The Great Airship Flap of 1896

Copy drawn from an 1897 illustration
In 1896 and 1897 newspapers were reporting sightings of a strange and mysterious airship.  The story apparently began in April 1896 and spread back east and the last of the mystery airship stories appeared in November of 1897.

Two camps emerged concerning these stories. One said they were pure hoax and the creative work of bored newswriters competing in some vast tall tale competition.  A journalist whopper contest. 

The other point to the sightings as early day UFO's predating the more modern tales of Roswell , the '50's and beyond.

Most believe that there were no airships of the dirigible style that early.  Although records are not often clear or witnesses consistent, it is obvious the descriptions go beyond the balloon-and-basket style familiar since the Civil War in the United States.

Yet, looking at news stories from just before this 'flap' indicate there was a lot of talk of airships, air flight, and inventors working on designs or promoting development.

In 1890 a story appeared, "An Airship That Can Fly" (Washington Post 7/18/1890, pg.1) that told the story of a Professor Campbell who tested an airship with propellers and fly it in  New York for some short distance in and around Brooklyn.

In 1891 a story, "The Mount Carmel Airship" (Washington Post, 1/16/1891. pg. 1) referred to a Mount Carmel, Ill enterprise sending an airship to the Chicao exposition.  It was described as having a bouyancy chamber 24 feet long and 6 and 1/2 fee in diameeter, with propellers and rudder bringing it to 30 feet in length.  The inventor had contracted with James A. Fanning for a 12 week exhibitian for $100,000.  It would fly aound the exhibition and carry 2 passengers.  This long, thin profile fits the cigar shaped craft reported in many of the sightings.

Apparently, there were entrepreneurs busy with inventors attempting to create a brave new aerial travel world.  Some may have been scammers and con men but some... Out of Burlington, Iowa came a story in July of 1891, "Collapse of an Airship Enterprise" (Washington Post, 7/19/1891, pg.3).  The company had contracted to build "Dennington Airships" and had opened 2 months prior with "$10,000,000" but were now disolving due to a lack of stock investors. 

Although a mysterious man from Maine was cited in a San Francisco news story as being the source of the mystery crafts, most discounted it then and since.  After seeing the articles, as shown and others, maybe it was not too much off base.  It was apparent from the stories before, and the rapid development after the 'flap,' that someone had been working on developing the motorized airship, with lights, and ability to carry more than 2 passengers over a great distance.


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