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Date:November 17, 1896
Place:Sacramento, California





Last evening between the hours of 6 and 7 o'clock, in the year of our lord eighteen hundred and ninety six, a most startling exhibition was seen in the sky in this city of Sacramento. People standing on the sidewalks at certain points in the city between the hours stated, saw coming through the sky over the housetops, what appeared to be merely an electric arc lamp propelled by some mysterious force. It came out of the East and sailed unevenly toward the Southwest, dropping now nearer the Earth, and now suddenly rising into the air again as if the force that was whirling it through space was sensible of the dangers of collision with objects upon the Earth.

That much hundreds of the people saw. That much caused consternation in the city last night among groups gathered to hear the tale. What follows some of the witnesses to the strange spectacle assert to be true as the circumstances stated.


Startled citizens last night living at points of the city along a rough diagonal line, yet far distant from each other, declare that they not only saw the phenomenon, but that they also heard voices issuing from it in midair - not the whispering of angels, not the sepulchral mutterings of evil spirits, but the intelligible words and merry laughter of humans.

At those intervals where the glittering object, as if careless of its obligation to maintain a straightforward course, descended dangerously near the housetops, voices were heard in the sky saying:

"Lift her up quick! You are making directly for that steeple!"

Then the light in the sky would be seen obeying some mystic touch and ascending to a considerable height, from which it would take up again its southwesterly course.

The light sailed along the line of K St., so it appeared from those in the eastern part of the city, although it appears that after it passed 14th St. it was wafted far south of K.

Laughter and words sounding strange in the distance, though fairly intelligible, fell upon the ears of pedestrians along the course of the light who had paused to look up at the novelty.


Last night's BEE contained a telegram from New York announcing that a man had perfected an airship and would on Friday of this week, accompanied by one or two friends, ascend from a vacant lot in the metropolis and go directly to California, which he promised to reach in two days. The description furnished in the telegram included an apparatus which was electrical to supply light and power to the astonishing contrivance. It is not regarded as likely, in view of the announcement carried in the dispatch, that last night Sacramento was overswept by this aerial ship. But here is the incident -- here the chronicle of words heard, of a strange spectacle witnessed. Whence the light, which was not a meteor all agree, came, whither it went, where it is now—these things it is not within the capacity of this article to deal with.


Charles Lusk, Cashier of the Central Electrical Street Railway Company, was at his home at Twenty-Fourth and O Streets, last evening when, having stepped outside, he saw the remarkable appearance in the sky. He went into the house and told the inmates of what he had seen.

This morning Mr. Lusk mentioned the incident to some of the Carmen, and was amazed to learn from them that they had seen such a light as he described while they were in the neighborhood of East Park. More than that, they heard music and voices. One voice distinctly said:

"Well, we ought to get to San Francisco by tomorrow noon."

The Carmen say they caught some faint idea of the shape of the object that was floating in the air. It was of balloon shape, and they concluded that it was a balloon.


Foreman Snyder of the Car Barn, Says it Was Not a Meteor

This afternoon, G.C. Snyder, foreman of the car house of the Electric Car Company, gave the following to the BEE:

"I assure you there is no joke about this matter, so far as I am concerned. Last evening, about ten minutes before 7 o'clock, I saw a light, which was then above, approximately, Twenty-Seventh and P Streets, sailing in a southwesterly direction. It rose and fell and swayed from right to left as if it were being propelled by some motor power. It was a white light, and was not a star or meteor, I am certain of that."

"Mr. Lowry, who used to be connected with the car company, told me that he saw the thing when it was directly overhead and that it had a wheel, which was going round."

"I don't think it was a balloon, for it was going in the southwest and a heavy wind was blowing from that direction. David Curl, a horsetrainer at the race track, told me he heard voices in the balloon or whatever it was."

"I learned that Michael Shelley, Carman on car 103 on the J. Street Line, distinguished the shape of the affair." [1]


An Apparition Wandering Through the Atmosphere.

Several persons last evening, between 6 and 7 o'clock, saw a big ball of fire, like an electric light, pass over the city going in a southwesterly direction. It moved slowly and was in sight for more than a half-hour, finally disappearing in the mist and darkness. More than one person was heard to declare that he distinguished human voices engaged in song and mirth coming from above, but could distinguish no outline of a balloon - nothing but a large ball of light.

One man in the suburbs declares he heard a voice warning "the man at the helm" to go higher, or they would collide with the church steeples, etc.

