Flying-object reports aren't new

By Bill Knight, JOURNAL STAR, Peoria. IL on April 1st, 1990
Flying-object reports aren't new
Artist depiction of 1897 "airship" UFO
Artist depiction of 1897 "airship" UFO

Back in 1897, there were 200 UFO sightings in central Illinois over a month

The man was in his Walnut G rove barn after milking his cow when the noise thundered through the night and the roof ripped away. Knocked unconscious, the man was revived and described a fast-mov ing bright light. A strange vehicle.

He was only one of hundreds who experienced the Great Airship Mystery, which occurred in Illinois long before Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs) were reported here two weeks ago. In fact, the airship sightings swept the state long be fore airplanes or spaceships - 93 years ago this week.

Astronomers, policemen, fann ers, trainmen, churchgoers, report ers and other reputable citizens witnessed a generally flat craft capable of flight, speed, hovering, and quick changes in direction. '

It appeared to be covered with a canvas-like fabric, with multi-col ored lights and a beam as bright as a locomotive's headlamp. Some de tailed it as more cigar-shaped, about 15 by 30-foot-Ion~, with oars or wings that flapped in flight.

A few reported a crew; a hand ful reported conversations with the travelers. Photographs were taken. Threats were made.

"Officer Moos threatened to take the visitors to the lockup if it persisted in causing the concentra tion of mobs in the streets," re ported the Lincoln Courier from April 13, 1897. "Lincoln was under the far-famed airship last night at 7:45. It didn't hang around very long."

Unlike the single sighting by Tazewell Sheriff's Deputy Steve Dault and dozens of others on March 18, these 1897 sightings numbered more than 200 over a month.

Chronicled in newspapers of the period, the sightings were mainly of three types, according to Deca tur researcher Robert Neeley Jr., who's studied about 2,400 sightings from 1897 recorded in dozens of files in more than 40 states.

"There were moving lights, de scriptive sightings, and landing or crash claims," Neeley says. "Many today can be identified as celestial objects such as the planet Venus or stars. But some remain unex plained. Some are quite similar to current sightings. "

An excitable public anticipating technological breakthroughs, new fantasy literature written by au thors such as Jules Verne, mass hysteria, and even hoaxes might be to blame, Neeley adds.

"The 'genuine' sightings show that 1897 was a normal period for UFOs," he says. "The number of reports probably stem from peo ple's response to Hearst-style newspaper empires, which fre quently exaggerated news, and people's being prepped for flight."

However, the number and simi larity of some reports is so striking that they can't be dismissed.

Newspapers in Bloomington and Chicago reported a flying object on April 11. A day later, a Rushville physician reported a light that shot upward, moved rapidly, and changed directions as he watched.

Later that week, a large crowd in Mason City for 30 minutes watched an overhead light move south, then north, then west until it disappeared. A week later, the Ga lesburg Evening Mail recorded a light that moved in a halting man ner, stopping, changing direction and disappearing after moving "from the northwest to the south-east; all according to Illinois Historical Society newspaper files.

Most of the 1897 sightings oc curred between 7: 30 and 9 p.m. April 9-16, and they were evenly distributed throughout the state, Neeley's research shows.

"It's possible that very ordinary natural events happened that were interpreted by people in terms con temporary in their time," Neeley says. "It's like ancient reports of UFOs, described as 'flying shields' or 'spears in the sky.' "

Williamsfield residents about 8:45 p.m. on April 12 saw a craft with a canopy moving toward Peo ria, according to the Lincoln Couri er, which added that the airship landed, "then suddenly ascended faster than a pigeon could fly."

Peoria figured prominently in two other incidents of varying va lidity. The first was on April 17, when a crew on a Peoria & Pekin Union train claimed that they'd seen a landed airship near the Peo ria State Hospital. The Peoria Her ald reported that other Bartonville residents saw the Ship" which was filled with unknown electrical and mechanical appliances.

Other close encounters were re ported in Springfield and in Downs, southeast of Bloomington. But an other Peoria newspaper, the Tran script, conducted an interesting airborne experiment.

In its April 15 issue, the Tran script published a long article about many reports of a local sight ing. Some heard loud sounds from 'the. airship, others music. Most stated its speed was 100 miles per hour: Some described it as "a hide ous monster with a fiery furnace" 2,000 feet in the air.

The UFO was a balloon launched by three reporters to show how people's imaginations af fected their accounts.

Dirigibles weren't used in the United States until 1904, Neeley says, so that confusion is impossi ble. But other mistakes are likely.

"The people of 1897 lived in very stressful times, " he says. "They were amazed at the technological achievements of the time. They had just dealt with a bad winter, and the spring had brought forth one of the greatest floods to hit the Midwest. Astronomers speculated on life on other planets."

Neeley says he's skeptical, and doesn't speculate about extra-ter restrials or visitors from other di mensions or time travelers from Earth's future.

"Regardless of such fanciful theories, most of, the 1897 reports describe an airship that seems aeronautically impossible," he says. "There might be something to the idea that UFOs are products of some unknown psycho/social trait humans share. But when UFOs are seen hundreds of times in Illinois in a month - and over 30,000 times in the last 40 years - any aliens sure aren't doing a good job of concealing themselves."

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