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The Airship Mystery of 1896-97

William Held and Dr. Case, of Ukiah, were riding northbound in a buggy on an early December evening, destination Centerville in the Potter Valley district. Their horses shied as a light flared from the darkness. Reining the team to a standstill the two men gazed skyward to the west, where they plainly saw the outline of an elongated craft suspended beneath what appeared to be a balloon or some sort of gas reservoir.

Jim Thornton also heading toward Centerville, but a few miles behind Dr. Case and Mr. Held, struggled with a startled team when he, too, saw a similar object. James Spotswood, of Pomo, and E.E. Holbrook, the proprietor of the Centerville Hotel, spied the strange craft, too, as a light disappearing into the distance at a wonderful speed.

Just another unidentified flying object? Perhaps, but this sighting occurred in the late autumn of 1896, seven years before the Wright brothers first flew. Yes, there had been hot air balloon flights dating to the initial one by the Montgolfier brothers in 1783; however, that trip was sans passengers. The next Montgolfier balloon flight did hold passengers: a basket containing a sheep, duck, and rooster. 

The first manned, and non-tethered, free ascent of a hot air balloon occurred about six months later. Chemistry teacher Pilatre de Rozier and the Marquis d'Arlandes soared aloft over Paris for twenty-five minutes, traveling about five and a half miles. Ben Franklin was among those who witnessed the event. As is often the ironic case, de Rozier proved the first victim of a hot air disaster. In 1785 his attempt to cross the English Channel in a hydrogen filled balloon ended in a fatal explosion.

Of course, manned balloon flights in the late 18th century and on through the nineteenth century were performed with something like a basket, of varying size, secured beneath. What the witnesses around Potter Valley saw in 1896 was much more like the UFO sightings that became more and more common after the Roswell incident of 1947.

The Mendocino County residents of 1896 weren't alone. In the same week, Case Gilson, a young electrician from Oakland noticed an unusual aerial traveler moving north then westward at what he estimated to be 1,000 to 1,500 feet above him. He described it as resembling “a great black cigar with a fish like tail. The body was at least one hundred feet long, and attached to it was a fish like tail, one apex being attached to the main body.”

Gilson sighted the craft twice, at 8 and 8:30 p.m. on a clear night with a brisk north wind blowing. He was accompanied by others who backed up his claims. Gilson's description went on, “The surface of the airship looked as if it were made of aluminum, which exposed to wind and weather had turned dark. I saw all this distinctly, and I am willing to take any oath to the truth of what I say. The airship went at a tremendous speed. As it neared Lorin [south Berkeley] it turned quickly and disappeared in the direction of San Francisco. At half-past 8 we saw it again, when it took about the same direction and disappeared.”

Sightings were not confined to California. Similar descriptions of an airship near Mount Tacoma in Washington occurred in late November, 1896. As word of the unidentified object(s) spread, so did mistaken sightings. The San Francisco Call noted, “An amusing phase of the airship mystery was developed last night, when that inoffensive planet Venus, sinking in the west, was mistaken for the clipper of the clouds scudding across the empyrean.”

The airship phenomena had legs, beyond the west coast and into the following year. Folks in Nebraska, Kansas, and Iowa viewed it in early April, 1897. Seemingly sober inhabitants of Chicago, Evanston, and other locales around Lake Michigan swore to the veracity of their descriptions of an airship with a white light in the front as well as green and smaller white lights on its side, along with more green lights extending at its tail end. In mid-April, two warehouse men, a pair of merchants, and four city officials claimed to see an airship above Clarksville, Tennessee. On the same night, at Russelville, Kentucky, a comparable report, emanated from a physician, a long time merchant, and several other reputable citizens.

Prior to that time, airships that vaguely resembled 20th century dirigibles had taken limited flight. In 1863, Solomon Andrews, a doctor, claimed to sail one in the sky above New Jersey as you would a sailboat. However, it must be noted that Andrews' “ship” was closer to a basket than the type of elongated vessel described in 1896 and 1897.

There's no clear cut answer to the airship mystery of 1896-97. Stories grew more fantastical during 1897 as the stories spread. Present day readers should note that this was an era of “yellow journalism,” when editors were sometimes prone to manufacturing the news rather than report it. A preponderance of the California stories started in the pages of one paper, the San Francisco Call.

Still, apparently normal citizens like the Mendocino County residents or the Bay Area electrician, Case Gilson, swore to the objectivity of their sightings. In April, 1897, an Aurora, Texas report claimed an airship crashed into a windmill. The occupant of the airship was dead and mangled beyond typical identification methods. The craft was supposedly made from a silver and aluminum mix, weighing several tons. Witnesses said that hieroglyphic like figures were visible on the outside of the wreckage.

Facts and hoaxes detailed at 


  1. Mike October 14, 2018

    Good background.

    Some newspapers made up stories but some were real accounts. In the 1890s, the ET visitation hypothesis was commonly offered.

    A subsequent world wide wave 15 to 20 years later saw people proposing inventors as the main explanation.

    So…the AVA now joins the NY Times in giving background briefings…its latest Aug 3 on the CIA Robertson Panel of 1953.

    • Matthew gammett October 15, 2018

      Retired Sen. Harry Reid Has recently said some very interesting things about unidentified aerial phenomena.

      For anyone who wants to learn whats happening today with the airships and related phenomena there is new information rapidly emerging from many dimly lit corners of academia on up to government institutions. Please know that regularly occurring inexplicable aerial phenomena have been ongoing for the last 70 years since the detonation of the first Nukes. If you should be interested then check out this article published by the guardian today.

      Also included in the article by the guardian is a mind blowing letter to the Department Of Defense from Sen. Harry Reid Concerning his involvement in UFO/UAP related programs.

      Congress is being briefed on the UFO phenomenon right now, please take a moment to realize what is occurring.

      Dec. 17th New York Times. Glowing auras and black money.

      The pentagon has been intensively studying these phenomena for decades in secret.

      Sen Harry Reid is quoted as saying that the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program will be remembered as his greatest achievement.

      And meanwhile on the national stage trump, warren, division, anger, hatred from all sides……….

      Wait one second…The Pentagon is saying there are advanced unidentified gravity defying craft displaying themselves in our skies every day and now congress knows about it too? What is going on behind the scenes? Right now…..Today

      Please look into this folks. A kind of ontological reorganization will be happening quickly so prepare your self accordingly.

      The air ship mystery is directly related to the phenomena. People have been seeing phenomenon in the skies for millennia. Check out Jacques Vallee, Wonders In The Sky for the best research on sightings of antiquity. It’s not just the airships doing strange things in the skies folks, there is a lot more to it than that and the clarity of the information is only going to get better from here on out.

      Tune in to KZYX&Z Monday night, tonight, Oct 15. Midnight. We will be discussing these topics and many more on
      Paranormal observations Hosted by Matthew Gammett

  2. Mike October 15, 2018

    Yes, the cat is emerging from the bag.

    (Does Little Dog want to weigh in?)

    Luis Elizondo wants a public conversation on this but even with the intense but brief media coverage last December, I see only so far a collective yawn.

    That’s okay…gives people a couple of years to absorb the coming public education briefings that DeLonge productions will put out as well as others providing background.

    I am focused on Close Encounter 3 and 4 material, going back to the work of Coral and Jim Lorenzen thru today’s Ardy Clarke.

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