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An Old Mystery Comes Back To Light

By Staff | Aug 7, 2018

Editor’s Note:?This is the first of two parts of an obscure story that put Palo Alto County in the national spotlight over 100 years ago. The second installment will be publshied in the August 9 issue of The Democrat.

by Dan Voigt

Many people enjoy the history of people, places and things in Iowa, and our region has its fair share of history and historical places. But Palo Alto County also sports a great mystery that dates back some 110-plus years that to this day remains unsolved and subject to much conjecture.

On May 10, 1879, a meteorite fell north of Estherville, blazing a trail across the skies of northern Iowa. However, some 18 years later, Emmetsburg and the local area were visited by another heavenly body

– or was it?

Press accounts from the period are sketchy at best, but the accounts leave very little to the imagination of curious readers of the day. One of the first mentions of what would become a furor across the upper Midwest was reported in April of 1897, in Emmetsburg. The start of what would become a Midwest obsession came on Saturday, April 9, in an article reported in The Chicago Times-Herald newspaper.

“EMMETSBURG, Iowa, April 9 – Thursday evening a large reddish light was seen passing westward from this city and also from Rodman. It resembled a locomotive light and was perhaps 1,000 feet above the earth. The editor of the West Bend Journal saw it while waiting for a train and a long account of it in his paper. It is thought to have been a balloon or an airship. The persons who saw it are thoroughly responsible.”

As Sherlock Holmes would say, “The mystery was afoot.” The Emmetsburg Democrat came out on Wednesday, April 14, 1897, with the following account of the incident.

“During the past week large red lights resembling locomotive headlights are reported to have passed over not less than fifty cities and towns in Iowa, Minnesota, Dakota, Illinois, Michigan and Indiana. Several persons report having seen them, but are unable to account for them. In some places, it is claimed paper balloons were sent up for the purpose of creating sensations. It is hardly probable that such deception was successfully practiced at all the places where the lights have been seen. J.B. Martin, of the West Bend Journal, claims he saw one of the strange lights passing over Rodman at 9 o’clock Thursday night.

He watched if fifteen minutes but could not account for it. It was also seen by several Emmets-burg parties but, not having seen any of the general reports they did not give it close attention. Granting that those who saw the lights were deceived, that the lights may have been some phenomenon; granting that some mischievous parties may have been sending up small balloons to arouse the curiosity of their neighbors, it is not unreasonable to expect that aerial navigation will be one of the achievements of the coming century. An airship would not be so wonderful as the telephone, the phonograph, or the kinetoscope, because people already travel in balloons.”

“A moving light was seen going to the northwest of this city last night. Some say the boys about town sent up a toy balloon. Others think it was a moving star. We can not say. The liquor dealers claim they sold only the best grades of goods last night and that they can not be held accountable for the strange light.”

As was mentioned in the Democrat article, reports of mysterious lights and “air ships” in the skies were filling the Midwest.

But the mystery became even more bizarre on a local nature, when on a Saturday night, the community of Whittemore drew the attention, in a most peculiar way, of one of the mysterious “air ships”.

In a letter to the editor of the Algona Courier dated April 14, the Mayor of Whittemore, a Mr. Boyle, wrote to describe the most peculiar incident associated with the sightings of the mysterious “air ships” in the Midwest.

“Whittemore, Iowa, April 14. To the Editor: The all absorbing topic, the theme that is discussed morning noon and night, is the air ship, so called, that was seen Saturday night passing over our quiet city. When first observed by our people it seemed as far east as Algona, and a little to the south of the city. At this time it was at a great altitude slowly descending and coming directly toward Whittemore. When within about a mile the headlight became so intensely bright that a person could gaze at it with difficulty. The light had the appearance of an electric light and was swaying from side to side giving the ship the appearance of rocking. It passed directly over the city and those who saw it say about two miles high. As it passed to the west a better view was obtained. In appearance it resembled an immense cigar, with an intensely bright light at the forward end and a deep, dark red light at the rear, with a green and blue light at either side, about midway from the ends. Opinions differ as to the size of the craft, none putting it less than twenty nor more than thirty five feet in length, and from six to nine feet in breadth. Our city marshal and E.C. Merrill, landlord of the St. Nicholas, both of whom got a splendid view of the wonderful craft, give the best and most accurate description of it. They agree as to the length and lights. Kortie stands ready to swear that he saw the forms of human beings, and also said that he heard the sound of music from above. The music being of peculiar tone and different from any he ever before heard. The ship after passing Whittemore, seemed to rise until when in the vicinity of Emmetsburg it had attained the same altitude it had when first observed.”

