genuine hoaxing, may account for
the remainder of the sightings. Take a look at the picture. You be the