Alternate Perceptions Magazine, August 2021
The Midwestern "Airship" Wave of 1897 - Part 2
by: Rick Hilberg
From the St. Louis Post - Dispatch of April 13, 1897 on page one:
The airship has arrived at St. Louis and is supposed to be anchored or drifting somewhere above the clouds in this vicinity. This statement is vouched for by thousands who saw the mysterious visitor Monday evening.
At 7:30 o'clock Monday evening persons looking in a northwest direction saw a peculiar-shaped object push through the clouds at an elevation of about 25 degrees. From the point or bow of this object emanated a strong light that greatly resembled a powerful electric searchlight. This wave of brilliancy swayed back and forth; it was as if aerial navigators were sweeping the earth's surface with the rays much as men-of-war throw the revolving lights from on board ships to every point of the compass in order to sight any torpedo boats that might be lurking in their vicinity.
This light shone forth for fully ten minutes, then suddenly disappeared as if an electric current had been turned off. It was not an obscuration by clouds. Many of those who witnessed the phenomenon - for the nonce no better word can be used - aver they saw the shadowy form of what appeared to be a peculiarly shaped ship. One man described it as resembling a whaleback; others said it was more perfectly cigar-shaped.
The above description is given after conversation with scores of men who witnessed the strange sight.
Manager Weaver entertained a party on the roof of the Planters'. Most of them were commercial travelers. They at once suggested it was some advertising scheme, but how it was worked mystified them. They recalled the talk of a year ago, when a prominent manufacturer tried to throw the names of his goods by a powerful stereopticon on the clouds. These Planters' Hotel observers admit the light came from above and not from below.
H. Q. Frankenfield, local forecast official, saw the brilliant light while walking home. Looking at it with his practical eye he soliloquized: "It is Venus; that is the light all have seen."
Tuesday morning when Mr. Frankenfield opened his books and ascertained the exact position of Venus he admitted he might have been mistaken. "It is no joking matter," said he to a Post - Dispatch reporter. "Science has taken such strides of late that nothing should surprise us. There is some mystery afloat, and I am as much puzzled as anyone."
The light was observed from the Century building and from the Union Trust; it was seen by thousands who gathered in groups on street corners. The negroes are much excited by the strange aerial apparition. They say it portends dire disaster and hundreds of them could be heard discussing the strange visitor as they gathered on lower Morgan street Monday night.
The bright light which first aroused attention was seen at 7:30 o'clock, and was observed for ten minutes. Half an hour later it reappeared, but was further distant from the earth. Passengers on a Lindell Railway car reached the Eighteenth street bridge. The conductor P. B. Cleary, thus describes the phenomenon: "The light was in the west, and moved toward the north. It resembled a street car headlight. At times it disappeared behind the clouds." Several persons employed at Forest Park Station of the Lindell Railway saw the object. Charles Snyder, one of them, said it passed over the park about 8 o'clock. The outlines of the craft were not distinct, but the light was brilliant.
There were a number of observers at Union Station and from an altitude above the car-shed a good view was obtained. From this point the effect of red and green lights was distinctly visible. H. E. King, commercial agent of the Mexican Central Railway, vouches for this statement. Station Master Coakley also was a witness of the phenomenon. At the same time, it was seen in a different part of the city by W. S. Simpson, President of the Christopher-Simpson Iron Company, from the vicinity of Lafayette Park.
This description of different colored lights tallies with what was seen in many States of the Central West, as reported by telegraph in Saturday's Post - Dispatch.
It would seem from this the aerial visitor is familiar with maritime law. This code of the high seas provides that all steamships and similar vessels shall carry three lights, one of white on the forestay, 10 feet from the water line; one of red on the starboard side, and one of green on the port. Close observers of the airship declare her lights to be similarly arranged.
Prof. Henry S. Pritchett, astronomer of Washington University, Tuesday questioned a number of persons who had seen the light.
"I cannot account for the strange appearance," he said. "I intended making observations last night, but was deterred by the heavy rain.
"Do I think it was an airship? I would rather not answer that question. I simply do not know what to think. The testimony comes from too many persons and from too many different points to be disregarded. I shall be on watch to-night at the observatory, St. Charles and Eighteenth street from 7:30 until 10 o'clock and if the strange visitor makes its appearance again we will see what a powerful telescope would reveal."
Prof. Pritchett was asked what point aerial navigation was reached. "The best apparatus so far created, " he replied, "has been made by Prof. Langley of the Smithsonian Institution. He has been able to carry a man several hundred feet in the air by means of a flying machine.
"If reports of this aerial visitor are correct the airship that now hovers above St. Louis is under perfect control.
"Would it not be wonderful, " he continues, "if the great problem had been solved, and the man who has been fortunate enough to overcome the laws of gravitation is mystifying the entire world before he makes public his secret? As I said last Saturday it would be human nature for him to do so."
As the hours of Tuesday morning passed Post - Dispatch reporters obtained further corroboration of the mysterious sight that caused such excitement Monday night. The most startling testimony is that given by Ed Dillon, a conductor on the Union Street line.
"When west of Tower Grove Park on Arsenal street Monday night at 8 o'clock, " said Dillon, "I saw a great light above me that resembled a falling meteor. It was coming directly toward me, so I thought, and you can bet I was frightened. But after dipping down it rose again and disappeared behind the clouds. I saw distinctly the outlines of what appeared to be a small vessel and I heard the rustle of machinery."
Dillon's story is corroborated by John Rice, motorneer of the car.
Wm. Alexander, John McFarland and John Bell, employees of the Union Depot line, also saw the ship.
Chief of Detectives Desmond is another person who viewed the mysterious light.
About 8:30 Monday evening a great many people in Bellville saw a moving light in the western sky., which they are positive was the mysterious airship. It moved in a northerly direction, rising and falling. After being in sight for about 20 minutes it disappeared as suddenly as it had been snuffed out. A number of persons about the public square saw it, and are certain it was not a star. Considerable excitement was caused by the appearance of the strange visitor.
SALISBURY, Mo. April 13 - Until 8'oclock last night people in this vicinity were skeptical in regard to the much talked of airship, but at that hour it was seen by a number of citizens. It appeared to be a few miles northwest of town and, after apparently striving to go against the wind for a few minutes, it turned abruptly and shot into space in a northeasterly direction. There was a large light below and a small one above the front end and a black band was plainly visible around the central part.