More than 40 years before Orson Wells scared the bejabbers out of Americans with a fictional radio program on a Martian invasion of Earth, Texas was ravaged by reports of "airships" thought to be, in some cases, of extraterrestrial origin.
Between April 13 and 17, 1897, there were 38 reported sightings of "airships" in 23 counties, mostly in North Central Texas. Nine counties reported multiple sightings, with Hill County accounting for four, including two in Hillsboro and one each in Whitney and Osceola. Tarrant, Fannin and Ellis counties had three each, and Grayson, Bowie, Collin, Hunt and Johnson counties had a pair apiece. Single sightings were reported from Lamar, Wise, Denton, Hunt, Parker, Dallas, Kaufman, Wood, Erath, Navarro, McLennan, Freestone, Milam, Travis and Jefferson counties.
Newspapers of the day reported the sightings straight-faced, although one can read more than a little tongue-in-cheek writing into some of the dispatches from community correspondents.
Descriptions of the airships varied somewhat, but there was a general consensus that they had cigar-shaped bodies or cabins 50 to 60 feet long with propellers at each end, large bat-like wings, and huge floodlights fore and aft. Most witnesses saw neither pilot nor crew, but in some cases, not only did observers see people manning the ships, but talked to them. The Dallas Morning News' correspondent at Waxahachie reported a long conversation between Judge Love of the community and an airship crew, which claimed to be from the North Pole.
At Greenville, correspondent C.G. Williams reported the leader of the ship's crew was from "a little town in the interior of New York." The airship was being test flown across the country. Its inventor implored Williams, "Don't give this thing away. We are experimenting with this vessel. So far, it is a success ..."
A report from Waxahachie held that the machine was being operated by a woman, and the observer thought "his satanic majesty or Beelzebub (had) something to do with this traveler in the lower stratum of ether."
In Farmersville, an eyewitness saw three men in the cabin and heard them singing "Nearer My God to Thee." The trio reportedly also was passing out temperance tracts.
As might be expected, not all North Texans were convinced of the authenticity of the reports. In Ennis, Dr. E. Stuart, "an acknowledged authority in metaphysics," passed off the reported sightings as due to "hypnotism and bad whiskey."
When questioned about the feasibility of manned flight, one aeronautical authority in Dallas was asked if he had seen the ship. "I have not," he asserted. "I don't drink and I never come downtown after dark."
There was speculation from several sources that the sightings were the first in a series of events heralding the final days of Earth as prophesied in the Bible.
Of course, Texans always have to one-up each other, and the airship craze provided a perfect setting. In Hill County, two farmers near Abbott did not see an airship, but they did witness a man and six boys float from out of the sky. "They drifted down as easily and gracefully as birds alighting until within a few feet of the ground about fifty yard from (us), where they remained stationary a few seconds and reascended into the heavens out of sight," came the report.
Then on April 19, S. E. Haydon, a correspondent for the News reported that an airship had struck a windmill in Aurora in Wise County and exploded. The body of a small man, identified by a local authority as a Martian, was recovered from the wreckage and buried. Pieces of the ship were collected for display and sale and attracted many spectators.
The Aurora incident, labeled a hoax by 20th-century historians, is the most celebrated of the encounters with airships in Texas. Researchers of unidentified flying objects have spent a great deal of time attempting to verify the presence of the airship, to find remains of the craft, and to locate the body of the supposedly alien pilot. In 1986, a not-too-good movie, The Aurora Encounter, was made. And the following year, science-fiction writer Howard Waldrop produced a short story in Omni magazine about a fictional landing of Martian airships in Texas prior to the Spanish-American War of 1898.
About a week after the last sighting in North Central Texas, a group of churchgoers in Merkel, just west of Abilene, saw an airship drop an anchor that caught on a railroad tie. After a few minutes, a small being clambered down the rope, cut the line and the airship sailed off, never to be seen again. The Merkel Mail ran a story on it, but the Taylor County News in nearby Abilene ignored it.
Many explanations have been given for the rash of airship sightings. One holds that it was a great hoax perpetuated by railroad men, who planted reports of sightings at various stops. Indeed, "Truthful" Scully of Fort Worth, a railroad conductor, gave a vivid report of a grounded airship being repaired by a small man near Hawkins Tank in Wood County.
Or it may have been a form of spring madness that gripped North Central Texas along with much of the Midwest. Or it could have been an invasion from outer space.
— written by Mike Kingston for the Texas Almanac 1990–1991.