- Historic Sites
Close Encounters Of The Earliest Kind
December 1979 | Volume 31, Issue 1
During November of 1896 the United States experienced its first publicized UFO flap, and it is perhaps not surprising that it should have occurred in California. After all, Erich von Däniken would have us believe that the prehistoric petroglyphs in Inyo County represent interplanetary flight; Fray Geronimo Boscana, the missionary at San Juan Capistrano, described a “two-tailed comet” overhead in 1823; and in 1883 the scientist John J. Montgomery began his heavierthan-air experiments by putting a glider into the air over the sun-browned hills of Otay Mesa, south of San Diego.
All this, though, was pretty small change compared with the arrival of “The Great Airship.”
On Tuesday, the seventeenth of November, the sun set at 4:41 P.M. through overcast skies. Sacramentans reading their evening Bee may have noticed a quoted telegram from New York stating that someone would leave the Eastern metropolis on Friday and arrive in the West two days later. Since the Southern Pacific’s trains could only complete such a run in four or five days, this was news. And since the sender declared that the transportation would be aerial, the message had to have sparked curiosity. In any case, between six and seven o’clock “hundreds of people” on the streets noticed “an electric arc lamp propelled by some mysterious force” coming from the Northeast and traveling southwesterly. Moving slowly over K Street, it could be seen for most of an hour, rising and descending to avoid roofs and steeples.
Quoted witnesses included people “not addicted to prevarication.” Two officers of the Central Electrical Street Railway Company, the company’s carbarn foreman, three carmen, the passengers of the G Street car, the constables at East Park and Oak Park, a horse trainer, a brewer, “a gentleman,” and the mayor’s daughter all saw it. Combining their varied descriptions of the sight, we read that the “travelling light” or “airship” fluctuated from fifty to two thousand feet above the ground, swaying as it traveled against the wind. It was cigar- or egg-shaped with winglike propellers or fanlike wheels revolving rapidly, with a dark and tall but otherwise indistinguishable mass on its top, and a doubly powerful arc light at its bottom center. And if one cynic thought this lamp was nothing more than the ghost of Diogenes wasting his time seeking an honest man “around the state capitol,” nearly all the observers noticed a four-man crew, which was variously heard shouting, laughing, and singing—“not the whispering of angels, nor the sepulchral mutterings of evil spirits, but the intelligible words and merry laughter of humans.” Several people who shouted up an inquiry as to destination were answered “San Francisco before midnight.”
Apparently it was not such a swift bird, for the mysterious craft did not appear over the Bay City until the night of Saturday the twenty-first and then only in “a shy and demure manner.” But on the following night, shortly after six o’clock, it appeared to a policeman in the Mission District. Soon afterward a score of other people saw it, too. All noticed that it was flying against the wind, and thus could not possibly be a balloon.
That same evening, George D. Collins, a prominent lawyer, contacted the Call and the San Francisco Chronicle , claiming that he represented the vessel’s inventor. “It is perfectly true,” he said, “that there is at last a successful airship in existence, [and] that California will have the honor of bringing it before the world. … I saw the machine one night last week. … It is made of metal, is about 150 feet long, and is built to carry 15 persons. It is built on the aerophane [sic] system, and has two canvas wings 18 feet wide and a rudder shaped like a bird’s tail. The inventor climbed into the machine, and after he had been moving some of the machinery for a moment I saw the thing begin to ascend from the earth. The wings flapped slowly as it rose, and then faster as it began to move against the wind. The machine was under perfect control all of the time. … The inventor found, during [his] trial trip, that his ship had a wave-like motion and made him seasick. It is this defect that he is now remedying. In another six days it is his intention to give the people of San Francisco a chance to see his machine. He will fly right over the city and cross Market Street.”
Collins went on to reveal that the inventor was a wealthy native of Maine who had sought the seclusion of the West, settling at Oroville in 1891. Using parts manufactured in the East and shipped to his home, he had spent one hundred thousand dollars on his creation. He finally completed the airship and flew to Sacramento and on to San Francisco. The airship was being kept hidden in a barn at Berkeley, for the inventor did not want any publicity that might interfere with his work or prevent his securing a patent.
When pressed, Collins revealed that his client was Dr. E. H. Benjamin, a nonpracticing dentist.