In the late 1800s, Kansans were inventing early aircraft, and mysterious ships were (reportedly) navigating the skies
Illustrations by Lana Grove
The alien airship swooped down on Vernon, Kansas, at about 10:30 p.m. on April 12, 1897.
The cattle were first to notice it, and their agitation alerted Alex Hamilton, a rancher and former member of the state legislature. “I arose, thinking my bull dog was performing some of his pranks,” Hamilton would later tell the Woodson County Advocate, “but … saw to my utter amazement an airship slowly descending over my cow lot about 40 rods [220 yards] from my house.”
Calling for help from his tenant and his son, Hamilton grabbed some axes and ran to defend his livestock as the alien ship lowered within 30 feet of the ground. “It consisted of a great cigar-shaped portion possibly 300 feet long with a carriage underneath,” Hamilton later described. “The carriage was made of panels of glass or other transparent substance, alternating with a narrow strip of some other material. It was brilliantly lighted within and everything was clearly visible. … It was occupied by six of the strangest beings I ever saw. There were two men, a woman and three children. They were jabbering together, but we could not understand a syllable they said. … Immediately upon catching sight of us, they turned on some unknown power, and a great turbine wheel about 30 feet in diameter which was slowly revolving below the craft, began to buzz, sounding precisely like the cylinder of a separator, and the vessel rose as lightly as a bird. When about 300 feet above us it seemed to pause and hover directly over a three year old heifer which was bawling and jumping, apparently fast in the fence. Going to her we found a cable about half an inch in thickness … fastened in a slip knot around her neck, one end passing up to the vessel and tangled in the wire. We tried to get it off but could not, so we cut the wire loose and stood in amazement to see ship, cow and all rise slowly and sail off, disappearing in the northwest.”
The following evening, Hamilton learned that his cow’s hide, legs and head had been discovered some 13 miles north and four miles west of his cattle lot, apparently dropped by the mysterious airship travelers.
“I don’t know whether they are devils or angels or what but we all saw them and my whole family saw the ship and I don’t want any more to do with them,” said Hamilton.
But others were having more to do with mysterious airships. Similar sightings were reported across Kansas in the spring and summer of 1897. On the night of March 27–28, Topeka-area residents noted a mysterious object in the skies. One local farmer reported that something from above had lowered a grapnel hook that snagged him and dragged him before setting him down.
Some papers sought explanations. The Columbus Daily Advocate said that at least one mysterious airship was actually a cross between a kite and a balloon that was illuminated by a railroad lantern. The Western Star reported that an airship sighting over Coldwater that August was actually a kite with a Chinese lantern though it was “a beautiful sight … green and red lights … majestically she sails through the air.”
But other papers across Kansas recorded more sensational findings. The Iola Evening News reported that Mr. H.M. Mille of Iola was going home when he was startled by a whirring noise above him, looked up, and discovered a mysterious object. “The airship upon seeing Mr. Miller slowly came to earth and someone handed Mr. Miller a note saying that ‘everything connected therewith that is of the slightest interest to Kansans who have heard of its existence or witnessed the flight of this aerial wonder, will be so fully revealed that the most ordinary intellect can comprehend, construct and navigate. This exposition and revelation will positively take place in ONE YEAR AND ONE DAY. Yours very truly, THE INVENTOR.’”
Not to be outdone, the Ellis County Republican quoted a clairvoyant as saying that the airship mystery stemmed from “not one but a whole fleet of ships … managed by strange and wonderful beings, bright intelligences from a far-off planet … ethereal and spiritual … they are learned men and women of this world and fitted out for a long voyage of exploration, lasting a hundred, or maybe a thousand years … they travel with almost inconceivable velocity.”
The Kansas airship sightings came against the backdrop of sightings across the United States, which progressed along a general route from the west coast to the upper Midwest. Beginning in San Francisco in late 1896, mysterious objects and airships were reported above numerous towns and rural areas of Texas, Kansas, Nebraska, Arkansas, Iowa and then over more populated areas of Chicago and Milwaukee.
Contemporary observers speculated that the sighting could be either a secret project or a Martian craft. Historians attribute several less fantastical reasons for the sightings. Topeka-based historian Doug Wallace notes that some of the reported night sightings from Kansas in the late 1890s cannot necessarily be separated from the state’s Prohibition laws of the time and the fact that many people were drinking alcohol strong enough to induce all types of visions. Other historians offer a range of explanations, including a type of hysteria, sensational newspaper reporting, and a popular interest in emerging real-world scientific developments.
