In 1896 and 1897, before the first successful dirigible flight had even occurred,1 people across the U.S. reported seeing mysterious “airships” flying over major cities and rural communities alike. While in grade school, I remember reading how one of the most intriguing sightings occurred in Milwaukee where “thousands of witnesses” claimed to have observed a “machine” or “airship” fly in over the city, hover over the new2 City Hall for 15 minutes, and then fly away in the direction from which it had come.
When I recently took Milwaukee Ghosts’ Third Ward Walking Tour, I was reminded of the Milwaukee airship mystery. After the tour, I dug out the old boxes of books, magazines and newspaper clippings I had collected as a child,3 with the goal of seeing what — if anything — had been historically established or generally accepted about this strange Milwaukee incident.
Based on the research and documentation I had collected years ago, as well as additional online secondary research I’ve conducted during the past two weeks, here is what appears to be known about the great Milwaukee airship sightings of 1897. (Wherever possible, I’ve included footnotes to list the original sources of specific accounts and details.)
The Milwaukee Airship Mystery
The Milwaukee portion of the 1897 airship mystery was immediately preceded by a sighting in Chicago on Friday, April 9, 1897. An initial crowd gathered on Oakley Street on Chicago’s north side and watched what was described by various witnesses as a “red light,” a “manifestation,” and an “airship.” Eventually thousands of people saw the airship in Chicago.4 Later that evening, sightings also were reported in Evanston, Illinois (shortly after 8:00 pm), Lake Mills, Wisconsin (9:00 pm), and finally Wausau, Wisconsin (10:00 pm) creating the impression that a single mystery object was traveling north and west.
Milwaukee’s airship sightings began the next day (Saturday, April 10, 1897) and were very well documented at the time, with coverage appearing in such local newspapers as the Milwaukee Journal, Milwaukee Sentinel, Milwaukee Daily News and Milwaukee Evening Wisconsin. One of the most complete newspaper accounts of the Milwaukee sighting that I have found comes from the April 13, 1897 Burlington [Iowa] Hawk-Eye:
It was first seen on the northern horizon, and about the only persons who were up at the time and were not seeing things double, were a few newspaper men, police officers and a guard at the house of correction. All of these are willing to make oath they saw an airship come from the north a little before the break of daylight and that it disappeared again, reversing itself and fading from view in the north.
Last night the stranger made its appearance again in the heavens around 9 o’clock. It came from the northeast from out over the lake [Michigan]. There was no possibility of a mistake this time. Thousands of people saw it, and in a few minutes they were following the machine as it floated over the city. It traveled towards the southwest until it reached a point directly over the City hall, where it stopped for a quarter of an hour. Then the excitement in the downtown districts became intense. It was reported that attempts were being made to anchor the machine.
A Mr. Mayor, a traveling man, had a field glass ranged on the machine and said he distinctly saw four men in it. Stationkeeper Harry Moore of the Central police station saw it distinctly and was one of the few who at the same time did not lose his head. He says: “The machine, or whatever it was, anchored or stopped directly over the city hall. The light which I saw was suspended from a large, dark oval-shaped object, the shadow of which could be distinctly seen. In fact it could be seen so plainly that I could discern the wheels working. I did not see anyone in it, but anyone who claims that the thing I saw floating over city hall is a star simply don’t [sic] know what he is talking about. I saw it too distinctly to be fooled. It was, I should judge, about 1,000 feet above the city hall.”
After hovering for about 15 minutes, it went back and disappeared in the northeast.5
According to the Chicago Record (which was closely following the reports of airships around the Midwest):
The residents of Milwaukee cannot be talked out of what they are seeing...thousands report the authenticity of a giant, beautiful airship with colored lights...the police records are full of the story for they have been called to answer what it is!6
If the newspaper accounts are to be believed, many Milwaukee residents saw something strange in the sky during the nights of April 1897. So what exactly was it?
1897 may have been the first true UFO flap7 of modern history, with hundreds of sightings of strange aerial objects occurring across the US between November 16, 1896 (Sacramento, California) and May, 1897. The various sightings generated over a thousand accounts in US newspapers and magazines of the time. There is no doubt that something was going on (with Milwaukee among the more prominent incidents), but what exactly was happening? There are almost as many explanations as there were sightings.
A Newspaper Hoax — Newspapers of the late nineteenth century were known for their occasional forays into fictional news for the purpose of selling more papers. Following the first airship sighting in Sacramento, the Sacramento Bee published a letter from “G.W.” purporting to explain the mystery:
The Lord Commissioner of Mars has evidently sent one of his electric aircraft on an exploring expedition to the younger and larger worlds.
The airships are constructed of the lightest and strongest fabrics and the machinery is of the most perfect electrical work.
Aluminium and glass, hardened by the same chemical process that forms our diamonds, contribute the chief material of their most perfect airships.
When in use, these vehicles, at a distance, have the appearance of a ball of fire, being operated wholly by the electric current generated on such vessels.
The speed of our Martian ships is very great, and can be regulated to the rapidity of a thousand miles a second.
