The 1897 UFO Flap in North Texas

In 1897, a series of mysterious airships were sighted all around the United States. This is a look at the flap in general, with a particular focus on some of the North Texas UFO sightings.

A digital drawing of a fish-shaped airship with "1897 mystery airships" as repeated text in the background.

In 1897, a series of mysterious airships were sighted all around the United States. This is a look at the flap in general, with a particular focus on some of the North Texas UFO sightings.

Highlights include:

  • The Dallas-Fort Worth area as a "window area" with heighted strange activity
  • A glimpse into how Victorian-era people responded to UFOs
  • Lots of bearded aliens

This is the written version of an episode of Buried Secrets Podcast, which you can also listen to here or on your favorite podcatcher.

North Texas Airships

Since dropping the last episode, I started reading the book Operation Trojan Horse by John Keel. I haven’t finished it yet, but I did pore through the chapter that was relevant to the mystery airships of 1897. Keel calls out the high level of UFO activity in Texas—specifically in North Texas—multiple times.

In his analysis of the 1897 flap, Keel says that there are certain places, or window areas, that seem to have an unusual concentration of UFO sightings.

I've talked about window areas before, during my Fordham hauntings series, but they’re areas of heightened activity. Keel says that Texas is part of a large window area that's “centered in the Gulf of Mexico and encompasses much of Mexico, Texas, and the Southwest.”

He specifically calls out “the area around Dallas, Texas,” which includes Denton, as a UFO hotspot. He goes on to say “Texas had more than 20 percent of all the sightings in 1897, and that state has had continuous sightings for the past twenty years.” Also, Keel claims that every UFO flap since 1964 began in the UFO hotspots he identified (which, in addition to the Dallas area, includes Michigan and Iowa.)

The hypothesis that Dallas is a UFO hotspot certainly seems accurate based on the events of spring 1897. Between April 13 and April 17, 1897, twenty-three Texas counties had a total of thirty-eight separate reports of airship sightings, many of them in North Texas.

The 1897 flap

Before I get into the Texas sightings, I wanted to elaborate on the 1897 airship sightings and touch on some details I didn't include last time. This is a Spark Notes-style recap of the relevant chapter in Operation Trojan Horse, since it had some great info that is different from what I covered last time.

Like I mentioned last time, people started seeing these mysterious airships in 1896. It began the week of Thanksgiving in California, and the mayors of Oakland and San Francisco both said that they saw these unidentified flying objects with their own eyes. In Sacramento, people claimed that they witnessed multicolored lights moving as if they were on yo-yo strings. In Oakland, people said that they saw an egg-shaped craft that was 150 feet long with four rotor-like arms and a giant light that illuminated the ground beneath it.

An electrician in San Jose said that one of the airship pilots asked him to help with some repairs. He was brought to a field north of San Francisco to help out, and afterwards, the pilot was so grateful that he took the electrician to Hawaii. The electrician claimed that the trip took twenty-four hours. However, later on, his wife said that he had been home in bed on the night that he claimed to go on this trip.

One man reported that an airship landed near his house and he talked to the pilot. The human pilot had a beard, and he said that the ship “had come from the Montezuma Mountains.”

Sailors said that they saw “glowing spheres and saucer-shaped machines rising out of the water and flying away.” Those were mostly seen on the coast of Japan and China, but some people saw them in Europe as well. Keel points out that that’s notable because at the time, news traveled slowly, so someone in China didn't necessarily know that people were seeing airships at the same time in California.

Then, in March and April 1897, the airship sightings started to spread outside of California. They were mostly seen in the midwest, from Texas to Michigan. Keel writes that there are hundreds of reports. However, no one collated them until Jacques Vallee and some other researchers did that work. At the time, some reporters seemed to think that there was one airship that people were seeing all over, but if you look at all of the reports together, it’s clear that it couldn’t have just been a single craft.

It sounds like the airship passengers were believed to be human, regardless of whether the witnesses suspected they had an extraterrestrial origin. A number of reports said that the crew of these crafts had beards. The Courier-Herald in Saginaw quoted someone who said that “they had the longest whiskers they ever saw in their lives.”

There’s a great article from May 13, 1897, from the Weekly World in Helena, Arkansas, that makes it sound like the people inside these airships were definitely humans.

