I found a very interesting article at Wikipedia:
Mystery airships or phantom airships
It seems that in 1896-1897 there was a wave of mysterious Airship sightings across the US.
These bear a striking similarity to the 20th Century's UFO sightings, that also came in waves.
For example from the Wikipedia article:
Mystery airships or phantom airships are a class of unidentified flying objects best known from a series of newspaper reports originating in the western United States and spreading east during 1896 and 1897. According to researcher Jerome Clark, airship reports were made worldwide, early as the 1880s, and late as the 1890s. Mystery airship reports are seen as a cultural predecessor to modern extraterrestrial-piloted flying saucer-style UFO claims.
Typical airship reports involved unidentified lights, but more detailed accounts reported ships comparable to a dirigible. Reports of the alleged crewmen and pilots usually described them as human looking, although sometimes the crew claimed to be from Mars. It was popularly believed that the mystery airships were the product of some genius inventor not ready to make knowledge of his creation public. Thomas Edison was so widely speculated to be the mind behind the alleged airships that in 1897 he "was forced to issue a strongly worded statement" denying his responsibility.
Mystery airships are unlikely to represent test flights of real human-manufactured dirigibles as no record of successful airship flights are known from the period and "it would have been impossible, not to mention irrational, to keep such a thing secret." Contemporary American newspapers were more likely to print manufactured stories and hoaxes than modern ones are and newspapers often would have expected the reader to be in on the fact that the outlandish stories were hoaxes. Period journalists did not seem to take airship reports very seriously, as after the major 1896-1897 flap concluded the subject was not given further investigation. Instead, it was allowed to very quickly drop off the cultural radar. The subject only received further attention when ufologists revived studies of the airship reports as alleged early UFO sightings.
Some argued that the airship reports were genuine accounts. Steerable airships had been publicly flown in the US since the Aereon in 1863, and numerous inventors were working on airship and aircraft designs (the idea that a secretive inventor might have developed a viable craft with advanced capabilities was the focus of Jules Verne's 1886 novel Robur the Conqueror). In fact, two French army officers and engineers, Arthur Krebs and Charles Renard, had successfully flown in an electric-powered airship called the La France as early as 1885, making no fewer than seven successful flights in the craft over an eleven month period. Also during the 1896-1897 period, Bosnian inventor David Schwarz built an aluminum-skinned airship in Germany that successfully flew over Templehof before being irreparably damaged during a hard landing. Both events clearly demonstrated that the technology to build a practical airship existed during the period in question, though if reports of the capabilities of the California and Midwest airship sighted in 1896-97 are true, it would have been considerably more advanced than any airship built up to that time.
Several individuals, including Lyman Gilmore and Charles Dellschau, were later identified as possible candidates for being involved in the design and construction of the airships, although little evidence was found in support of these ideas.
And finally there was this tantalizing tidbit...
Claims of extraterrestrial originIt seems that seeing strange flying things in the skies wasn't just a 20th century thing at all.
Early citations of the extraterrestrial hypothesis, all from 1897, include the Washington Times, which speculated that the airships were "a reconnoitering party from Mars"; and the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch, which suggested of the airships, "these may be visitors from Mars, fearful, at the last, of invading the planet they have been seeking." (Jacobs, 29) In 1909, a letter printed in the Otago Daily Times (New Zealand) suggested that the mystery airship sightings then being reported in that country were due to Martian "atomic-powered spaceships." (Clark 2000, 123)
Keep your sightglass full, your firebox trimmed and your eyes on the skies.