An Answer To The Airship
Mystery Of 1896?
By Jesse Glass <>

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...." (Pg. 12).
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 craft.
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 judge.