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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Alien “Airship” at Aurora

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

On Monday morning, April 19, 1897, readers of the Dallas Morning News saw this small headline: “A Windmill Demolishes It.” Beneath it appeared a 283-word dispatch from S.E. Haydon describing the crash of an alien “airship” at Aurora in Wise County.

“It was traveling due north,” the story said. “Evidently some of the machinery was out of order, for it was…gradually settling toward the earth. It sailed directly over the public square, and when it reached the north part of town collided with the tower of Judge Proctor’s windmill and went to pieces with a terrific explosion, scattering debris over several acres of ground, wrecking the windmill and water tank and destroying the judge’s flower garden.”

The only occupant was the “pilot of the ship,” and “while his remains are badly disfigured, enough of the original has been picked up to show that he was not an inhabitant of this world.”

T.J. Weems, the local U.S. Signal Service officer, “gave it as his opinion that he (the pilot) was a native of the planet Mars.”

In addition, Haydon continued, papers found on the body “are written in some unknown hieroglyphics, and can not be deciphered.”

While the ship had been too badly damaged for any conclusions to be drawn “as to its construction or motive power, it was built of an unknown metal, resembling somewhat a mixture of aluminum and silver.”

Needless to say, the crash had attracted numerous visitors to town.

The same story appeared in the Fort Worth Register, with the exception of a new concluding sentence: “The pilot, who was not an inhabitant of this world, was given a Christian burial in the Aurora Cemetery.”

No one in 1897 took the newspaper story seriously. Back then, fiction in the guise of news, from manufactured quotes to outright hoaxes, was as common as patent medicine ads. In fact, the Aurora story was one of hundreds of stories reporting “airship” sightings that spread from west to east across half the nation in 1896-1897. The first reported sighting in the Lone Star State came on April 12, 1897, when two Ennis men said they saw an unknown aerial object silhouetted against the moon. Throughout the rest of the month, Texans from Childress to Beaumont and from Uvalde to Texarkana claimed to have seen strange things in the sky.

What made the Aurora story different is that its author reported that the craft that crashed into Proctor’s windmill came from another world. Despite its sensational nature, for more than 69 years, the Aurora story remained dormant.

Then, in January 1967, Dallas Morning News columnist Frank X. Tolbert got a letter from a reader enclosing a copy of Haydon’s account of the Aurora crash. Knowing a good tale when he saw one, Tolbert wrote a column about it.

What Tolbert didn’t know was that the year before, Dr Alfred E. Kraus at what is now West Texas State University in Canyon had quietly looked into the Aurora story on behalf of the Condon Committee, an Air Force-funded investigation into UFOs conducted by the University of Colorado under the direction of Dr. Edward Condon. Kraus talked with Aurora old-timers, searched the purported crash site with a metal detector and reported to Condon that there was nothing to the story.

Still, it was an intriguing legend, ripe for further journalistic exploitation. On March 25, 1973, Dallas Times-Herald reporter Bill Case reported that a team of “ufologists” was “combing a cemetery in the ghost town of Aurora…for the grave of a UFO pilot….”

Interest centered on a grave beneath a large oak marked by a rock bearing an unusual design, a horizontal delta containing three small circles.

Case weighed in with another story on March 28. He had interviewed 65-year-old Brawley Oates, an Aurora native who since 1945 had lived on the land where the crash reportedly occurred.

“I’ve heard the story all my life,” he told Case. “…I’m not sure this was a UFO. But I believe something of this kind exists. There are too many similar reports from too many places to be coincidental.”

Case’s biggest-yet Aurora story ran that May 17: “Metal unearthed may be UFO.” It revealed that Frank N. Kelley of Corpus Christi, a “scientific Texas treasure hunter” had found unusual fragments of metal at the supposed crash site.

Kelley had used a metal detector on the hilltop where the windmill reportedly had stood as well as at the Aurora Cemetery. The pipe-smoking treasure hunter said he found more than a dozen pieces of unidentified metal.

After that, the Aurora investigation took off in the national media like a NASA booster rocket. The Associated Press rewrote Case’s article and distributed it nationally.

Prior to this, the small community had been cooperative with UFO investigators and reporters, though the Oakes family had barred access to their property except for “official” investigators. However, the Aurora Cemetery dated to 1861 and the ancestors of many local residents lay buried there. Immediately after a pronouncement that the mystery grave should be exhumed, the Aurora Cemetery Association filed a petition in state district court seeking an injunction and that ended the Aurora investigation.

By the early 21st century, yet another journalist quoted someone who maintained the alien had actually survived the 1897 crash. Accepted at first by the locals, the little guy became overly fond of the earthly vices of whiskey and gambling and ended up getting gunned down by Texas Rangers.

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" January 23, 2014 column

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