Alternate Perceptions Magazine, March 2021
The Midwestern "Airship" Wave of 1897 - Part 1
by: Rick Hilberg
The huge wave of reports of "airships" being seen by people literally all over the United States during the last months of 1896 and on into the summer of 1897 has caused many in the UFO field to speculate that these were not the result of a few as yet unearthed secret inventors as was widely speculated when they were being reported so many years ago, but actually UFOs being reported according to the expected cultural interpretations of the late 19th century. Whether this is so or not, it is not my intention to comment or speculate further here, but to simply document these cases as they were reported in the newspapers back in those times. You, the readers, are invited to engage in that pursuit entirely on your own.
But first, a brief explanation on the source for these accounts that will follow in the months ahead.
While organizing my files recently I happened across a binder of Xerox copies of newspaper stories on the Midwestern "airship" wave of 1897 as reported by various St. Louis papers. This was most likely sent into Flying Saucer Digest sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s by a Mr. Ray Nelke, an active St. Louis researcher and member of the UFO Study Group of Greater St. Louis during the tenure of the late Allan Manak as FSD editor. I immediately recognized its value, and hence the first in a series of articles here on this fascinating historical topic.
Please note that I am using the reports as exactly reported in the newspapers cited, and that I have edited out material which I feel is extraneous to the narrative. The choice of what material to use is entirely subjective on my part.
From the St. Louis Post-Dispatch of April 10, 1897 on page one:
Telescopes at Washington and at St. Louis universities will sweep the sky from zenith to horizon in a northwesterly direction Saturday night and the professors at these institutions will endeavor to solve the mystery that is now puzzling the Central West.
It is general belief that an air ship is floating over the States of Missouri, Illinois, Iowa and Kansas. This belief is entertained by men of scientific attainments as well as those not so well versed in the field of natural philosophy.
The rumor that a strange aerial body had been seen became current a fortnight ago and was laughed at. It was repeated and wise men said the nocturnal observers were suffering from optical illusions due to excessive libations, or that the light from a brilliant star had been magnified by the imagination.
Within the last three days the evidence that something unusual is moving midst the clouds has become so conclusive and has so much corroboration that wiseacres have ceased to jibe, and while wondering what the mystery can be, they are doing their utmost to solve it.
Telegrams were received by the Post-Dispatch Saturday morning from correspondents in four Central States stating that a luminous body had been seen moving in a northwesterly direction Friday night. Different colored lights were seen flashing from the object, and its lines were easily distinguished.
It was viewed by thousands at Chicago, and was declared by Max L Hosmar, secretary of the Chicago Aeronautical Association, to be an airship. He averred moreover that he knew one of the men in the aerial craft. Prof. Hough of Northwestern University said that it must have been a star that was seen, but thousands of Chicagoans ridiculed the idea.
A Post-Dispatch reporter visited Union Station Saturday and interviewed train hands and passengers arriving from the West and Northwest. They all said the airship was the one topic of conversation in the region through which they passed. Hundreds had seen the object and were all mystified.
Richard Butler, farmer of Wolf Creek, Iowa : I was driving home Wednesday night when I observed a light in a field close to the road. I knew no house was there, and stopped to investigate. The light had a glow more like that of an electric lamp than the kerosine burners usually employed by the residents of the Wolf Creek district. I was astonished to see a dark mass, through the windows of which the light shone. It was a long, narrow car, resembling a corset box in shape, but perhaps 30 or 35 feet in length and 6 or 7 feet in width and height. Over this car floated a cigar-shaped bag, horizontally placed, of about the same length as the car and 8 or 10 feet thick at its greatest diameter. At this moment my horses caught sight of the ship, bolted precipitately for the opposite side of the road and tumbled me into the ditch. By the time I had crawled from the wreck the machine was moving briskly in a southerly direction at an angle of about 45 degrees. Press dispatch from Burlington, Iowa: What is believed to have been an airship was observed in this vicinity Friday night. Nearly every operator and agent along the Burlington road saw it. It is described as having a large headlight, probably 2 feet in diameter, which shed strong rays, and to some extent prevented a good view of the apparatus by its glare. However, the glistening body of the ship could be discovered, and the dim wing-like projections on either side, as described by previous observers. The strange craft moved swiftly through the air, making a slight hissing sound. It was in view generally from twenty minutes to half an hour and usually disappeared in a westerly direction.
Ex-State's Attorney Hunter Rodger of Kankakee, Ill. : I saw the object and believe it was an airship. It could not have been a star.
