Between 1896 an and 1897, a famous swarm of airship sightings occurred in the United States. The initial reports began occurring in November, 1896 over Sacramento, and involved many townsfolk (including some city officials and members of the Sacramento mayor’s staff) claiming to have seen a dark body with a bright illumination resembling an arc light fitted at the front of the craft as it passed overhead in the stormy winter skies.
Several more sightings would occur in the Sacramento area before the airship flap took off toward the east, with sightings continuing throughout the Midwest and southern United States into the middle of 1897. Then, as quickly as the mysterious aerial visitor had appeared, it was gone again.
Scholars on subjects ranging from the history of aviation to UFO sightings debate what these “mystery airships” might have been. Were they actual airships, invented by some clever engineer just years in advance of the earliest successful attempts at manned flight? Were they hoaxes perpetrated by pranksters with fire balloons, and/or bored newspapermen conjuring tall tales, or could there have been something more to the reports?
While the airships of the 1890s remain a mystery, less often mentioned in the literature is the fact that a second, shorter wave of sightings along the pacific coast occurred a little more than a decade later, which bore many characteristics of the 1896-1897 flap.
The earliest report dates to February 1st, 1908, beginning with sightings of a bright light moving through the sky over the Pacific coast. Tacoma area newspapers gave the following description:
“…(a) mysterious flying object described as three times as bright as the planet Jupiter, displaying colors of dark red, pale green, yellow and brilliant white… cruising the evening skies over the region around Tacoma between the hours of 7 and 9 o’clock… Rumors in such towns as Kent, Crays Harbor, and Tacoma had the phenomenon explained as a Japanese airship spying out the Pacific coast. On one occasion something like a rocket was seen discharged from the apparently unknown object.”
Two nights later on the date of February 3rd, the aerial phantom reappeared over Kent, Washington. The object was described as a bright light seen at apparently low altitude in the western sky, and brighter than the planet Jupiter. Weekend observers near Kent watched the light appear between 7 and 9 PM local time on both Saturday and Sunday nights, just as it had appeared over Tacoma two nights earlier.
Many telephone calls to local newspapers were made reporting the appearance of the strange western light. “At times the strange light did not appear to be more than 10 to 12 miles distant,” one newspaper account read. “All sorts of conjectures are ventured as to the mysterious illumination.”
Admittedly, these descriptions don’t seem to preclude the planet Jupiter rising over the western horizon after sundown as a possible explanation. The same was offered of some of the 1896-97 airships, which had similarly first appeared as a bright aerial apparition out over the Pacific; however, the strange light was seen again the following night on February 4th, this time by a group of passengers on the Northern Pacific train at the Fifteenth Street Bridge in Tacoma.
The engineer had been the first to observe the object, looking up to behold “a strange multi-colored light in the evening sky,” which appeared to be traveling from north to south. “So prominent was the light, the trains conductor and some of the passengers left the coaches and ran down the track to get a better look. One person had field glasses and said he discerned a cigar-shaped mass.”
The cigar shaped mass would indeed seem to be something apart from Jupiter’s nightly appearances off over to the west. Little more was said of the Washington airship after this, apart from a peculiarly-worded editorial which discussed capturing the airship “by the usual method of salt on its tail,” having a bit of fun with the reports of the previous several nights.
As to the possibility that some residents had been observing a planet, sky mapping software made available at www.in-the-sky.org indicates that Jupiter would have been positioned relatively high in the sky in the early days of February 1908. However, the planet Venus would have been visible between 7 and 8 PM, disappearing below the western horizon shortly after 8:10 PM local time. The less brilliant planets of Mars and Saturn would have remained visible for several hours before passing below the horizon.
It is possible that some observers shortly after 7 PM might have been observing Venus on its westerly course over the Pacific. Further, the fact that some of the newspaper reports mention that the light appeared “two to three times as bright as Jupiter” would seem to indicate that the object had been observed in some region of the sky apart from Jupiter (which would have appeared overhead as the sky darkened at around this time), and that observers were aware of Jupiter’s location at the time. Venus setting over the western horizon might indeed have appeared brighter than Jupiter; however, it would have had the appearance of moving gradually toward the North, whereas newspaper accounts describe the object “moving slowly from north to south.”
Had the residents of Washington merely seen a bright planet as it passed through the night sky in early February of 1908? Had they still been afflicted with a touch of “airship fever” in the aftermath of events from one decade earlier? Or had there actually been more to the sightings of what at least one observer called “a cigar-shaped mass” to which the unearthly light had been attached?