Close Encounters Of The Earliest Kind

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Then, abruptly, Collins changed his mind and denied the entire story. On the twenty-third the San Francisco Bulletin, under the headline IT IS A FAKE, reported: “The airship story is rapidly going to pieces....The man who made it has melted away, and those who saw it are lying low. Mr. George D. Collins...now proclaims this marvelous story a plain ordinary fake....“I never saw the airship and don’t know anything about it. It is true that a man of standing in the community came to me asking me to get out a patent on an air machine....I expect him today or tomorrow with the model....The description he gave me of the airship was very incomplete. It gave me no idea of the nature of the machine or of how it operates....I really don’t think my client’s invention has anything to do with these mysterious appearances....”

The next day Benjamin averred that he was indeed an inventor—of dental items. He admitted having made trips to Oroville, but only to visit an uncle. Thus, Oroville, which had been mentioned in the San Francisco and Los Angeles dailies more than ever before in its forty-year history, lost forever its chance to profit from the airship craze.

The denial also must have been a blow to the Oakland Navy veteran who had applied to Collins for a post as the airship’s cabin boy.

Benjamin, apparently finding “Airship Collins’s” denial tardy and insufficient, changed counsel. His new legal representative was the distinguished William H. Hart, a former state attorney general. Hart immediately claimed that the airship was to be used to destroy Havana in order to help the Cubans overthrow Spanish rule.

 
 

Other equally solid citizens shared Hart’s faith in the vessel. “Men well and most favorably known in scientific, official, professional, business and educational circles claimed to have seen these nocturnal visitations,” said the Call. Undoubtedly, the writer was recalling the night of Monday the twenty-third, the second of three nights the airship visited San Francisco.

“I saw the light, and am satisfied it was attached to an airship,” commented a policeman; an attorney recalled that the light “seemed to be attached to some dark object.” Mayor Sutro, previously dependent upon the accounts of members of his staff, personally had seen “lights carried by an airship.” He saw it pass over Alcatraz, going through the Golden Gate, skirting the Cliff House, and using its beam for ten minutes on the seals at Seal Rock. The night was very stormy with “contrary wind currents.” The Los Angeles Times reported that the machine was tested “in the hardest possible manner, but it came out of the ordeal in good order, having breasted the storm as well as any bird.”

The next night two inches of rain fell on San Francisco. Yet beneath the clouds the mysterious visitor reappeared. Hundreds of people gathered on street corners to catch a glimpse. Pranksters launched five gas balloons in the early evening, and many thought they had seen the airship. As the Humboldt Times reported to its readers in Eureka, San Franciscans had “gone daft over the flying machine.”

The phenomenon, however, was not confined to the capital and the state’s principal city. Reports of sightings came in from at least nineteen counties. “The town which has not had its airship,” said the Fresno Republican, “might as well come off the map. If it is alive it doesn’t know it.” Airships, the Napa Register responded tartly, were seen “in about every town of size except Napa. This is a temperance town.”

“Did you see that airship?” asked one rural paper. To which a skeptical metropolitan daily already had answered: “From Siskiyou to San Diego and from the Sierra to the Sea this blessed fowl parades the heavens.”

On Tuesday the twenty-fourth, “a great white light flashed out from the heavens, almost within hailing distance” at Eureka; “lights were seen in the heavens passing...over [Placerville] and [were] declared by several reputable citizens who saw it to be an airship [which] traveled against the wind”; “several reputable gentlemen of [Santa Rosa] reported seeing a bright light moving in a southwesterly direction”; in nearby Sebastopol a hotelkeeper saw a “dazzling object...such as he had never seen before”; and, all the while, Sacramento, San Francisco, and San Jose were being visited. The next night, “...several hundred people in Fresno...solemnly declare [d] that they saw the airship....Bonanza cocktails...or even vulgar steam beer...had nothing to do with [it].”

In the next weekdays, Ukiah citizens reported seeing the airship and hearing its crew talking; Merced residents were convinced that the airship was a reality after viewing the moving lights; five leading citizens of Watertown (Fresno County) sent an affidavit to the Call declaring that they had seen “the intensely brilliant [light]...the form of the ship and the propelling apparatus...[and] human forms [within]”; and a Los Angeles ranch manager reported his patriotic conviction that the ship had wings “fashioned remarkably like those of an American eagle.”