There’s More to PNW’s Sky-high Aviation History Than Just Boeing
Seattleites have been looking to the skies to innovate since the Klondike Gold Rush—Knute Berger explores our deep aviation roots
By Knute Berger
October 14, 2019
The Northwest is known for its contributions to aviation and aerospace, from Boeing for bringing us into the Jet Age to local contributions to the Space Age (in both the 20th and 21st centuries). But it all goes back much further than you might think. I’ve long been fascinated by the flying saucer phenomenon, which started with a sighting at Mount Rainier in 1947. But as I dug into that history, I found that there was an even earlier mass encounter with UFOs in the region, one that had ties to an economic boom that helped boost Seattle: the Klondike Gold Rush.
Really? The gold rush and UFOs? Hear me out.
The late 19th century was a time of great technological change—diesel engines, electric lights, the telephone. The newspapers of the time were full of new inventions. In the 1890s, people were also looking to the skies. Hotair balloons had been around since the late 18th century, but was it possible to build a new generation of airships that would stay aloft, transport people and goods, and be steered and motorized?
Well-known inventors such as Thomas Edison thought about the future of airships. So did science fiction writers like Jules Verne. At this time, airships, blimps and dirigibles were still yet-to-fly concepts—none were known to be in the air.
In Washington state, the earliest account I’ve found of a local man working on an airship was in 1895. The man’s name was E.D. Parrott, and he raised money to build an airship on the Columbia River. According to contemporary newspaper accounts, he had raised some $500,000 and was assembling his invention in Goldendale in Klickitat County. He promised to fly it for the public on July 4 of that year.
A report in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, picked up from The Dalles, Oregon, Chronicle in April ’95, reports a test flight of this machine, which was described as small and light, made of aluminum, with propellers and a four-horsepower engine. It reportedly flew 150 feet off the ground in a short circle and landed. Parrott later backed out of the July 4 demonstration, disappointing attendees. Like many other inventors and would-be innovators of the period, his name dropped from the news, though I have found references to an E.D. Parrott who applied for patents for a propeller and carburetor in the early 1900s. Despite the press story, no E.D. Parrott is credited with the first flight of an airplane or an airship. But Parrott’s claimed work is evidence that our state’s aviation roots go back a long time before Bill Boeing.
Not long after, in late 1896, reports of a flying cigar-shaped airship came out of northern California. It was said to have floated over Sacramento and the Bay Area at night with bright lights. Suddenly, sightings were happening all over the West, including Oregon, Washington and British Columbia. Airships were seen near Mount Rainier, over Spokane, Snohomish and British Columbia. The sightings swept across the nation in 1897, creating what historians now call the phantom or mystery airship phenomenon. As with UFOs, people speculated that these sky objects were new inventions, alien craft from Mars, atmospheric anomalies or outright hoaxes.
The sightings seemed to prompt a redoubling of efforts to get into the air, sped up by the simultaneous discovery of gold in the Klondike and Alaska in 1896–97. Here was the perfect economic spur to invention. Getting to the remote goldfields was difficult over land or by sea. Newspapers soon carried accounts of inventors from around the world who were determined to join the gold rush by air. According to a history of flying in the far north, Polar Winds by Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail, an editorial in The New York Times fanned the flames: “Suppose an airship to be now perfected and practical, the riches of the Klondike would lie patent to mankind. The difficulties of reaching that lonely valley would vanish at once.”