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But almost all of this sturm und drang was happening in California. Newspapers in Oregon were almost uniformly skeptical, sometimes caustically so. The great sibling-rivalry relationship between California and Oregon was already in full bloom in the 1890s, and as the smaller of the two states, Oregon was always a bit more on edge.
“It reminds one of the old saying that California has the largest trees, smallest matches, and damnedest liars of any place on Earth,” remarked the Eugene Register.
“California has proved the richest American soil for propagation of the ‘fake’ — a noxious weed introduced into the country within the present generation by what is called modern journalism,” sneered the Portland Morning Oregonian, almost certainly intending this as a swing at Hearst.
The few sightings of strange lights in the sky that were reported in Oregon newspapers tended to get minimized or even scoffed at. One in particular came to the Portland Evening Telegram from an ex-employee who had gone to work for one of the California newspapers, and sent back a letter with a fanciful account of the UFO. The Telegram’s headline read, “YOU MAY NOT BELIEVE THIS: Ex-Portlander Writes About the Airship.”
“A letter received here from an ex-Portlander, now engaged on one of the San Francisco newspapers, vouches most seriously for the existence of the California airship, conspicuously advertised by the San Francisco press, but which elsewhere is being stigmatized as a fake,” the article begins.
It’s hard not to picture that reporter sniggering while writing this. No one was going to fail to put the pieces together. The San Francisco papers said UFOs were real; this guy had gone to work for one; now he said UFOs were real. What a coinkydink!
The ex-Portlander went on to assure his reader that he’d met the inventor and ridden from San Francisco to Los Angeles in the airship, flying 500 miles per hour at an altitude of 10 miles (about 53,000 feet) thanks to a handy cabin pressurization system also invented by his host. But, after that introduction, it hardly mattered what he claimed.
THE UFO OUTBREAK was surprisingly short-lived. It generated a plethora of surprisingly specific, but widely divergent, stories of locals interacting with UFOs and their occupants, and it stayed pretty solidly localized to Northern California and its immediate environs.
Which is why it’s just a little surprising that the official explanation for the outbreak is usually given as “a classic case of mass hysteria.” The newspapers in Oregon didn’t give it so much credit. Almost every single one of them used a much more modern term for it: “Fake news.”
Were they right? Were the California papers just making up stories to sell papers? We’ll probably never really know. But, it does seem to fit the evidence as well as, or maybe better than, “mass hysteria” does.