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Texas | Columns | "Charley Eckhardt's Texas"

The Great Airship Mystery

by C. F. Eckhardt

On November 17, 1896, in Sacramento, California, hundreds of people reported seeing a brilliant light in the night sky. R. L. Lowery, a former employee of the Sacramento street-car company, was near the Sacramento Brewery when his attention was drawn not by the light, but by a voice from above him. Someone shouted “Throw her up higher. She’ll hit the steeple.” Lowery looked up to see a brilliant light encased in what seemed to be a glass globe. Above the light was a bicycle-frame appearing apparatus, on which two men were seated. Above that was something he described as ‘a sort of mezzanine box’ with several more people in it. Above that was a huge cigar-shaped object he couldn’t see clearly in the dark.

Thus began what has come to be called ‘The Great Airship Mystery.’ In 1896 and 1897 what had to be a lighter-than-air craft—a dirigible—was seen by credible witnesses in California, Oregon, Washington, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, Colorado, what became Oklahoma ten years later, Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, Minnesota, Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio. There were only 45 states in the union in 1897. This phenomenon was seen in over one third of the states and over Indian and Oklahoma territories, which later became the state of Oklahoma. There were isolated but unconfirmed reports of ‘something unnatural in the sky’ in several of the Mountain West states, but the details are very sketchy.

At about 5:30 AM, April 11, 1897, Walter McCann, a newspaper distributor, was gathering his wares at the Chicago railroad station when he saw, clear in the morning light, the mysterious cigar-shaped object with the ‘car’ below it that had been reported all across the Pacific Coast and in the Midwest. He grabbed a box camera his son won in a newspaper subscription contest and shot two photos of the object. The printed photograph was examined by an etcher—a person who made blocks for illustrations in newspapers—and pronounced genuine. The Chicago Times-Herald produced a pen-and-ink drawing taken from the photo. The object in the drawing—the photo itself has apparently disappeared—looks very much like Graf Von Zeppelin’s L-1 and L-2 airships from the early 20th century, though the gasbag is far too small to have lifted a gondola as large as the one that appears in the drawing. All the same, the drawing shows what many people on the West Coast and in the Midwest described seeing in the air for over a month.

On April 13, 1897, in Denton, a man ‘stargazing’ with a pair of powerful field glasses spotted a dark object against the moon. At first he assumed it was a meteor that had not yet hit earth’s atmosphere, but then realized it was moving much too slowly. He described the object as being about fifty feet long, cigar-shaped with two large ‘mugs’ sticking out from either side, a ‘beak’ like a ship’s cutwater at the front, and a large rudder or steering sail at the rear. Where the ‘beak’ joined the main body of the object there was a light that ‘paled the moon’ in its brilliance. Along the body of the thing there were more lights, which he assumed meant windows. No smoke was visible from the object. It moved slowly, in a southeasterly direction, for about twenty minutes, then accelerated ‘to terrific speed’ and vanished from sight. The sighting was confirmed by a lady in Denton who, though she possessed no field glasses, described a very similar object moving in the same direction at slow speed, then suddenly accelerating. Both individuals were apparently well-known to the editor of the newspaper which published their accounts, whom he described as reputable persons “whose reputation for truthfulness cannot be assailed.” While there may have been earlier sightings of the object in Texas, this is the first reported one.

Two nights later, on April 15, Attorney J. Spence Bounds of Hillsboro was returning from Osceola, in the southwestern part of Hill County, after having been called out to write an ‘emergency will’ for a dying Hill County pioneer. At about 9 PM he stated he and his horse were frightened by “a brilliant flash from an electric searchlight which passed directly over my buggy.” He described the object to which the searchlight was attached as “in shape something like a cigar.” Beneath it he described ‘something similar to a ship,’ which was attached to the cigar-shaped object. He witnessed the thing disappear behind a hill near the town of Aquilla, a little southwest of Hillsboro. As he got within a mile or so of Hillsboro, he saw the object rise from behind the hill and take off in the direction of Dallas at a speed he estimated at 100 mph.

Later that same night Patrick C. Byrnes, a telegraph repairman for the T&P railroad, was working near Putnam Station, east of Cisco, repairing broken lines. When clouds covered the moon and he could no longer see to work, he got on his bicycle and headed for Cisco. As he passed the Delmar siding about five miles from Cisco, he saw a brilliant light in a field to the side of the tracks. He knew there were no houses there, so he decided to investigate.

Byrnes not only saw the mysterious object up close, he got to talk to the presumptive captain of the flight crew. According to Byrnes the craft was about 200 feet long by 50 feet wide. It had ‘snail-shell-like’ appendages at the nose and tail. Inside them were ‘powerful gasoline engines’ which apparently operated large fan-like propellors to move the craft. Two more of the devices were attached to the side of the ship and were used for steering. The machine had landed to make repairs to its searchlight. According to the ‘captain,’ the machine would be taken into the Ozarks from further testing. When tests were complete it would be loaded with ‘dynamite bombs’ and flown to Cuba in order to bomb Spanish forces in aid of the then-floundering anti-Spanish uprising on the island.

On April 17, at Aurora, Texas, an aerial vessel of some sort allegedly crashed into a windmill on the property of one Judge Proctor, destroying not merely the vehicle, but the judge’s windmill, watertank, and garden. The one occupant was killed. A local ‘expert’ proclaimed the occupant to be ‘a Martian.’ Allegedly the ‘Martian’ was buried in the Aurora cemetery the following Sunday, which happened to be Easter.

Aurora TX - Aurora Cemetery Alien Grave Marker
Aurora Cemetery Alien Grave Marker
Photo courtesy Lori Martin, July 2012

Something apparently did happen in Aurora. There has been some very high radiation measured in the vicinity of a now-sealed well where parts of the ‘airship’ were allegedly dumped. However, the owners of the property on which the well is located will not allow it to be unsealed, so whatever is down that well will remain down there for the foreseeable future.

The crash at Aurora did not, however, put an end to airship sightings. It continued to be sighted across much of East and Central Texas until about 8 PM on the night of May 12, when it was seen over Ft. Worth. That is the last recorded sighting in Texas.

So what was it? From all indications, it was an aircraft of some sort, whether lighter-than-air or heavier-than-air we don’t know. It flew across the Pacific Coast, all through the central plains states as far south as Texas, and as far east as Ohio. What powered it we don’t know for sure—some accounts say it made a noise like, perhaps, internal combustion engines. Others say it was silent and apparently propelled in some way by electricity. To this day the airship mystery remains a mystery.

© C. F. Eckhardt
"Charley Eckhardt's Texas" September 20, 2009 column

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