Did zeppelins fly over Banning during World War I?

The early months of the Great War were times of high anxiety.

Would America be drawn into Europe’s massive conflict? Were agents working in the United States to effect an entry into the war on a certain side? Were saboteurs working, too?

These questions were on the minds of many.

So, it didn’t help that some residents of Banning reported seeing lights moving in the sky over and around their small Pass-area town.

On Oct. 15, 1914, the Banning Record came right out and bluntly asked its readers: “Are Zeppelins or other instruments of war reconnoitering over the skies of Banning, or what?”

It seems that two well-known women of Banning, Mrs. Floretta Fraser, who ran the Hotel Banning, and Mrs. Walter Hathaway, were returning from the desert about dusk. Looking off to their left, they saw a greenish-gray light traveling east and loosely following the contours of Mt. San Jacinto. The pair assumed, at first, that it was simply an automobile negotiating the early Banning-Idyllwild road. The light soon disappeared, and then another appeared, acting in much the same way. This concerned them enough to mention it in town.

“Will someone please explain what these mysterious movements mean? Is the coast being watched by the air-spies of Europe, or are the warring factions of Mexico trespassing on Uncle Sam’s air? We give up” inquired the Record.

A few weeks later, the lights appeared again, and the Record became even more speculative. On Friday, Oct. 30, Ben de Crevecoeur, rancher and longtime sheriff’s deputy, noticed what was termed a balloon or airship moving from southeast to northwest over the San Gorgonio Pass. The speed of the light was considerable, and it was plain to see from his ranch located northeast of Banning.

Needless to say, the appearance of these lights caused quite a bit of discussion in town.

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“It is possible that opium smugglers are using the air as a means of transportation in hauling the forbidden stuff from Mexico to Southern California under cover of darkness” remarked the Record.

Still others held to the theory that the area was being watched by foreign agents who, for whatever reason, were trying to get a lay of the land for their (unnamed) reasons.

Whatever the cause or source of these lights, there was no more mention of them in the newspapers of the time. However, the concern raised by Banning residents was not wholly unfounded. With the onset of the Mexican Revolution in 1910, smuggling of various items had increased in an effort to raise money for both sides. Similarly, in 1917, Germany issued the Zimmermann Telegram that offered Mexico territory in the U.S. if it would intervene on Germany’s behalf. This ultimately led to America’s involvement in the Great War.

The climate of the time was ripe with speculation – all that needed to be added to the situation were some unknown lights around and over the San Gorgonio Pass.

If you have an idea for a future Back in the Day column about a local historic person, place or event, contact Steve Lech and Kim Jarrell Johnson at [email protected]