What happened

in Oregon during

1896-97 is 

encouraging, as

it suggests that

with responsible

reporting, mass

delusions can be


before they get

out of hand.



The Oregon UFO Wave That Wasn't
The importance of press skepticism in the 1896-97 Sightings
 By Robert Bartholomew 
Beginning in mid-November 1896 and lasting until May 1897, a remarkable social delusion swept across parts of the United States, as many citizens became convinced that an American had perfected the world’s first practical heavier-than-air flying machine. This little-known episode in American history was extraordinary in that, at the height of the rumors, it is estimated that tens of thousands of Americans reported that they had seen the craft at various points across the nation (1). On numerous occasions it was reportedly seen thousands of miles apart, at the same time! The maneuvers described by witnesses, were far above any technology of the period-even by today’s standards. It was typically described as oval or cigar-shaped with an attached undercarriage, having a powerful headlight, and giant fans or wings protruding from both sides. Some observers claimed the wings slowly flopped up and down like a bird!

     In this article, I will briefly 1) refute claims by present-day UFO researchers who claim the sightings were of extraterrestrials, 2) describe the context of the episode, 3) offer an explanation as to why the state of Oregon was nearly immune from reports, and 4) discuss the wave in terms of mainstream social psychological theories.

ETs misperceived as airships

     Many UFO researchers believe the most likely explanation for the sightings is that they were of an ET spaceship that had been mis-identified by people culturally conditioned to expect to see airships-even though a practical heavier-than-air ship did not exist at the time. While the extraterrestrial hypothesis may seem plausible to many persons who have been bombarded with images of ETs by the mass media in recent years, the key to understanding these sightings lies in a familiarity with the social and historical climate in which they occurred. When we examine the context of the episode, apply basic theories of social psychology, empathize with the people living at that time, and add common sense, the sightings can be readily explained without recourse to exotic hypotheses such as aliens in UFOs. Is it possible they were aliens? Of course. Is it probable? No. Is it possible that the head of each skeptics organization in America will win a million dollars in lotteries during May, 1998? Of course. Is it probable? No.

Context of the sightings

     From about 1880 through the early twentieth century, a massive popular literature appeared on the theme of science and inventions. Aeronautical developments were a prominent feature of these accounts as “this literature fed the public a steady diet of aeronautical speculation and news to prime people for the day when the riddle of aerial navigation finally would receive a solution” (2). The general mood of this literature was positive, trumpeting the wonders of science and technology (3). In the years immediately preceding the episode, intense excitement was experienced worldwide in anticipation of the first practical, mechanically-powered heavier-than-air flight (4).

The Pacific Northwest sightings

     The California airship wave had been building up for about a week and dominated the California press amid sensational, near saturation-level press coverage when the sightings began to spread to nearby states, and eventually across the country. One of the first sightings in the Pacific Northwest was at McMinnville, Oregon, on the night of November 24th when, according to that city’s Telephone-Register newspaper, several residents claimed they saw an airship pass over the city (5). Curiously, at this point, there was a deluge of airship sightings across the Pacific Northwest, except in Oregon. This prompted the Portland Evening Telegram to remark that “It is news to say that the ship has not been seen in Portland” and had nearly missed the state altogether (6).

     The answer for the apparent immunity in Oregon from what some people labeled as “airshipitis,” appears to have resulted from a combination of cloudy weather and responsible journalism. As soon as the sightings began in Oregon on November 24th, several state newspapers editors quickly attributed the sightings within the region to sensational California journalism designed to sell newspapers, and labeled the affair a hoax. These included the Dallas Times Mountaineer which used the headlines, “California’s Fake” (7), and the Portland Oregonian which echoed these sentiments (8), as did the Roseburg Plaindealer who called them “Aladin’s Lamp stories” that were akin to sea serpent tales (9). Meanwhile, the Albany Weekly Herald-Desseminator described the reports as “an entirely sensational piece of fiction” (10).

