I had spent the day crossing the northern tier of Pennsylvania, searching for the hidden stories known only by locals. Having spent the morning touring a couple cemeteries along Route 6, I arrived in the town of Smethsport. Parking on the eastern edge of town, I scanned the distant mountains. While I knew the mystery that brought me to Smethport was over one hundred years old, I was intrigued by the story from the moment I first read the headline of the August 8, 1915 edition of The Des Moines Register – Phantom Airship in Pennsylvania. Digging into regional newspapers, I soon discovered something odd floated in the skies above the community of Smethport in 1915, something that not only grabbed the attention of regional newspapers, but newspapers across the country.
For a number of days in July 1915, residents of Smethport reported seeing a cigar-shaped airship with green flashing lights to the east of town. Those who witnessed the airship described it as looking like a Zeppelin floating roughly a thousand feet over Bush Mountain. Every time the airship was spotted, the mysterious airship was headed southward towards Emporium, disappearing from view in the mountains near Crosby.
But the airship never arrived in Emporium. Word spread that the airship was in the region, either planning on bombing the acetone works in East Smethport or the explosives plant in Emporium.
With rumors abounding, a watch group was put together and camped out on Bush Mountain to watch for the nocturnal visitor. The York Dispatch (York, PA) reported Mr. and Mrs. Bernard Garlock were among those who camped out and saw the airship. They described it as being a large ship with bright lights and the sound of “whirling motors.” During one of these outings, the group experienced a strange beam of light from the airship that illuminated the tents of the watchers.
The bright spotlight was not the only light emitted by the airship. Those who watched the airship floating in the night sky reported blue flares shooting out of it, lighting up the skies in front and above it. The occasional blue flare would drop towards the ground, illuminating large patches of land before burning out. What makes the blue flares interesting is they only appeared when the airship started moving on its journey southward.
By late July, the airship began making appearances in New York, when it was spotted over the town of Olean. Numerous people spotted the large airship around eleven that evening moving over the community on its way towards Smethport.
The origins of the airship was debated by residents and the regional newspapers. The most popular belief was it was of German origin and those flying the airship were planning on attacking the explosives plant in Emporium. If this was the plan, then two questions must be asked: 1) why did it never arrive in Emporium and 2) why was it seen in roughly the same location in the early morning hours over a couple days?
Regional newspapers reported residents believed the Zeppelin was hiding among the mountains of north-central Pennsylvania waiting the perfect time to attack the explosives plant. If a German Zeppelin would have made it to the United States, there were probably better locations to bomb if they were in the skies over North America.
The second theory was it was a dirigible built and tested by a local resident who was hiding his invention in the remote mountains of north-central Pennsylvania. From all descriptions in the newspapers, it appeared and acted with a Zeppelin. Those who saw it were convinced it was a Zeppelin by the way it acted. If this is the case, then the inventor managed to keep it a secret.
A third theory comes for the July 23, 1915 edition of The Kane Republican who gave their explanation on what had happened. The residents of Smethport had imported Zeppelin high balls for their Fourth of July celebration and these were the cause of the giant Zeppelin sightings. To explain the odd lights, someone had parked their car on the mountain top and flashed them on and off, which caused the residents of Smethport to see the lights that lit up their community. The car, according to The Kane Republican, belonged to a man living in Port Allegany who was camping on top of Prospect Hill and it was his car lights that illuminated the community.
As I scanned the mountains east of town, The Kane Republican’s reason behind the bright light does not make sense. A light could possibly be seen from the mountaintop, but the distance was too great for it to illuminate the town.
The fourth explanation for the mysterious airship stated the residents were seeing was a star. According to the July 31, 1915 edition of the Star-Gazette (Elmira, New York) the cause of the airship was a bright star on the eastern horizon. The newly spotted star was described as being brighter than Halley’s Comet, though it did not have a tail, but could easily been mistaken for a Zeppelin. The only problem with the light being a star is the mysterious light was described as moving to the southeast each time it was spotted.
The fifth theory also involves a misidentification. Rather than a balloon, it was a cloud formation being illuminated by the rising sun that the residents were seeing in the early hours of dawn. Something that suggests it may have been clouds as the airship was always spotted from a distance and just over the horizon. While many UFOs and airship sightings have proven to be clouds, the description of flashing green lights, blue flares, and a bright spotlight means it was not a cloud.
A sixth possibility for the airship’s origins was it was all made up by a local and the story created a mass hysteria in the region. This theory was first mentioned by The Kane Republican, and they state this a number of times throughout the time the airship was spotted. This might hold some truth to it, but the amount of people who saw the airship makes it seem they saw something.
There is one final theory and it is the one I personally think is the best explanation for the mystery airship. This theory appears in the July 16, 1915 edition of The Kane Republican. The article is a reprint of one first published in The McKean Miner, and it suggests the large airship might have been part of an experimental project due to its design. It is possible that the dirigible was a part of the US military and was being tested in case the United States was pulled into World War One. If this was the case, exactly where the airship was stationed remains a mystery.
The one theory that does not seem to appear in the newspapers of the time was it was a visitor from space. The residents of the region had already ruled out ships piloted by little green men.
My only problem with any of the possibilities is nobody reported seeing it moving northward – it was always spotted moving towards the south. Where it went to once it vanished from sight remains a mystery.
As I finished scanning the mountains in an attempt to rule out any possibilities, I knew I was left with more questions than answers about what the strange airship that visited Smethport could have been. The only thing I did know was whatever was in the skies over Smethport in the July of 1915 had vanished from the newspapers, the sky, and people’s memory before the summer was over.