But that wasn’t the end of the tale. “And now comes the most mysterious phenomenon connected with the passing of the heavenly traveler. On Sunday morning the early riser was astonished to find our streets and sidewalks strewn with keys of a most peculiar pattern, no two of which were alike, and none of which bore the mark of any manufacturer of this mundane sphere. The number seems limitless, some four hundred being found Sunday and Monday and quite a number since. Mr. Frank Eller who found 85 Sunday morning, says about a dozen of them found were stuck in the pine plank of the walks lending evidence to the theory that those mysterious keys came from the mysterious visitor of the night previous. Landlord Merrill found some on the roof of his house, others were found on the roofs of the German American Bank, the Thos. McGovern building and also on the Whittemore State Bank, almost convincing proof that the mystery if solved, the solution must come from the realms above.”

Was there a simple explanation to all the commotion? Perhaps….

“But the strangest coincidence connected with this whole matter is that Prof. Snyder of Eagle Grove had just concluded a series of prophetic lectures here, and prophesied, and had proved it by Holy writ that the end of the world was near. The coming of the navigator of space on the eve of these lectures, the presence of the keys, put the people of our quiet city to thinking that perhaps the heavenly visitor was a messenger from the celestial city, and of all the towns in Iowa, Whittemore alone had found favor, and had been recognized as worthy of any consideration, and this blessing showered upon us was a sure manifestation and indication that we were the chosen people, and, perhaps, alone possessed the keys to open the pearly gates.”

“The above is an honest, unvarnished and correct statement of the matter and the keys can be seen at the mayor’s office by any who care to take the trouble to go there. The air ship was seen again Tuesday night by nearly all of our people. It was seen over the city about 8 0’clock going in a northerly direction.”

After a hectic few days, the reports of “air ships” and strange lights tapered off in the area. But on Monday, April 26, 1897, the uproar began again, back in Emmetsburg. An account in the Wednesday, April 28 issue of The Democrat, reported, “At about 3 o’clock Monday morning, Charles Terwilliger, who lives in the east part of town, was awakened by a noise resembling the prolonged whistling of a person. He looked from his bedroom window to learn the cause, and was astonished to see a large, bright light, with a lesser light on each side, moving in a northeasterly direction, and when first discovered was just passing over the ball park and was apparently not very far from the earth. He called his wife, and they both watched the lights while the gradually disappeared away off to the northeast. Venus had gone to bed and so had the boy with the paper balloon, so if it was not the air ship, what was it?”

What was it? A good question – especially since the Wright Brothers would not make their first flight for another seven years over the sand dunes of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

A balloon, perhaps being flown by mischievous military personnel? Possible, but how does one explain the hundreds of keys scattered over the community of Whittemore?

Or could there be another explanation? Perhaps the following account from The Chicago Times-Herald in late April of 1897, offers another possibility.

“The depot agent at Lanark, Ill., makes the other fellows feel sick, when he tells his story. He says that at about 3:35 in the morning he heard a terrible noise, and at first he thought a cyclone had spring up, but upon peering out of the window he discerned a monster object slowly descending to the ground. Its immense wings wafted gently up and down. It reached earth without a jar, save that the rudder demolished a wing on a frame house. He rang the fire bells and soon every inhabitant in the city was out. At first they were terror stricken, but it soon dawned upon them that the monster object was in reality an airship. Soon after its landing a man no more than two feet in height came out of the ship. He wore an immense beard of a pinkish hue, and his head was ornamented with some ivory like substance. He was heavily clothed in robes resembling the hide of a hippopotamus. His feet were uncovered near the ankles, but lashed firmly on the soles were two immense pieces of iron ore. About his neck was string on which were 23 diamonds. When asked where he came from he made no reply, being apparently deaf. He said nothing and made motions indicating that he wanted something to eat or drink. He drank two bucketsful of water and ate three sides of bacon, after declining to take ham. A short time later after three other persons, similar in stature and similarly attired came out of the ship by means of a long peculiar rope, which reached to the ground. They could not speak or hear. One carried a staff of gold.”

There has never been a definitive explanation of the “airship” of 1897, and most likely will never be.

But then again, as they say, there is always a possibility that we are not alone…