In this story, a constable and a sheriff—who both signed affidavits asserting that their testimony was true—were on horseback at night and they noticed a light in the sky and saw it descend. When they got closer, they saw two people with lights moving around the ship. And now I’ll read a bit from the testimony:

Drawing our Winchesters—for we were now thoroughly aroused to the importance of the situation—we demanded, “Who is that, and what are you doing?” A man with a long dark beard came forth with a lantern in his hand, and on being informed who we were proceeded to tell us that he and the others—a young man and a woman—were traveling through the country in an airship. We could plainly distinguish the outlines of the vessel, which was cigar-shaped and about sixty feet long, and looking just like the cuts that have appeared in the papers recently.

It was a dark, rainy night, and the woman, who held an umbrella, was standing behind the men. The bearded man offered them a ride and they said no thanks. They had a pretty mundane conversation. Witnesses asked questions about their lights and received some technical answers.

Then they got to talking about what the airship travelers' plans were, and they said they wanted to go to Hot Springs for a few days and have some hot baths, but they didn’t have enough time to do that. But they said that they were going to end up in Nashville after seeing the rest of the country. Then the witnesses left, and when they came back that way the airship was gone.

This is so funny to me, just because it really does sound like normal small talk. It is remarkable in its unremarkableness.

Another interesting detail was that some witnesses, including one in Michigan, heard voices coming out of these flying objects, almost as if there was a loudspeaker. I really liked this description that a witness gave. He said that the craft was:

“About 800 feet long—big brute—row of Japanese lanterns all along top—large wide sail like a fantail dove—dark bay in color—and I heard voices from above.”

On a more gruesome note, there was one story about a man named Alexander Hamilton who lived near Vernon, Kansas. A mysterious airship came to his farm and stole a cow: The inhabitants of the airship had put cable or wire around the cow and it had gotten stuck in a fence. After Hamilton wasn’t able to free the cow, he had to let the airship get away with it. The ship lifted up the cow and carried it away. The next day, “the branded hide, legs, and head of the animal were found on the property of Lank Thomas, who lived about four miles away.” It's a precursor to so many of the livestock mutilation stories that became so commonplace in later UFO lore.

Earlier Texas UFO sightings

Last time, I talked about the Aurora, Texas, case in 1897. But there had been UFO sightings in North Texas prior to that.

In 1873, in Bonham, Texas, a group of workers in a cotton field witnessed a “great silvery serpent” which dove down from the sky toward them. They ran away and then the serpent tried to attack them again. Unfortunately, the chaos scared some horses that were pulling a wagon, and the driver fell and was killed by the wagon wheels.

According to Operation Trojan Horse, on Thursday, January 24, 1878, a man named John Martin saw “a large circular object pass overhead at high speed” which he described as “about the size of a large saucer . . . evidently at great height.” near Dennison, Texas.

Martin may have been the first person to describe an unidentified object in the sky as a saucer, though it sounds like that’s debated, because there’s a more famous moment when someone described something as a saucer in 1947. I found a funny article in Texas Monthly that talks about this specifically: the author claims that Martin coined the term, saying “that honor rightly belongs to Texan John Martin, who had spotted one 69 years earlier.”

I just mention that because it makes me laugh. As someone from Texas, it feels really Texan to claim as many firsts as possible, no matter what the topic is. Also, the article is interesting because it talks about a lot of Texas’ UFO connections that I didn’t know about:

Texas can boast of having some of the most compelling evidence ever uncovered of alien visitors—such as Aurora’s crash site, Lubbock’s mysterious lights or Dayton’s close encounters. Texas has also bred its share of peculiar UFO devotees, such as Heaven’s Gate leader Marshall Applewhite, who was born in Spur and had his first spiritual vision while walking along a Galveston beach, as well as some members of the Republic of Texas, who reportedly believe that the Marfa Lights are proof of a subterranean energy grid that the Pentagon is trying to tap into with alien technology. MUFON, the world’s largest UFO investigation organization, is based in Texas, as is NASA, which oversees an intergalactic radio signal monitoring program called SETI, or the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.

Texas’ 1897 UFO sightings

Let’s look at some of these 1897 airship cases in Texas.

