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In 1896, a Mysterious UFO Brought Northern California to a Mesmerized Halt

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A Victorian illustration of two men watching an airship with wings and spotlights flying near the top of the Capitol building.
A rendition of the airship seen in the skies above Sacramento, as illustrated in ‘The San Francisco Call and Post’ on Nov. 29, 1896.

In the 1890s, Northern California was in flux — living with Victorian sensibilities, but surrounded by remnants of the gold rush. San Francisco’s Midwinter Fair in 1894 had ushered in an age of electricity-fueled modernity, but sailors were still brawling it out down on the Embarcadero. New-fangled ways to have fun — like the Haight Street Chutes and home phonographs — were all the rage, but, for most, life revolved around basic necessities.

In November 1896, however, the entire region was excited and united by one thing: a mysterious “airship” that was spotted repeatedly in the skies over San Francisco, Oakland and Sacramento. At the time, airships had been invented but they were flown primarily in Europe and had yet to make a West Coast debut. To see an airship over the Bay Area in 1896 wasn’t just unusual, it was entirely unheard of — and yet, suddenly, hundreds of witnesses began reporting just that.

Making these sightings all the more perplexing was the fact that they only happened at night, and the aircraft in question reportedly had wings, making it unlike any airship that existed at the time. Multiple passengers on an Oakland streetcar one November night described the craft hovering over Fruitvale as “resembling a huge bird in its outlines … which seemed to rise and fall in its course.”

That night, the streetcar’s conductor said the ship had one powerful headlight and several smaller lights on board. This was a welcome elaboration, as many witnesses around the Bay had reported seeing only bright lights in the sky. The day after the sighting on the streetcar, The San Francisco Call and Post reported that:

[The airship] was high in the heavens and appeared to be of huge size. When first seen, it seemed to be floating over San Leandro. It moved rapidly, going at least twenty miles an hour. It shot across the skies in the northwest, then turned quickly and disappeared in the direction of Hayward.

The newspaper was particularly invested in the story, since its very own advertising manager, Samuel Foltz, had seen the craft from his Parnassus Heights home in San Francisco. He wasn’t the only one. Colonel W. H. Menton of the Southern Pacific Railroad Company saw the airship from the Supreme Court building at Larkin and McAllister. “The light was far brighter than any of the electric lights I saw just below, in and about the park,” he also told The Call.

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Another witness cited in the newspaper that day was Mayor Adolph Sutro, who had several employees who’d seen the craft days before newspapers had even begun reporting the sightings. “I certainly think that some shrewd inventor has solved the problem of aerial navigation,” Sutro said, “and that we will hear all about it within a short time.”

Here, then, is where the mystery deepens.

No such inventor ever came forward. And no winged airship was ever patented and produced. In fact, the first gas-powered Zeppelin didn’t fly until July 1900, and its maiden voyage was in Germany. Airships weren’t even used by the US Army until 1908. So what were so many people seeing in the skies around the Bay in 1896?

A Victorian illustration of a man gazing up at dark skies, astonished to see a clipper ship there.
This cartoon, referencing renowned ship builder and inventor Irving M. Scott, appeared in ‘The San Francisco Call’ in Nov. 1896, during the peak of the UFO sightings. (The San Francisco Call and Post/ Newspapers.com)

At the time, newspapers swirled with conjecture about whether or not a patent attorney named George Collins knew who the inventor of the mysterious craft was. Collins publicly spoke of being visited by a man who was seeking a patent for a new airship that he claimed had been spotted over Sacramento. Collins told the man he could not provide a patent without first seeing a model of the aircraft. With that, Collins told reporters, the client was gone, never to be seen again. “I know nothing about the airship,” the attorney said. “I do not know what it is made of, what power propels it, nor where its inventor now is.”

Frustrated by Collins’ lack of information, rumors began swirling around San Francisco that the mysterious inventor was a 34-year-old dentist named E. H. Benjamin. Dr. Benjamin had patented a variety of dental equipment through Collins and also acted as his dentist. But when a Call reporter tracked him down, the dentist simply said: “I only wish I was the inventor. But I am inclined to think I would be afraid to go up in it.”

By the end of 1896, Bay Area airship sightings had stopped altogether. The confounding thing is, they quickly started up in other parts of the country — first Nebraska in Feb. 1897, followed by Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Missouri and Kansas. The craft seen in Marshfield, Wisconsin was described as “cone-shaped with glaring headlights,” moving up to 70 mph — very similar to what had been seen in California.

Many newspapers of the era described credible sightings, alongside hoax attempts. Fake photos of a flying airship — made using images of a painted canvas on wires — were reported in Rogers Park, Illinois. Groups of men in Omaha, Nebraska and Burlington, Iowa confessed to sending up huge balloons to confuse people actively looking for the airship. And on April 2, 1897, the Kansas City Journal, mindful that what it was describing may have been an April Fool’s prank, nevertheless reported a:

“Flying machine in view for more than an hour … [Witnesses] assert that the floating power seemed to be in a mammoth bag, supposedly filled with gas. To this were attached four light wings of triangular form, two on either side and from the great bag was suspended a cage or car. This car was canoe-shaped and appeared to be from twenty-five to thirty feet long. A few declared that the ship had red lights hung over the edges of the car.”

No one was quite sure what to believe, as is evidenced by the following words gingerly printed in Pennsylvania newspaper The York Dispatch in May 1897:

Recently, the newspapers of the whole country have been exploiting stories of airships seen hovering over various towns and country places in districts very far apart. The testimony seems unimpeachable, especially in the face of so many witnesses, but certain details are always lacking to complete the evidence.

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In the end, the origins of 1896’s unidentified flying airship were never revealed. Theories posited in the century since have included: a mass media hoax, actual bonafide aliens visiting Earth and delusional witnesses (perhaps inspired by the recent publication of H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine) confusing the planet Venus for an aircraft. The fact that no one ever took ownership of the aircraft leaves its existence tantalizingly open to interpretation. It all just depends on how much you want to believe.

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