     The Marshfield Coos Bay News said that “If it was a genuine flying machine, there would be no need for it to meander around in the heavens under cover of night” (11). The Eugene Register said the flying machine stories “remind one of the old saying that California has the largest trees, smallest matches and the d-nest liars of any place on earth” (12). Following several reports of sightings near Alturas, the Lake County Examiner noted: “Alturas has several well-developed cases of ‘airship.’ Wonder what kind of whiskey they have down in that section” (13). In early December, the Portland Evening Telegram printed part of a letter from an ex-Portland man who had moved to California and who claimed to have met the airship inventor there through a mutual friend and was given several rides in the vessel. “The airship in which I made my ascent is 23 feet long, [has] 7 feet of beam, as we would term it in nautical parlance, and [is] 7 1/2 feet high from the ground. It is merely a rough model for experimental purposes, devoid of all the elegant and comfortable interior fittings later airships planned after this model will contain” (14). At the end of this story, the newspaper reported that “none here will believe in the existence of that marvelous airship until he or she sees it, and that in full operation, too.”

Coverage in Nevada and Washington

     By and large, the Nevada press was not especially critical of the reports and sightings flourished. Near Reno, one resident claimed that an airship with a searchlight passed by and voices could be heard coming from the craft, including “We are four degrees too far north, change the course” (15). This account was simply reported by the paper without any criticism. As for the nature of the California sightings where the wave began, the Carson City Morning Appeal stated “There are thousands of people in California who believe that a flying machine has been invented that sailed from Oroville to Sacramento and from there to Oakland one night last week. It was seen first in Sacramento and the inventor promises to exhibit it over San Francisco in a few days” (16). There was no discussion of the airship having been a hoax fueled by misperceptions, lying, and press sensationalism. In Washington, while there was some press criticism of the airship claims (17), many press accounts were also uncritical. Consider the following report of a sighting at Marble:

     Marble, Wash., May 5.--The town of Marble was greatly excited today over the appearance of an airship. Some men working at the mill discovered it as it appeared over the mountains at the southern part of town, and watched it disappear in a northeasterly direction. It was in full view, and the fans could easily be recognized ... (18)
     Other newspapers reporting this story in a matter-of-fact manner included the Ellensburg Localizer (19), and the Chelan Leader (20), while a separate sighting over Spokane on Thursday night, April 15th, was reported uncritically by the Walla Walla Union (21) and the Spokesman-Review (22).

Explaining the airship mania

     It is important to keep in mind that when you boil everything down, the only significant evidence we are left with is eyewitness testimony-and the human mind and eyes do not work together to collect information like a video camera. Humans interpret as we perceive the world. The accuracy of eyewitness testimony is remarkably subject to error and preconditioned by mental outlook or frame of reference (23). A good example of this process that most of us are familiar with involves close decisions made by referees and umpires at sporting events. Through the use of instant replay, we can usually see where we were wrong, or on occasion, where a trained observer-the referee-was wrong.

     The airship observations appear to have been a symbolic projection of the prevailing technological mania and seemingly limitless faith in science and inventions that was sweeping America.

A note of optimism

     It is certainly discouraging for skeptics who address the UFO question to see that over the past fifty years, numerous sighting waves have occurred in the US and around the world involving UFOs, with a great deal of press speculation that they are or may be alien spaceships. In 1998, UFOs sighting reported in the mass media remain as common as ever, despite a total absence of confirming physical evidence that they represent extraterrestrial biological entities. There has also been an upsurge in the publication of UFO books and pseudo-documentaries in recent years. This has happened despite the appearance of several excellent books examining the subject, including Robert Sheaffer’s The UFO Verdict (1981), UFOs Explained by Philip Klass (1974), and Donald Menzel and Ernest Taves The UFO Enigma (1977). Optimistically, what happened in Oregon during 1896-97 is encouraging as it suggests that with responsible reporting, mass delusions can be extinguished before they get out of hand. By “responsible” I mean reporting not only what is claimed, but interviewing experts such as astronomers, psychologists and other specialists who may offer alternative explanations that provide a balanced viewpoint.


     Robert E. Bartholomew is a sociologist at James Cook University in Queensland, Australia. He is coauthor of UFOs and Alien Contact: Two Centuries of Mystery (Prometheus Books, March 1998), with Professor George S. Howard, former Chair of the Psychology Department at Notre Dame University, Notre Dame, Indiana.