In Rockland, on Thursday, April 22, 1897, around 11 PM, a man named John M. Barclay said that he saw “an oblong machine with wings and brilliant lights.” He was awoken by his dog barking. When he looked outside, he saw the ship, which landed in a pasture nearby.

Barclay went out to see what was going on, and of course this is Texas, so he brought his rifle. He said that as he got near the ship, an “ordinary mortal” came out to talk to him and asked him to put down his gun.

John Keel includes a sort of transcript of the whole encounter:

“Who are you?” Mr. Barclay asked.
“Never mind about my name; call it Smith,” the man replied. “I want some lubricating oil and a couple of cold chisels if you can get them, and some bluestone. I suppose the saw mill hard by has the two former articles, and the telegraph operator has the bluestone. Here’s a ten-dollar bill; take it and get us those articles and keep the change for your trouble.”
Mr. Barclay reportedly asked him, “What have you got down there? Let me go and see it.”
“No,” the man said quickly. “We cannot permit you to approach any nearer, but do as we request you and your kindness will be appreciated, and we will call you some future day and reciprocate your kindness by taking you on a trip.”
Barclay located some oil and the chisels, but he couldn’t get the bluestone. He returned and tried to give the man back the ten-dollar bill, but it was refused. “Smith” shook hands with the Texan, thanked him, and asked him not to follow him to the object. Barclay asked him where he was from and where he was going.
“From anywhere,” Smith answered. “But we will be in Greece day after tomorrow.”

That same evening, about half an hour later, another Texas man had a similar encounter.

Here's the account from Passport to Magonia:

Franck Nichols, who lived 3 km east of Josserand and was one of its most respected citizens, was awakened by a machine noise. Looking outside, he saw a heavy, lighted object land in his wheat field. He walked toward it, was stopped by two men who asked permission to draw water from his well. He then had a discussion with a half-dozen men, the crew of the strange machine. He was told how it worked but could not follow the explanation.

In Operation Trojan Horse, Keel says that the crew told Nichols that “five of these ships were built in a small town in Iowa. Soon the invention will be given to the public. An immense stock company is now being formed and within the next year the machines will be in general use.”

Passport to Magonia also reports a case from Merkel, Texas, that makes me think of the case with the man's cow being pulled up into the craft via a wire:

Apr. 25, 1897 evening
Merkel (Texas). People returning from church observed a heavy object being dragged along the ground by a rope attached to a flying craft. The rope got caught in a railroad track. The craft was too high for its structure to be visible but protrusions and a light could be distinguished. After about 10 min a man came down along the rope, cut the end free, and went back aboard the craft, which flew away toward the northeast. The man was small and dressed in a light-blue uniform. (194; Magonia)

There's also a story in Passport to Magonia from Aquila-Hillsboro:

Apr. 26,1897
Aquila-Hillsboro (Texas). Approximate date. A lawyer was surprised to see a lighted object fly over. His horse was scared and nearly toppled the carriage. When the main light was turned off, a number of smaller lights became visible on the underside of the dark object, which supported an elongated canopy. It went down toward a hill to the south, 5 km from Aquila. When the witness was on his way back one hour later, he saw the object rising. It reached the altitude of the cloud ceiling and flew to the northeast at a fantastic speed with periodic flashes of light. (195)

Denton-area UFOs

The whole reason why I know about this flap is because of the writing of Shaun Treat, a former professor at the University of North Texas who at least at one point ran a ghost tour company called Denton Haunts. The website for the company chronicles some of Denton’s ghost stories and weirdness, and I stumbled across it during my research for my Old Alton Bridge/Goatman’s Bridge series. A lot of the information that I found for this next part is based on his research.

The first Denton, Texas, 1897 sighting was on April 13, 1897. In rural Denton, a man saw a strange dark object move across the moon. According to Texas Escapes:

A man ‘stargazing’ with a pair of powerful field glasses spotted a dark object against the moon. At first he assumed it was a meteor that had not yet hit earth’s atmosphere, but then realized it was moving much too slowly. He described the object as being about fifty feet long, cigar-shaped with two large ‘mugs’ sticking out from either side, a ‘beak’ like a ship’s cutwater at the front, and a large rudder or steering sail at the rear. Where the ‘beak’ joined the main body of the object there was a light that ‘paled the moon’ in its brilliance. Along the body of the thing there were more lights, which he assumed meant windows. No smoke was visible from the object. It moved slowly, in a southeasterly direction, for about twenty minutes, then accelerated ‘to terrific speed’ and vanished from sight.

