Arkansas Airship Mystery of 1897

A 19th Century UFO in the Ouachita Mountains?

The Ouachita Mountains form a beautiful and mysterious region in Arkansas and Oklahoma.

The 1897 sighting of an alleged “airship” over the Ouachita Mountains remains one of the most mysterious incidents in Arkansas history. Two lawmen testified before a judge that they were riding northwest over the ridges from Hot Springs when a brilliant object suddenly appeared in the sky.

What was it? Modern explanations range from an alien spacecraft to an early version of a flying machine! The UFO (unidentified flying object) created such a frenzy that at least one state senator even suggested that it be taxed!
Constable John J. Sumpter, Jr., and Deputy Sheriff John McLemore were investigating reports of cattle rustling when they rode out from Hot Springs on the night of May 6, 1897. They were only a few miles from the town and its famed natural hot springs when they saw a bright light in the sky:
Sumpter and McLemore went into the country to serve a warrant, and when they reached the vicinity of the [Bull] bayou they noticed a brilliant light in the heavens, which appeared to be falling, and which finally disappeared behind a hill. On approaching the spot they saw persons moving around with lights. Drawing their Winchesters they advanced, and demanded of the strangers their names and business. [1]
The brightly illuminated airship flew over the mountain ridges and disappeared, but the Arkansas lawmen soon found it.

Bull Bayou flows into the Ouachita River and Lake Hamilton just west of Hot Springs.

As the armed officers approached the mysterious craft, one of its occupants came forward to meet them:

A man with a long, dark beard came forward, and on being told that Sumpter and McLemore were officers, stated that he and two others, a young man and a young woman, apparently about 30 years old, were traveling over the country in an airship; that they had descended for water, and that after a short excursion to the south they would return and descend at the Nashville exposition, where they would put the airship on exhibition. Sumpter says that they could plainly distinguish the outlines of the airship, although the night was dark and rainy. It was cigar shaped and about sixty feet long. [2]

American newspapers were filled with such stories in 1897-1898 as eyewitnesses from coast to coast claimed to see mysterious airships flying through the skies. A report from Texas even alleged that an aircraft piloted by aliens crashed in the town of Aurora less than one-month before the Hot Springs sighting. The stories are rendered even remarkable by the fact that modern blimps and airplanes had not been invented in 1897!

So what did the two Arkansas lawmen see in the mountain country near Hot Springs in May 1897? Many people thought the whole story was made up but Sumpter and McLemore gave sworn testimony about the incident before Judge Bush in Hot Springs, a fact that adds considerable credibility to their story.

Professor Barnard as he appeared when his airship took flight in May 1897.

Also adding credibility was the claim by the pilot that he planned to take the air machine to the “Nashville exposition.” This was a reference to the Tennessee Centennial Exposition held in Nashville from May 1 to October 31 of that year. The city’s famed Parthenon reconstruction was built for the Exposition and – as the Nashville American reported – Expo goers were treated to an even bigger surprise on May 6, 1897:

The Centennial airship, whose fame is national, is no longer a mystery, but a reality. Heretofore it has been called a fake. Yesterday it became a fact. At 11:20 o’clock yesterday morning it took unto itself wings, arose from the hillside behind Vanity Fair, and disappeared in the ethereal distance, going with racehorse rapidity in the direction of Memphis. [3]

The Nashville airship was invented by Professor A.W. Barnard, a physical education instructor at the city’s Y.M.C.A.

According to a newspaper account, the airship reached altitudes of more than 15,000 feet in a public flight that shocked all who saw it:

      What Prof. Barnard has constructed is a cigar-shaped balloon about 46 feet long, made of silk and cotton weaved in shades of yellow. The diameter of the balloon at its largest portion is about 18 feet. Instead of the usual basket or car that is ordinarily seen attached to balloons, Prof. Barnard suspends a complicated network and a machine made like a bicycle, upon which he sits as upon an ordinary bicycle. The gearing from this bicycle runs the propeller situated in front of the machine. The propeller is a kind of screw that bores into the air and pulls the machine. Aeroplanes on each side are used for guiding. Raise them and the airship rises; lower them and it descends. Turn the left one in an opposite direction from the right and by the use of the propeller the operator can turn the machine at will.

An artist’s impression of Professor Barnard’s airship. The actual craft was much larger than shown.

   All of these things were demonstrated by Prof. Barnard yesterday morning, Prof. Barnard took his seat on the bicycle and told the attendants to let go. Let him go up slowly. The ropes were accordingly loosened little by little, and the machine went up nicely for a height of fifty or sixty feet, when it would seem to wobble and sway to one side, and showed a disposition to drop back to the earth. This happened two or three times, but after five or ten minutes of exciting experiments the ropes were finally and completely cut loose and the airship mounted toward the sky with tremendous velocity.Then it became visible to the visitors in the grounds, and everybody gazed in perfect amazement. People ran out of the buildings, and both amusements and business were suspended. Great excitement prevailed. [4]

Was Professor Barnard’s machine identical with the airship seen by the two Arkansas lawmen on the same night? Not according to the professor, who said that he flew 20-30 miles on May 6, 1897. His invention also appears to have carried only one passenger, whereas the airship seen in Arkansas had on board at least three. Barnard also told a journalist that he had not flown his airship prior to launching it at the Exposition, although he did mention that he conducted experiments on his design at an isolated location near the Tennessee-Kentucky line.

Otherwise, the descriptions were similar. The Arkansas craft was around 60-feet long and shaped like a cigar, whereas the Nashville one was 46-feet long and of similar design.

So what did the Arkansas lawmen see in the Ouachita Mountains at around midnight on May 6, 1897? No one can say for sure although it is interesting to note that a resident of the Hot Springs area applied for a patent for a “flying machine” at about the same time. He did not  receive his patent, but was experimenting with some type of aircraft. Whether he actually built a working prototype is not known.

Barring the discovery of more evidence, the 19th century Arkansas UFO sighting must remain a mystery of the Ouachita Mountains.

The general area of the incident can be viewed from higher elevations at Hot Springs National Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Blacksnake Road leads from the downtown area across the mountain ridges to Bull Bayou, which runs along the western edge of the park. The Hot Springs Mountain Tower is a great place to view the mountains and valleys that surround Hot Springs.

You can learn about other mysteries on our Ghosts, Monsters & Mysteries of the South page!

[1] Report from Hot Springs, Arkansas, dated May 9, 1897, published in the Daily Nonpareil of May 10, 1897.
[2] Ibid.
[3] The Nashville American, May 7, 1897.
[4] Ibid.