It is possible someone sent up an illuminated balloon, or that a stray meteor was hunting for the rest of the gang, but there really were persons who insisted that it was a new-fangled airship, lighted by electricity and traveling direct for San Francisco from - somewhere. [2]

Drawing of this object by an artist of the newspaper San Francisco Call for November 22, 1896 [3]:

"A mysterious light was reported initially in the sky of night above the Capitole of the city of Sacramento in the evening of November 17, 1896. The local newspapers published headlines such as: "a wandering appearance", "a strange phenomenon" and "What was it?" It was said that because of a thick cloud cover in the evening of the first observation, very few details could be observed. The majority of the alleged witnesses reported only one source of light, but it was said that some saw, in addition, a dark body of a certain kind above the luminous point (according to newspaper reports).

"The unexplained flying lights and the story of the observation of an airship by a certain R. L. Lowry encouraged a lawyer of San Francisco to "reveal" that a man had supposedly contacted him a few months earlier for legal advice "on the subject of the first useable airship in the world," a machine that the supposed inventor claimed to have almost realized. Showing impressive plans and bragging about powerful sponsors, the inventor convinced the lawyer that his airship would soon be operational. The lawyer, a certain a George D. Collins, told the press that, in his opinion, the phenomenon in the skies above Sacramento must have been his customer naking night trial flights before an official advertisement of his secret invention. This suggestion, reasonable to many, received a broad publicity in the San Francisco newspapers, agitating imaginations in all California. The most insane rumours and stories soon started to circulate. During one moment, the "ghost airship" was the greatest story in the newspapers in the north of California."

"As more and more reports of the strange lights in the sky were published, increasing the mystery, lawyer Collins was so much harrassed by journalists and the curious that he regretted to have bragged and fled to hide." [4]

"November 17, 6-7 p.m: An electric light propelled by a mysterious force passes at low altitude above the town of Sacramento (California), skilfully avoiding the heights before disappearing. It is seen by hundreds of witnesses. Some would describe an enormous object, cigar-shaped, made of aluminium and equipped with large wings. Nobody questionned the terrestrial origin of the object, some even claiming to have heard a voice shouting: "We do hop to arrive in San Francisco by tomorrow midday." [5]

"The Sacramento Bee talks about a light "resembling an electric welder lamp propelled by some mysterious force" that passed above the city and was seen by hundreds of passers by while it travelled at low altitude and, as if it were under intelligent control, started an evasive manoeuver when it approached the buildings and the hills. Some observers claimed they had a good look at the object and that they heard voices. The San Francisco Chronicle put on their first page the assertion of the local lawyer George D. Collins, who stated that he represented the inventor of the airship, a rich man who had come in California from Maine seven years earlier. Collins said (although he quickly denied it) that he had seen the machine, an object made out of metal of 150 feet with "two wings of fabric of 18 feet broad and a rudder in the shape of a bird's tail." Basedin Oroville 60 miles away, it had flown above Sacramento and was now hidden in the area of San Francisco while the inventor dealt with some technical problems. But soon he would fly the airship above the city "a dozen time" and everyone will be able to see it well.

In answer, another San Francisco newspaper, The Examiner, sent a journalist to Oroville, where people laughed at Collins' story. The Examiner also pubished an interview of a lawyer named Frederick Bradley, a friend of Collins, in which Bradley said that Collins saw the machine in a barn from where an inventor left to carry out a takeoff in front of Collins. Collins answered that it was a lie, that he had never seen the machine and just heard talks about the inventor. But The Chronicle for November 24 ridiculed the denying of Collins by producing his sworn written statement that he had really seen the machine. Lastly, The Call for November 24 identified a man from Carmel, Maine, named E.H. Benjamin, as being the inventor whose Collins would be the lawyer, which he admitted, but he claimed that his invention related only to dental surgery. Harassed with questions about the airship, Benjamin gave up his goods and left to hide. The journalists said that they searched his stuff and found only copper there, used for dental care. On the 24th, Oakland Tribune claimed that a personality named George Carleton knows the inventor as a a freemason colleague told him about, and that he had seen the machine tested in the area of Oroville. But the next day The Call added that the famous lawyer W.H.H. Hart is now the representative of the inventor, after Collins was fired for having said too too much. But Hart spoke even more, indicating that the name that the inventor is Dr. Carlin, allegedly associated with Dr. Benjamin. Now there were two airship and projects of a merger between the two programs in development. Binder claimed that one of them could be used to bombard Havana, whcih was the stake of a war between Spain and the USA at this time. After having added other details, Hart retracted just like Collins had done, saying that he had seen only bluprints and that the inventor was a cousin of a man named Linn, an electrician at the service of the cuban revolutionist Antonio Maceo. [6]

A web site writes that the airship excitement started on November 17, 1896 in Sacramento, California, under a rainy, dismal night. A bright light appeared through the dark clouds, and moved slowly west appearing to be about a thousand feet above the rooftops. Hundreds of people saw the light including George Scott, an assistant to the Secretary of State of California, who persuaded some friends to join him on the observation deck above the capitol dome and from there they thought they could see three lights, not one, and a dark, oblong shape above the lights.

