The Mysterious Airship of April 1897

The first mysterious sightings were reported in a Sioux City, Iowa newspaper article on February 3, 1897. Something was seen floating in the night sky by local citizens near Hastings, Nebraska. The object was described as lingering about 800 feet off the ground with a bright light that beamed in the darkness. Then it circled around in the sky before disappearing into the horizon as quickly as it had appeared.

Sioux City Journal (Sioux City, Iowa), February 3, 1897. Pg. 3

For the next three months, sightings of an airship in the night sky were reported in Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa, Illinois, and Michigan. Residents of Davenport responded to the news with both amusement and fear. Would the mysterious airship visit them? They began to search the night sky for strange lights.

According to newspaper accounts, the airship would usually appear in the night sky between 8:00 and 9:00 p.m. Some people noted it disappeared from the sky around midnight while others saw it until almost 5:00 a.m. Sometimes it left and then returned while others saw it briefly only once. As sightings became more frequent, news of the object would be telegraphed to surrounding towns to see which direction the object flew throughout the night.

The first thing most people noted was the large white light that would shine from the front of the airship while two smaller lights were seen on the body. At first, people might think they were seeing stars in the sky, but soon realized the unusual movement of the lights were not stars or a planet. It was noted that the lights faded in brightness as the object flew, but became brighter when the object stopped and hovered over an area.

The white front light was described as larger than the headlight on a train. There is some discrepancy with one of the colors of the two smaller lights. The majority of accounts mentioned one smaller light being red in color. The other smaller light was observed to be white by some witnesses while others thought it might be light green in color. The two smaller lights were each estimated to be the size of a human hand.

The shape of the airship was described as an upside-down schooner or cigar-shaped with a smaller basket or canoe-shaped object attached. There were two wings or fan-like projections attached to the main body as well. Newspapers reported the airship was about 30 feet in length according to witnesses. A modern 90-passenger school bus is about 35 to 40 feet in comparison.

The airship was spotted above rural farms, small towns, and cities alike. This meant on any given night you might have a handful of witnesses to hundreds of people viewing the flying mystery. There were those in the newspaper columns who doubted a mysterious airship was traveling over midwestern states. The Davenport Democrat poked fun at the stories in early April 1897 as most sightings had been in the western part of Iowa along with Nebraska and Kansas. They joked that sea serpents were falling out of favor and those who were seeing a flying airship might need to stop their alcohol consumption or seek medical help.

The Davenport Democrat, April 4, 1897. Pg. 2

By April 8, 1897, The Davenport Democrat reported that the airship had been seen in Belle Plaine, Iowa. Belle Plaine is a little over 100 miles from Davenport and near the larger city of Cedar Rapids. The witness descriptions were of an airship that appeared in the southwest horizon about 9:00 p.m. Rising and falling in the sky under complete control it circled the area. As the airship was soon reported in Cedar Rapids and Burlington, the Davenport newspapers reported on the growing fear of the “Flying Dutchman” as it was nicknamed.

Davenport Morning Star, April 9, 1897. Pg. 1

It seemed everyone had an opinion on the flying object. Some thought it was a star that seemed to move in the night sky. Others were certain it was a flying airship. The remaining people thought it was a great hoax, hysteria, or people drinking too much at night. Soon there were those looking to make copycat airships in the night sky as a prank. They began to fly balloons or kites with lights attached as soon as darkness set in. Most pranksters were eventually found out as their creations never had the height or size of the mystery airship.

The Davenport Democrat reported on April 10, 1897 that the flying aircraft was seen in Rock Island, Illinois (our neighbor across the Mississippi River). It was thought to be about a half mile off the ground and had a noise similar to an electric motor. The witnesses were Rock Island police officers. The Democrat took full opportunity to poke fun at the situation.

The Davenport Democrat, April 10, 1897. Pg. 1

The Daily Times reported on April 12, 1897 that a secretary for the Trans-Mississippi Exposition (to be held in Omaha, Nebraska in 1898) received a letter with an Omaha postmark from an A. C. Clinton stating that he was behind the flying airship and he wanted a large enough space to display his ship at the exposition. He would arrive at their offices on April 17th to meet on the subject. The question seemed to be if the letter was authentic or another airship-inspired prank.

The Davenport Democrat reported on April 13th that several hundred people may have witnessed the mysterious flying object over Davenport after 8:00 p.m. the night before. Reporters said it was hard to see as there was a break in a cloud-filled sky as a thunderstorm was approaching. The light from the front of the ship was described as pure white in color that seemed to flare up and glow as it traveled through the sky. It slowly flew away towards the horizon then stopped briefly while the light flared again, then it disappeared into the gathering storm clouds. The newspaper reporter did write that it could not have been a star seen that night, but what it actually might have been was unknown. The Daily Leader in Davenport asked again if people were drinking alcohol before seeing the flying airship.

