Between the fall of 1896 and the spring of 1897 people began sighting "airships," first in California and then across most of the rest of the United States. Most people (though not all) thought the airships were machines built by secret inventors who would soon dazzle the world with a public announcement of a break-through in aviation technology leading to a heavier-than-air flying machine.
More than a few hoaxers and sensation-seeking journalists were all too happy to play on this popular expectation. Newspaper stories quoted "witnesses" who claimed to have seen the airships land and to have communicated with the pilots. The pilots themselves were quoted word for word boasting of their aeronautical exploits and, in some instances, of their intention to drop "several tons of dynamite" on Spanish fortresses in Cuba. Any reader with access to more than one newspaper account could have seen that the stories conflicted wildly and were inherently unbelievable. We now know that no such ships existed in human technology, and no standard history of aviation ever mentions these tall tales.
But other UFO sightings appear to have been quite real. Most descriptions were of a cylindrical object with a headlight, lights along the side, and a brilliant searchlight that swept the ground. Sometimes the objects were said to have huge wings. An "airship" was observed over Oakland, California, just after 8 P.M. on November 26. One witness said the object resembled "a great black cigar. . . . The body was at least 100 feet long and attached to it was a triangular tail, one apex being attached to the main body. The surface of the airship looked as if it were made of aluminum, which exposure to wind and weather had turned dark. . . . The airship went at tremendous speed" (Oakland Tribune, December 1, 1896). Witnesses in California numbered in the thousands, partly due to the objects' appearances -- sometimes in broad daylight -- over such major cities as Sacramento and San Francisco.
By February 1897 meandering nocturnal lights were also sighted in rural Nebraska. One of these lights swooped low over a group of worshippers leaving a prayer meeting: It turned out to be a cone-shaped structure with a head-light, three smaller lights along each side, and two wings. Such reports became the subject of newspaper articles around the state, leading the Kearney Hub on February 18 to remark that the "now famous California airship inventor is in our vicinity." In short order sightings were logged in Kansas, and by April across a broad band of middle America -- from the Dakotas and Texas in the west to Ohio and Tennessee in the east-the skies were full of UFOs.
But the skies were also full of planets, stars, lighted balloons, and kites, which impressionable observers mistook for airships. Newspapers were full of outrageous yarns: A Martian perished in an airship crash in Texas. "Hideous" creatures lassoed a calf and flew off over Kansas with it. A "bellowing" giant broke the hip of a farmer who got too close to his airship after it landed in Michigan. These stories reflect a powerful undercurrent of speculation about extraterrestrial visitors.