A woman in Denton said she saw a very similar thing, so there did seem to be more than one witness. The editor of the newspaper said that he knew both of them very well and found them credible.

Also, the Dallas Morning News published a drawing of what this airship looked like; it resembled a giant flying fish.

The next day, on April 14, multiple people in Weatherford, Corsicana, and Cresson said that they saw a winged, cigar-shaped airship with a bright light beaming down from it. On April 16 and 17, there were reports of airship sightings throughout the general area, from people in Stephenville, Greenville, Granbury, Ladonia, Ennis, and Waxahachie. In the April 19 edition of the Dallas Morning News, all of the reports took up four columns in the newspaper and were from twelve different towns in Texas and Oklahoma.

According to Operation Trojan Horse, one of the April 19 stories said that when an airship flew over Farmersville, people could hear someone someone singing on the ship. One person claimed that the three people in the airship were singing “Nearer My God to Thee” and passing out temperance tracts. The Farmersville city marshal said that he was able to see inside the ship and he saw “something resembling a large Newfoundland dog”. He also claimed that he heard people in the airship speaking Spanish, though that might just be because the Spanish-American War was brewing at the time.

In Waxahachie, on April 17, dozens of people saw an airship that they said was piloted by a young woman using something that looked like a sewing machine. In Stephenville, twenty-five people, including Sam Houston’s nephew and the mayor, said that they actually met the people in the craft, because they had to land to make repairs.

I love the very steampunk descriptions of all these airships:

Describing “a cigar-shaped body about sixty feet in length” with immense aero-wings, and upright rotors fore and aft “like a metallic windmill” powered by storage batteries, the two-man crew of Tilman and Dolbear revealed they were “making an experimental trip to comply with a contract with certain capitalists of New York.”

Other people who saw these airships said that they met the inventor, whose name was Wilson, and who was, naturally, from Fort Worth. A telegraph line repair man said that he went on a tour of the airship and that it was carrying US soldiers and dynamite on the way to Cuba to bomb the Spanish. Socialites in North Texas had lawn parties in the evening hoping to see the airships. I just love the image of these fancy southern ladies all standing out in their gardens looking for UFOs.

The excitement and stories about the airships lasted until about May 1897, when they seemed to peter out.

The Aurora, Texas, UFO Crash follow up

Before I close out this episode, I wanted to talk a bit more about the Aurora UFO crash case. As soon as I finished recording last time, I realized I'd completely forgotten to include the information from the MUFON report about the crash.

Reportedly, wreckage from the crash site was dumped into a nearby well located under the damaged windmill, while some ended up with the alien in the grave. Adding to the mystery was the story of Mr. Brawley Oates, who purchased Judge Proctor’s property around 1945. Oates cleaned out the debris from the well in order to use it as a water source, but later developed an extremely severe case of arthritis, which he claimed to be the result of contaminated water from the wreckage dumped into the well. As a result, Oates sealed up the well with a concrete slab and placed an outbuilding atop the slab. (According to writing on the slab, this was done in 1957.)

MUFON also pointed out that it was strange that there was never any sort of follow up to the original news story. Some people claim that's evidence that it was a hoax.

During a UFO Files episode (aired on December 2, 2005), MUFON found some people who witnessed the crash:

Mary Evans, who was 15 at the time, told of how her parents went to the crash site (they forbade her from going) and the discovery of the alien body. Charlie Stephens, who was age 10, told how he saw the airship trailing smoke as it headed north toward Aurora. He wanted to see what happened, but his father made him finish his chores; later, he told how his father went to town the next day and saw wreckage from the crash.

I also found a somewhat unique description of the pilot’s headstone. This is from a Texas Monthly article:

According to local legend, the grave was marked only by a headstone bearing a cryptic insignia: several small circles drawn inside the Greek letter delta. The stone has since disappeared.