The Davenport Democrat, April 13, 1897. Pg. 1

Reports in rural Scott County, Moline, and Rock Island that night were more detailed. A witness in Scott County said the object appeared to be cigar-shaped. In Moline, it was first spotted after 7:00 p.m. As in Davenport, the bright front light was the first thing noticed. Some said it had a funnel-shape to it. Most agreed it stayed moving in the sky at a rapid pass for about an hour. In Rock Island, passengers getting off arriving passenger trains reported they had watched the object in the sky as they approached the station. The Rock Island Argus did report that clouds blocked some of the view. Most witnesses on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River agreed the object seemed to move quickly, was in the area for about 40 minutes, and the most noticeable thing about the experience was the bright front light. They could still see the light even when the clouds began to gather. What was it? No one was sure, except most agreed it was not a star or a planet.

The Dispatch (Moline, Illinois), April 13, 1897. Pg. 1

Then the newspapers picked up a surprising story out of Kalamazoo, Michigan from April 14, 1897. Residents near Pavilion, Michigan reported an airship exploded in the sky in the early hours of April 13 into April 14, 1897. A couple who reported the incident were tending a sick horse late into the night. They described the bright front light, smaller lights on the side, and propellers. The object moved at a rapid speed then it disappeared the same time they heard an explosion or thunder. The next morning a nearby farmer found a large metal coil on his property. Another local resident found a propeller-like piece on his farm. Another resident had been shingling a barn the day before. The next morning, he and two other men returned to finish the job and found the roof covered with small pieces of metal. Sadly, it appeared to be the end of the mysterious airship.

Muscatine News-Tribune (Muscatine, Iowa), April 15, 1897. Pg. 3

Then the announcement from Waterloo on April 16, 1897 that the airship had been found in that city! The forty-foot airship was found tucked away on the circus grounds behind the cheese factory and with it was the builder, Professor Jourgensen, along with his log book of his adventures flying over multiple states. Thousands flocked to see the airship and the news was reported from coast-to-coast in newspapers. The great airship mystery was solved!

The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, Iowa). April 17, 1897. Pg. 6

But, some took note that the materials used to build the craft were extremely heavy. Under questioning, the story soon fell apart. This was probably the most elaborate airship hoax created. Several business men in town designed and crafted the airship from $60 worth of materials, wrote the log book, and paid a man named Feathers from another town to be Professor Jourgensen. The stunt made Waterloo briefly famous.

All eyes returned to the night sky, but with no results. The mysterious flying airship had vanished. A. C. Clinton never appeared for his appointment in Omaha on April 17th to meet with the Trans-Mississippi Exposition board. Was that letter real or a hoax? Had there ever been an airship over the midwestern states that Spring of 1897? Was it a planet, star, or comet? Was there an A. C. Clinton who died when his airship exploded over Pavilion, Michigan? Was it mass hysteria, or as Davenport newspapers liked to promote, too many people staying up late drinking? Or was it a UFO that exploded over Michigan or simply returned from wherever it came from.

The Davenport Democrat, April 29, 1897. Pg. 2

We will let you ponder the answer as you search the night sky.

(posted by Amy D.)  


  • Sioux City Journal, February 3, 1897. Pg. 3
  • The Davenport Democrat, April 4, 1897. Pg. 2
  • The Davenport Democrat, April 8, 1897. Pg. 4
  • The Davenport Morning Star, April 9, 1897. Pg. 1
  • The Daily Times, April 9, 1897. Pg. 2
  • The Davenport Morning Star, April 10, 1897. Pg. 1
  • The Davenport Democrat, April 10, 1897. Pg. 1
  • The Daily Times, April 12, 1897. Pg. 3
  • The Davenport Morning Star, April 13, 1897. Pg. 7
  • The Davenport Democrat, April 13, 1897. Pg. 1
  • The Dispatch (Moline, Illinois), April 13, 1897. Pg. 1
  • The Rock Island Argus (Rock Island, Illinois). April 13, 1897. Pg. 3
  • The Daily Leader, April 13, 1897. Pg. 2
  • The Davenport Morning Star, April 13, 1897. Pg. 7
  • The Muscatine News-Tribune (Muscatine, Iowa), April 15, 1897. Pg. 3
  • The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, Iowa), April 17, 1897. Pg. 6
  • The Davenport Democrat, April 19, 1897. Pg. 1
  • The Courier (Waterloo, Iowa), April 21, 1897. Pg. 12
  • The Davenport Democrat, April 29, 1897. Pg. 2

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