It is indicated that the most detailed report of the evening came from R.L. Lowery, a former street railway employee who said he heard a voice from above call, "Throw her up higher; she'll hit the steeple." When he looked up he saw two men seated on a bicycle-like frame, peddling. Above them was a "cigar-shaped body of some length." Lowery said that the thing also had "wheels at the side like the side wheels on Fulton's old steam boat."

The story was in the newspapers the next day as:

    "Strange Tale of Sacramento Men Not Addicted to Prevarication"
    "Viewed an Aerial Courser as it Passes Over the City at Night."
    "What Was it?"

The title "airship" soon stuck, while other newspapers were more reserved and reported a "mysterious light" or "wandering apparition." A few ridiculed the stories suggesting that the whole thing had been a hoax or the result of a natural effect like glowing swamp gas, and the story soon faded.

Loren Gross indicates that a few of the townsfolk [of Sacramento, on November 17, 1896] remembered the boast which appeared in the newspaper a few days previously, of a New Jersey inventor who claimed he intended to set sail for California in a powered balloon. On the strength of that boast rumors began to grow fast. An Associated Press story from New York, dated November 17th [the day of this sighting], had told of a man named Leon who was constructing an aircraft in Hoboken, which would allegedly carry him across the continent.

Gross indicates that as a result of that story, some of the car men at the street Car Barn jocularly volunteered to the press that they had heard crewmen aboard the "balloon" shouting orders to the helmsman to avoid church steeples. [7]

On Tuesday, November 17, 1896, the sun set at 4:41 P.M. through overcast skies. Sacramentans reading their evening Bee may have noticed a quoted telegram from New York stating that someone would leave the Eastern metropolis on Friday and arrive in the West two days later. Since the Southern Pacific's trains could only complete such a run in four or five days, this was news. And since the sender declared that the transportation would be aerial, the message had to have sparked curiosity. In any case, between six and seven o'clock "hundreds of people" on the streets noticed "an electric arc lamp propelled by some mysterious force" coming from the Northeast and traveling southwesterly. Moving slowly over K Street, it could be seen for most of an hour, rising and descending to avoid roofs and steeples.

Quoted witnesses included people "not addicted to prevarication." Two officers of the Central Electrical Street Railway Company, the company's carbarn foreman, three carmen, the passengers of the G Street car, the constables at East Park and Oak Park, a horse trainer, a brewer, "a gentleman," and the mayor's daughter all saw it. Combining their varied descriptions of the sight, we read that the "travelling light" or "airship" fluctuated from fifty to two thousand feet above the ground, swaying as it traveled against the wind. It was cigar- or egg-shaped with winglike propellers or fanlike wheels revolving rapidly, with a dark and tall but otherwise indistinguishable mass on its top, and a doubly powerful arc light at its bottom center. And if one cynic thought this lamp was nothing more than the ghost of Diogenes wasting his time seeking an honest man "around the state capitol," nearly all the observers noticed a four-man crew, which was variously heard shouting, laughing, and singing—"not the whispering of angels, nor the sepulchral mutterings of evil spirits, but the intelligible words and merry laughter of humans." Several people who shouted up an inquiry as to destination were answered "San Francisco before midnight."

(The author teaches California history at a Fresno high school and has published several articles on California history topics.) [8]

It appeared first in Sacramento, California, on the night of November 17, 1896 — a strange light in the rainy night sky. On that first night it was seen by dozens of people. Most saw only a light. Others made out a dark cigar shape behind the light. The most detailed description came from a streetcar motorman named Lowery, who said he saw a flying machine propelled by two men working bicycle pedals.

When the story hit the papers the next day, it caused a storm of controversy. The Sacramento Bee and the San Francisco Call paid lavish attention to the affair, and sent reporters to interview witnesses. By contrast, the San Francisco Chronicle pooh-poohed the whole notion. After a few days, the story died down.