“Within this social climate,” writes Richard E. Bartholomew in the Michigan Historical Review, “almost any invention seemed possible, and an exaggerated optimism developed in the belief that the perfection of the world’s first heavier-than-air ship was imminent.”
For every erroneous airship sighting, there were numerous inventors and dreamers working to make these fantastical craft a reality, and that included several in Kansas.
Early Kansas Inventions
While many amateur hobbyists in Kansas who wanted to be the first into flight experimented with hot air balloons, dirigibles, or airplanes, two individuals stand apart: Frank Barnett of Kansas City and Robert Gabbey and his Gabbey Air Ship Company of Rossville.
Frank Barnett was one of a group of inventors in the late 1800s who were looking at using kite designs for air travel. Barnett’s model was effectively a large kite structure with a number of airfoils mounted above a wheeled undercarriage with propellers placed on both sides of the craft to provide motion. Barnett began exhibiting his creations in the 1870s at the Iowa State Fair, but his designs quite literally never got off the ground.
Born in Pennsylvania in 1833, Robert S. Gabbey became a medical doctor and accepted an appointment from President James Buchanan in 1857 to work with the Pottawatomie near Rossville, Kansas. After serving seven years, he took his family to Montana for two years to search for gold, but then returned to Rossville where he purchased a farm, opened his medical practice and began creating things. He invented, patented and sold a sled corn harvester and a machine that automatically weighed grain before he moved on to designing an airship. Gabbey claimed to have weighed and measured innumerable birds in order to come up with his proto-design, which was 133 feet long and 65 feet wide and had a 150-horsepower engine that was to derive its power from screws turning through cables. Gabbey died in 1900, before a patent could be approved. It seems unlikely that he ever built a model that flew though the Daily Tribune in Salt Lake City published an article in February 1899 claiming that Dr. Robert S. Gabbey of Rossville, Kansas, had supplied the paper with sketches of his previously secret aircraft and that the Kansas inventor believed, “the time has come to let the fact be known that he intends to mount skyward on his aerial machine and show the crawling creatures of earth how free and unfettered are those who have brains enough to imitate the birds.”
While this particular account seems more in the realm of sensational reporting than fact, Kansas aviation historian Richard Harris suggests it is possible that an early aviation inventor with a secretive ship could have flown over portions of the States in the 1890s and remained unknown. He says it is unlikely but possible that a prototype craft was created, flown, observed, crashed and lost to history as early as 1897. Harris notes, “many aviation inventors were often (and still are) very secretive about their inventions. Some feared that others would steal their ideas; others feared public ridicule (especially if their efforts failed), which was common in the era before common flight. A number of people may have initially flown their early aircraft in secret, including: Montgomery, Weisskopf/Whitehead, and even the Wright Brothers. In fact, that was even true for the first flight of Kansas’ first aviator: Albin K. Longren.”
A native of Riley County’s Leonardville, Longren was born five years after the airship mystery, but he was already creating prototype helicopters in the early 1900s. His experiments led in 1911 to what is commonly recognized as the first Kansas-made piloted craft, the Topeka I—an invention that would have seemed in the realm of science fiction only a few decades previous when Alex Hamilton claimed that a flying machine took his cow.
Back in Vernon
After his story of interplanetary cattle-rustling grabbed national attention, Hamilton seems to have made it through life without any more interference from alien airships. And his story—which had been co-signed by several distinguished residents of the region—was revived and prominently circulated in the 1966 bestselling book Flying Saucers—Serious Business.
But there had always been doubts, and a few who knew the truth and were always willing to speak.
A Kansas weekly, the Buffalo Enterprise, printed a story in 1943 that quoted the editor of the paper that ran Hamilton’s story in 1897 as suggesting that he knew Hamilton had made up the tale. Further research by journalist Jerome Clark revealed testimony from people who had lived at the time and recalled stories or conversations confirming that Hamilton had made up the tale of an airship raid on his small ranch. The editor of the Woodson County Advocate was quoted as saying that Hamilton’s story might have been sparked by Hamilton witnessing a demonstration of an engine that he realized could be applied—one day—to flight.
In that sense, Hamilton’s story of the airship was both false and prescient. He described something that wasn’t there but that would soon be possible to see over the skies of rural Kansas. And the tall tale he told also connected with something timeless.
“Above all,” notes Wallace, “those airship sightings are a good story. And everyone always loves a good story.”