Close Encounters Of The Earliest Kind

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Despite all these sightings, the airship craze produced only three reports of contact with the ship’s passengers. At Camptonville (Yuba County) William Bull Meek described the craft’s landing on his property. He went on to say that he had a pleasant chat with the pilot, a bearded man, who told him that the ship “had come from the Montezuma Mountains.”

A San Jose electrician, John A. H’f6ren, claimed to have been enlisted by the ship’s pilots to make some repairs on the craft. Upon completing the job in an empty field near Bolinas, he was rewarded by a flight to Hawaii; the craft made the forty-four-hundred-mile trip in twenty-four hours. Later his wife cast serious doubt on the story by telling reporters he had been asleep in bed on the night of the trip.

And at Pacific Grove, two fishermen, Giuseppe Valinziano and Luigi Valdivia, said that they had a long conversation with the airship’s three-man crew after the sixty-foot-long craft landed on a nearby beach.

 

Not surprisingly, the airship generated a great deal of advertising material. The promoters of the Fresno citrus fair wanted the inventor to exhibit his craft there. A Sacramento brewer was convinced that the “delegation from beyond the clouds...came down to sample Ruhstaller’s Gilt Edge Steam Beer.” And a San Francisco merchant took out one-third of a page to portray Santa Claus as the airship’s pilot bringing toys to his department store.

The Los Angeles Times speculated on possible evils inherent in the invention: giving a murderer an alibi for a crime committed far from home; the ease with which an errant wife and her lover could flee abroad; the possibility of more speeches in a day from William Jennings Bryan. The Colusa Sun told of a man with a broken nose and a black eye who had not earned those marks in a fight but by colliding with a flock of geese while “sailing in Benjamin’s airship.” The San Francisco Examiner opened a seventy-two line iambic trimeter poem with the question:

Oh, say, you airy phantom, Far up aloft afloat, Are you some nervous goblin Who likes to steer a boat?

and the Sacramento Record-Union responded with its own fifty-line creation:

I see’d it! I see’d it! Away up in the air, And the gooses and the duckses Stopped in their flight to stare At the aerophone or balloonephone, A sailing ’round up there.

From the start, the mysterious airship came in for a good deal of raillery in the press, with many papers, in strangely schizophrenic fashion, calling it an absolute fake on their editorial pages after having solemnly reported it as real in their news columns. The Sacramento Record-Union asserted that the “airship or jack o’lantern cannot be verified properly without a liberal use of stimulants,” even though the paper’s own editor claimed to have seen it. Toward the end of the craze, the Call commented that “had the story of the airship come from London, or even from Chicago, it would have been better received....It is hard to believe in an airship coming from [Oroville] where nobody expected so much as a balloon.”

The last salvos in the editorial war were fired between William Randolph Hearst’s Examiner and the Call. On Saturday, November 28, the San Francisco Examiner attacked the airship story as emanating from drunkenness, while across the continent the gaudy publisher’s New York Journal joyfully announced that man had conquered the air. When the Call saw this, it blasted “Hearst’s airy chameleon...[the] conflicting stories printed by the Siamese-twin faker.” On December 6 the Call made its last mention of the affair and on the tenth the last joke about the airship’s visit appeared in one of the rural papers.

Benjamin presumably returned to his dental nonpractice, and Hall abandoned his plans for an air strike against Cuba.

The airship disappeared from the West Coast after causing a brief flurry in Tacoma. In April of 1897 it—or others like it—were sighted in six Midwestern and Southern states. No wreckage was ever found, nor was a similar ship ever reported again.

The question remains: What, if anything, was it? Technically, a craft answering to its description could conceivably have been built in that era; after all, Count Zeppelin was only four years away from launching his first great dirigible. The speeds attributed to it, however, would surely have been impossible for any man-made aircraft. On the night of November 24, 1896, for instance, it was reported at Eureka, Santa Rosa, Sebastopol, San Francisco, San Jose, Visalia, Sacramento, and Placerville—a total distance of 680 air miles in five hours. To cover all that ground, the ship would have had to clip along at 136 miles per hour, a speed record that would not be broken until 1926.