Considerable amusement and no little speculation has pervaded the community for the last three days concerning a supposed flying machine, which is alleged to have passed over the city on Tuesday night, operated by four men, whose voices, say several witnesses, could be heard. Hundreds of people agree that a strange, strong light was seen floating in the heavens for half an hour, rising and falling, and moving slowly. But there appears to be but two or three who hold that they saw the machine, and but one of these gives any rational description of it.

The story goes that the machine was built near the city, and broke from its moorings while being experimented with. and that the riders were unable to control the direction of its movements. We take no stock in any of these stories for two sufficient reasons, namely, that no such machine could be built here or near here, and the matter be kept a profound secret; secondly, if any such machine came from anywhere else the news-gatherers would have learned of it; besides there is no reason why any inventor should be particularly secretive about such a thing. The truth certainly is that a strange light was seen slowly floating above the city and pursuing a rather erratic course. Beyond that there is nothing definite, and a light in the sky as described is to be accounted for in several rational ways, disassociated from any flying machine. People are very apt to, by the repetition of tales, to permit them to grow out of all proportion to the truth.

There was, we believe, no flying machine in the business. The most skilled enthusiasts in aerial transportation have been at work on flying machines and navigable balloons for a century. In 1884 a flight of eight miles was successfully made by a machine carrying several people who had it under perfect control, and made it rise and fall at will. Many other tests of ability to navigate the air have been made, and some of them with fair success, but mostly with ill and sometimes fatal results to the experimenters.

In later days the experimenters have nearly all settled down upon the principles of the aeroplane, abandoning the use of inflated spheres to sustain the weight of the navigators. They are nearly all agreed that if man is to be floated in the air it will be done on the principle upon which the birds proceed to mount.

It will not do to laugh at the idea of aerial navigation. It has become accomplished in a small way, it may be made practical in a large way. In this day and age we should smile at scarce any of the efforts of man to overcome the laws of gravitation. But that there has been anything new invented and operated for aerial navigation in and about this city and the people kept in profound ignorance of it is absurd. Balloon flights we have had in plenty, and in them there is nothing novel.

No one went flying through the air on Tuesday night on a machine with a powerful electric light. Nor were the voices of the navigators heard. Those who think they heard them were deceived. Viewing the light above them as it passed along they might very easily associate sounds of the human voice heard near the locality of the floating light, whether it was that of a hot-air balloon, or was indeed a gas balloon sent up by someone, and which is not uncommon as an amusement,

On the basis of what is known, the practical joker has probably built the fanciful stories which filled the air of rumor and have led one San Francisco paper to give a picture of what the so-called air ship looked like, and of the means used to propel it. The light was seen; all else is fancy or a joke, or imagination and a joke combined.


  • [1] Article in the newspaper "California Bee", Sacramento, California, November 18, 1896, Lucius Farish file.
  • [2] Article in the newspaper "Daily Record-Union", Sacramento, California, page 4, November 18, from Chuck Flood, Daily Magonia Exchange Digest, 2003.
  • [3] Drawing the newspaper "The Call", San Francisco, California, November 17, 1896.
  • [4] Article by Loren Gross in "The mammoth encyclopedia of extraterrestrial encounters", compiled by Ronald D. Story, Robinson publisher, 2001.
  • [5] Jérôme Beau,
  • [6] Article in the newspapers "San Francisco Chronicle" and "The Examiner", November 24 1897, San Francisco, and others, from "The UFO Book", book by Jerome Clark, Visible Ink Press, 1998.
  • [7] "The UFO Wave of 1896", book by Loren Gross, 1974, (reprint "UFOs - a history: 1896", 1987).
  • [8] "Close encounters of the earliest kind", article by Ron Genini, 2005.
  • [9] "The Amazing Airship of 1896", article by James L. Cambias.
  • [10] Article in the newspaper "Sacramento Daily Record-Union", Sacramento, California, page 2 columns 1, November 20, 1896.


Type of report:Several newspapers.
Number of witnesses:Many.
Number of named witnesses:0.
Witnesses occupations:Not indicated.
Type of location:City.
Coordinates:Lat. 38.70 Long. 121.60
Coordinates precision:5 kilometers.
Description of "UFO":An airship Dubious). Lights.
Description of "manoeuvers":Slow flight, descending.
Occupants keywords:Not seen.
Communication:Yes. Dubious.
Content:Say they hope to reach San Francisco the next day. Other voice says "Lift her up quick! You are making directly for that steeple!"
Weather:Dark and overcast.
Observation devices:None.
Strangeness:Low to high.
Reliability:Low to middle.
Explanation(s) at the time:Inventor secretly tests air ship.

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