According to legend -- and a Texas historical marker -- early in the morning on April 17, 1897, something strange happened in the small town of Aurora, about 30 miles northwest of Fort Worth.
A cigar-shaped airship was seen falling from the sky when it crashed through a windmill and exploded. The airship, it is said, was not of this world. The pilot – from Mars, people thought at the time – was allegedly buried with Christian rites at the nearby Aurora Cemetery.
The Wise County town recently hosted a conference to commemorate the UFO crash. Folks have different opinions about what happened nearly 120 years ago.
Toni Wheeler first heard the story of the crash when she was a kid growing up in Aurora. An older neighbor would sit on his porch and tell stories.
“Then I started asking my grandfather about it and he would snicker about it,” Wheeler said. “And my grandmother said 'it’s hogwash.' But my uncles would discuss it. Especially my uncle Marvin. He loved to tell tall tales anyway, and he really got on telling all kinds of stories, and Ned’s story was one of them.”
They call him Ned
Many folks in Aurora call the alien Ned. He's the extra-terrestrial pilot that is said to have been buried in in the town. Wheeler came up with the name -- and it stuck.
Wheeler’s family has been in Aurora for several generations. She’s been Aurora’s city administrator for more than a decade.
On Saturday, Wheeler spent the day leading bus trips to the crash site and the old town cemetery. It was part of the Aurora Alien Encounter conference she helped organize.
Researchers have looked into the story for years, testing water in the well where the wreckage was said to be stored, digging metal out of trees at the crash site as proof something exploded, and using radar to see if there really is a Ned in Ned’s grave. In the 1970s, Wheeler says people even tried to exhume the remains.
“You cannot exhume a grave unless you notify the next of kin,” Wheeler says with a smile. “And that’s how the cemetery association got the court injunction in 1972 to keep them from exhuming the remains.”
Texas a UFO hotbed
This wasn’t the only UFO sighting in Texas in the spring of 1897. New telescope technology had allowed people to see the face of Mars more clearly than ever, though maybe not quite clearly enough.
An Italian astronomer in 1888 announced he’d seen evidence of canals on the red planet.
“People kind of freaked out,” says E.R. Bills, an author who wrote about the Aurora incident in his book Texas Obscurities. “It was the first serious discussion of maybe there being life. So when this crash happened here, you know, people had heard of that, and that’s why they assumed the pilot was from Mars.”
The Dallas Morning News, taking at face value that it was indeed an extra-terrestrial event, linked Ned's ship to a series of UFO sightings around the country and quoted a U.S. signal service officer who“gives it as his opinion that he was a native of the planet Mars.”
“Papers found on his on his person – evidently a record of his travels – are written in some unknown hieroglyphics, and cannot be deciphered," the newspaper reported.
“The ship was too badly wrecked to form any conclusion as to its construction or motive power. It was built of an unknown metal, resembling somewhat a mixture of aluminum and silver.”
Embracing the alien story?
There were lots of theories about what happened back in 1897. There still are. Some thought it was a man-made dirigible that crashed, others called it a hoax. Some at the time saw it as a sign of Judgment Day approaching.
These days, in Aurora, there’s more tension over whether the city should embrace the alien story.
"There’ve been people that are a part of our city council, that are a part of other committees throughout the city who have threatened resignation for us being involved in this,” says Amanda Smith, Aurora Historical and Preservation Commission secretary. “It is that serious.”
The conference is just one way the town is cashing in on its lore. There are plans for an alien-themed haunted house this fall. A statue is in the works -- featuring a broken windmill and the flying saucer Ned crashed.
“I live not far from here, and every day – every day – there are people lined up at the cemetery looking around,” Smith says. “And from a business standpoint, and a marketing standpoint, that is an asset we’re not capitalizing on.”
More than just a business opportunity, though, she says embracing the town’s quirky history is a way to preserve its unique identity as it is enveloped into the outer suburbs of Fort Worth. Without that history, she says, “our heritage goes away, and [Aurora] becomes just another part of the conglomerate.”
Smith says she was pleased with the conference’s turnout. The venue, she said, was at capacity. Conference organizers say they want this to be a yearly tradition.
'We're not the only ones out here'
Like a lot of attendees, Richard Wall says he’s had his own UFO encounter. Several years back, he says he saw glowing spheres in the night sky that flew off with a sonic boom. As for the 1897 crash, though, Wall is skeptical.
“I’m sure somebody saw something, and they’re trying to make something plausible of the story behind what they saw,” he says.
His wife, Dolly Moravitz- Wall, shook her head at her husband’s disbelief.
“I believe it,” she says. “I really do. Because there are other beings out there. We’re not the only ones out here.”
The two together share the views that so many people who turned out to learn more about the event: That even if Ned didn’t crash land in Aurora in 1897, it doesn’t mean Ned’s cousins aren’t out there.