In fact, with the Martian inventions, space is almost annihilated. These aerial craft can so adopt their courses that when they desire to rest they can anchor within certain degrees of lattitude [sic] and wait for the revolutions of the earth, for instance, to bring any particular locality desired, much nearer to them, without the necessity of any aerial navigation.8
Misinterpreted Natural Phenomena — Following the Chicago sighting, the Chicago Daily Tribune carried comments from Professor George W. Hough at Northwestern University that attributed the sightings to a particularly bright star:
Professor G. W. Hough of Dearborn Observatory, Northwestern University, took an interest in the “airship rumors” and advanced the opinion that the strange light was caused by the effect of the atmosphere on the star Alpha Orionis, which is of the first magnitude and is in the constellation Orion. It rises in the evening and it’s course across the heavens is about the same as that of the moon. In Chicago, it is first visible about 7 o’clock this time of year. It reaches the zenith he says, about the time when the mysterious phenomenon described as an “airship” was seen that night. The professor says the star is unusually bright in a clear atmosphere and appears to be close to the earth.9
As later (mid-20th century and after) research into human observation and perception would confirm, witnesses can be confused or misled to incorrectly interpret common objects or events.
Aliens — Over the years, a number of individuals (most notably fringe researcher Jerome Clark) have argued that the “airships” were actually UFOs/flying saucers/alien spacecraft, but the technologically naïve citizens of the late-nineteenth century didn’t know how to interpret such advanced spacecraft, so they thought they were seeing airships. As with modern claims of alien visitations, absolutely no physical evidence exists, so it is not possible to evaluate the theory.
Secret Government Technology — Inventor John W. Keeley is rumored to have worked for a prototype airship for the U.S. War Department from 1888 to 1893.
The Keely Airship was successfully demonstrated to the U.S. War Department in 1896. The demonstration took place in an open field where Keely brought the airship from zero to 500 MPH within seconds.10
Other engineers and inventors of the time also have been put forward as potentially involved in the design, development and construction of airships. Almost no physical evidence or documentation has been found, however, to support such assertions.
P. T. Barnum — During the 1970s, I read a claim11 that P. T. Barnum was behind the airship sightings of 1896–1897. Given that Barnum died in 1891, however, I suspect it’s unlikely he was directly behind the airship sightings. There is a remote possibility, however, that the airship sightings of 1896–1897 may have been the result of research into manned flight that Barnum began (or began funding) while he was still alive.
According to Barnum biographer A. H. Saxon, Barnum was “genuinely fascinated by the possibilities of manned flight.”
He [Barnum] subscribed to and studied various journals and books on ballooning, and in his seventies he helped finance the work of one eccentric inventor, “Professor” C. F. Ritchel, who in 1878 successfully piloted a hydrogen-filled airship whose horizontal and vertical motions were controlled by propellers powered by the operator’s arms and legs.12
The idea of P. T. Barnum traveling around the US in a dirigible actually served as the basis for the 2005 graphic novel “Barnum!: In Secret Service to the USA.” The story plays loosely with historical dates and facts, but remains an entertaining fictional account of Barnum and his secret airship adventures.
So What Do We Really Know?
The bottom line is that we don’t know — or even have a reliable theory — of what happened in the skies over Milwaukee during April 1897. There no doubt are many more accounts of the Milwaukee airship mystery buried in newspapers, police reports, personal journals and other documents. Perhaps someday we will learn more (or even learn something definitive). Until that day, the airship mystery will remain a great piece of Milwaukee folklore.
- Most historians date the first successful dirigible flight to November 3, 1897 near Berlin, Germany. A dirigible employs a rigid structure, in contrast to balloons or modern blimps which hold their shape because of the pressurized gas they contain. [↩]
- Milwaukee’s City Hall had just been completed in 1895 and at the time it was the world’s tallest habitable building. [↩]
- During grade school, I was fascinated by the subject of UFOs (no doubt because of the cool technology they appeared to employ) and at that time I also collected information about Milwaukee’s 1897 airship sightings. I had intended at some point to use that research to either write a nonfiction book about the Milwaukee airships, or perhaps use it to spur a historical novel exploring the (fictional) secrets behind the airships. Now that I’ve dug out all of this material, my childhood desire to write a book about the Milwaukee airships has been partially rekindled. [↩]
- “Solving the 1897 Airship Mystery,” Michael Busby, Pelican Publishing, 2004. [↩]
- “Airship Is Plainly Seen,” Burlington Hawk-Eye, April 13, 1897. [↩]
- Chicago Record, April 11, 1897. [↩]
- A “UFO flap” refers to an outbreak of sightings that occur within a short, defined period of time. Many UFO flaps are identified by either a calendar year (i.e., the UFO flap of 1955) or by a geographic location (i.e., the Exeter, New Hampshire flap). [↩]
- Sacramento Bee, November 24, 1896. [↩]
- Chicago Daily Tribune, April 11, 1897. [↩]
- Source: http://keelynet.com Note: Since John Keely is also associated with such concepts as free energy and antigravity, it is probably best to take these claims of a Keely airship with a grain of salt. [↩]
- I’m no longer certain of the original source of this claim. [↩]
- “P. T. Barnum: The Legend and the Man,” A. H. Saxon, Columbia University Press, 1995. [↩]