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.
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.”
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:
and the Sacramento Record-Union responded with its own fifty-line creation:
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.
In any event, the ship caused its stir and vanished, leaving many Californians wondering where its peculiarly shy inventor had fled to.
Fifty years later, in 1946, “strange lights” were again reported, and newspapers were once more full of accounts of fantastic airships coursing across the night skies. But the half century that had elapsed since the California sightings apparently had eroded most people’s faith in individual genius and enterprise. This time the vessels were seen as the work of beings from another solar system—nobody thought to look for a Yankee mechanic cobbling together an airship in his barn.