     Using several thousand rare press reports, and conventional theories of social psychology, they examine the context and meaning of UFO sighting waves, including the US airship wave of 1896-97; sightings of Thomas Edison’s imaginary “giant light bulb” in the later 1800s; Canada’s ghost balloons of 1896; the New Zealand zeppelin scare of 1909; the New England airship hoax of 1909-10; the British UFO panic of 1912-13; phantom German air raids and spy missions over Canada, Upstate New York, Delaware, New Jersey, New Hampshire and South Africa during World War I; Sweden’s ghost rocket wave of 1946; and the emergence of flying saucers since 1947. The book also examines pre-Roswell crashed UFOs involving aliens and includes over 200 case summaries of alleged contacts with ETs.

     A detailed discussion of the Oregon airship sightings does not appear in the book (although some reports do). Bartholomew has written these reports into this modest article for the Oregon Skeptics to make them aware of this fascinating, all but forgotten chapter in Pacific Northwestern history, and let them know of the publication of his book.

Comments may be addressed to:

Robert Bartholomew
James Cook University
Townsville 4811
Queensland, Australia

or by email at art-reb2@jcu.edu.au .


1. Although this may sound like an exaggeration, it is a conservative estimate. See Bartholomew, R.E. (1990). “The Airship Hysteria of 1896-97.” Skeptical Inquirer 14(2):171-181.

2. T.E. Bullard. (1982). Mysteries in the Eye of the Beholder: UFOs and Their Correlates as a Folkloric Theme Past and Present. Doctoral dissertation, Indiana University Folklore Department.

3. I.F. Clarke, (1986). “American Anticipations: The First of the Futurists.Futures 18:584-596.

4. Hot air balloons are not encompassed under this definition of successful flight. However, such modes of transport are unlikely to be mistaken for an airship. Balloons of the period were highly unstable, clumsy, sensitive to even slight wind shifts, dangerous to fly at night, and could not remotely perform the sophisticated maneuvers reported by “airship” observers. These same proscriptions applied to lighter-than-airships of the period, which were bulky and impractical.

5. McMinnville Telephone-Register, November 26, 1896, p. 3.

6. “That California Airship...It Slid over Portland in the Fog,” Evening Telegram (Portland), December 1, 1896, p. 3.

7. “California’s Fake,” Dallas Times Mountaineer, November 28, 1896, p. 2.

8. Portland Oregonian, November 29, 1896, p. 4.

9. “Coincidents,” Roseburg Plaindealer, November 30, 1896, p. 1.

10. Weekly Herald-Disseminator, Albany, November 26, 1896, p. 4.

11. Coos Bay News, Marshfield, December 2, 1896, p. 3.

12. Eugene Register, December 11, 1896, p. 1.

13. Lake County Examiner (Lakeview), December 3, 1896, p. 2.

14. “You may not believe this. An ex-Portlander writers about the airship...” Portland Evening Telegram, December 2, 1896, p. 3.

15. Nevada State Journal (Reno), December 5, 1896, p. 3.

16. Carson City, Morning Appeal, November 24, 1896, p. 3.

17. See for example, “Air Ship Visits Ellensburg,” Ellensburg Dawn, May 1, 1897, p. 2; “Airship Excitement Abated,” Chehalis Nugget, May 14, 1897, p. 4.

18. “Saw an airship in broad daylight...” Spokesman-Review (Spokane), May 7, 1897, p. 1.

19. “A Washington Airship,” Ellensburg Localizer, May 15, 1897, p. 2.

20. “State News,” Chelan Leader, May 14, 1897, p. 1.

21. “Spokane saw the Airship,” Walla Walla Union, April 17, 1897, p. 4.

22. “Saw an Air Ship. Peculiar Aerial Visitor Seen in Spokane Last Night...” Spokesman-Review, April 16, 1897, p. 6.

23. Buckhout, R. (1974). “Eyewitness Testimony,” Scientific American 231:23-31.

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