Earliest Balloons in Texas

Camp John Wise

From the Handbook of Texas Online

Camp John Wise, a balloon training station on 261 acres of leased land four miles north of downtown San Antonio, was established on January 19, 1918. The United States Army Balloon School was transferred there from Fort Omaha, Nebraska. The personnel were quartered at Fort Sam Houston until March, when construction on their barracks was completed. The base reached a maximum strength of thirty-three officers and 1,800 enlisted men and was equipped with four balloons. The camp was named for John Wise of Philadelphia, a pioneer balloonist who constructed a balloon in which he set a world distance record in 1869. The base seems to have closed soon after World War I.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Robert E. Hays, Jr., Military Aviation Activities in Texas, World Wars I and II (M.A. thesis, University of Texas, 1963).

Early Amusements

From the Handbook of Texas Online

Patriotic occasions provided opportunities for barbecues, songs, oratory, and parades by military organizations. In 1844 the Fourth of July celebration at Clarksville featured the Montgolfier balloon and a fireworks display.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Eugene C. Barker, Readings in Texas History (Dallas: Southwest Press, 1929). William R. Hogan, The Texas Republic: A Social and Economic History (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1946; rpt. 1969).

When “Airships” Invaded Texas!

From the Texas Almanac

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 the airship crew that 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. The inventor implored Williams, “Don’t give this thing away. We are experimenting with this vessel. So far, it is a success. . .” Another report from Waxahachie held 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. Etuart, “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. 

But on April 19, S. E. Haydon, a correspondent for The Morning 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. 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 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, of course, it could have been an invasion of airships. Whitley Strieber, author of Communion, which details his life-long experiences with extraterrestrial aliens, reported yet another “airship” incident in 1897. 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 clamored down the rope, cut the line and the airship sailed off, not to be seen again. This incident received little attention at the time. The Merkel Mail ran a story on it, but the Taylor County News in nearby Abilene ignored it. Perhaps the sighting of alien airships had become too commonplace by the time they reached West Texas.