Trainmaster Coopman of the Illinois Central, Kankakee, Ill. : What was evidently an airship was seen by me. It moved off to the northwest.
D.D. Sherman, Kankakee, Ill. : I was attracted Friday night by a phosphorescent glow which seemed to hang 100 feet above the earth.
Stanley Dubois, Fairfield, Iowa: Yes, I saw what I believe was an airship. There were two smaller lights of yellowish green on either side of a large white light which first attracted me. The object disappeared to the west.
Dispatch from Solon, Iowa: The airship was seen here by a number of reputable persons at 8:30 Friday night.
W. J. Martin, Mount Pleasant, Iowa: I am willing to make an affidavit that I saw a white light slowly moving through the air in a westerly direction. While I watched it the light turned a dull red, then back to white again.
From the St. Louis Star of April 11, 1897 on page seven:
CHICAGO, ILL., April 10 - The so-called airship, which is said to have been seen in Nebraska, Iowa and Kansas, seems to have approached Chicago last night. It was dappled with green and white lights. Sober and formerly truthful inhabitants of Chicago, Evanston and other lakeside cities say they saw it. They all said that the airship has a white light in front, a green and a smaller white light on the side and a tail light of green. At Evanston the ship came from over the lake. In Chicago the row of lights were making a bee-line for Omaha. Crowds gathered in all of the streets of the northwestern part of the city and the people disputed every possible theory that could account for the phenomenon.
A circus organization has been carrying on negotiations with the owners of an airship for the last two weeks with the view of exhibiting it this season. The machine is owned by a man named Carr, who has an experimental station on the Illinois River between Henry and Peoria. The original model, it was said, was by F. Meyer, a theatrical wig maker at Fourth Avenue and Thirteenth Streets, New York. The machine was tested on several occasions, the first being at Governor's Island in 1888. It is said that the airship that has been causing excitement in Illinois and Iowa was built after this model.
From the St. Louis Post-Dispatch of April 12, 1897 on page one:
The mysterious aerial wonder which has been exciting comment all over the Middle West for the past week, was seen by a number of St. Louisans Saturday night. It skirted lazily along the Western horizon for half an hour and then disappeared from view as suddenly as it had appeared.
People living in the extreme West End saw it plainly and many of them are ready to agree with observers elsewhere that the mystic bluish white light was not that of some heavenly body, but a signal from some kind of aerial craft.
Most of the observers believe that they saw an airship. They are certain that the light was not that of an ordinary balloon and that the craft to which it was attached was under perfect control.
The first observer of what has been conceded by thousands to be an airship was William Mulhall, a young man living at 600 Minerva Avenue.
Mr. Mulhall was standing at King's Highway and Easton Avenue at about 10 o'clock, when he saw a bright light near the horizon in a southwesterly direction. He thought at first it was the evening star, but looking a few degrees farther north and higher in the heavens he saw that Venus was still doing business at the same old stand.
His curiosity was aroused and he watched the mysterious light closely. It was moving slowly north, apparently in a straight line.
Mr. Mulhall watched the light until he felt certain that he was looking at something out of the ordinary.
He went to R. H. Pardee's drug store at 4066 Easton Avenue, and called the attention of George A. Miles, the clerk, to the strange light.
The two stood on the pavement looking at the heavenly mystery, and were joined a few minutes later by Druggist Pardee. The light had been seen by scores of people, and soon there was a crowd on the corner. The northward motion of the light, its peculiar color, unlike anything known to astronomy, and its unwavering flight along the horizon caused a great deal of excited comment.
The crowd of wonderers was constantly augmented and all sorts of theories were advanced. Those who at first argued that the light was that of a fixed star were forced to recede from their position by the indisputable evidence of their senses. There were others who thought foe awhile that the light was that of an ordinary balloon, but before they had watched it long, they acknowledged their mistake, for the light was absolutely steady and retained its brightness up to the instant when it suddenly disappeared.
The light was seen not only by the crowd at Easton Avenue and King's Highway, but by people of undoubted veracity all over the extreme West End.
Children at play saw it, and the cry "balloon, balloon," drew the attention of scores of older people to the airship.
John M. Glassmeyer of 4966 Easton Avenue had his attention called to the light by a little girl.
Mrs. Charles Webb of 5060 Wells Avenue saw the light and pointed it out to several of her neighbors.
Conductors on the Citizen's line say the light was plainly visible from the western end of the line Saturday night, though it did not make its appearance Sunday night.
There is no doubt from the testimony of all the witnesses that the mysterious light was below the 30-degree elevation. The country in that part of the city from which the views were obtained is open and favorable for such observations.