cartoon 1956

This cartoon by Intelligencer Journal staffer Jim Kinter appeared on the Intell's front page Oct. 4, 1956, alongside a story about local UFO spotter Eileen Bernhardt.

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Long before "Ancient Aliens" became a cult classic of cable TV, the idea of extraterrestrial visitors caught the interest and imagination of the nation.

For decades, countless Americans (and people all over the world) kept their eyes on the skies, looking for telltale signs of "flying saucers," later dubbed unidentified flying objects or UFOs. Debates raged as to whether these mysterious visions were alien spacecraft, secret military hardware, misunderstood atmospheric phenomena or merely the products of mass hysteria.

Lancaster County was no exception - the LNP | LancasterOnline digital archives contain literally thousands of stories that mention flying saucers or UFOs. We thought it would be fun to see how the heyday of the saucer phenomenon - from the late 1940s through the mid-1960s - looked in the Lancaster County news media.

Here are seven moments that tell the story.


Summer 1947: The first wave

saucer kids 1947

In 1947, children at the Edward Hand School were encouraged to build and launch their own flying saucers, in the first local instance of a contest that would become a staple of local gatherings, from church picnics to school outings.

On June 24, 1947, what's regarded as the first UFO sighting of the modern era occurred when private pilot Kenneth Arnold reportedly saw nine silvery objects flying in formation near Mount Rainier in Washington. His description of how they moved - "like saucers skipping across the water" - led to the phrase "flying saucers," which stuck for decades as the preferred nomenclature for unknown objects in the sky.

first saucers 1947

Intelligencer Journal, June 26, 1947.

The incident was first reported here two days later, by way of a wire service story in the Intelligencer Journal. The words "flying saucer" first appeared in a local paper four days after that, as the first of many wire stories about saucer sightings around the country ran in the New Era on June 30.

Just one week later, Lancaster County had its very own first encounter with the flying saucer phenomenon. Next to a front-page story about sightings around the world was a small piece noting that an anonymous caller reported that four people spotted a UFO over the train station at the north end of the city.

The incident was the first of several here in the summer of 1947, with residents reporting glowing objects of various shapes and sizes, as well as a mysterious black disc emitting a low, foghorn-like sound. (One witness said he suspected it was an experimental aircraft belonging to the Navy.)

saucer drinks 1947

New Era, July 11, 1947.

The flying saucer phenomenon had become a proper fad, with businesses looking to capitalize on the trend (check out this ad for a new "flying saucer" drink at Lancaster's Dirty Ol' Tavern), and contests for kids to design their own flying saucers cropping up at practically every public gathering.


Dawn of the 1950s: The quiet time

sighting 1950

Sunday News, Sept. 24, 1950.

And as quickly as it came up, the saucer craze was seemingly over.

In 1948 and 1949, the steady stream of stories about UFO sightings in the local papers dried up to a trickle. Most mentions of "flying saucers" in news articles came in the form of jokes about the former fad, proving that drama can turn to comedy at light speed.

As the new decade dawned, however,  a handful of local sightings made the news once again. For example, this story from Sept. 7, 1950, about three saucers being spotted near Quarryville, and this one from Sept. 24, 1950, describing four separate reports of a sighting near Lancaster city.

In November 1951, Earl Bishop, a merchant marine quartermaster home on leave, gave a detailed report of a flying saucer he said he saw in the skies over Mountville. Bishop described multicolored lights moving around the circular object, which he claims to have observed for more than two hours, beginning at 4 a.m. on Nov. 27. According to the brief New Era story on the incident, "though (Bishop) does not expect anyone to believe him, he intends to stick to his story."


Summer 1952: The saucer craze at its peak

formation photo 1952

This photo, released by the Coast Guard in August 1952, shows a formation of unidentified lights in the sky off Massachusetts.

In 1951, the United States Navy officially announced that the frenzy of saucer sightings in the late 1940s had been the result of a new type of weather balloon put into use around the nation and mistaken for alien spacecraft.

The announcement was met with immediate doubt from the saucer faithful, and in 1952, a wave of saucer sightings began that dwarfed the phenomenon of the previous decade.

Were the sightings genuine? Or were they fueled by some combination of Cold War paranoia and movie-serial whimsy? Nationwide, the Air Force received more than 1,700 UFO reports that year alone, of which about 340 were never explained.

1952 saw the peak of UFO sightings in Lancaster County, too.

They began in the spring - see this April 12 story referencing multiple sightings, for example - but ramped up to a fever pitch in the summer months.

Soon after this front-page story about saucer sightings all over America ran in the July 27 Sunday News, the steady but slow stream of local sightings became a torrent.

On July 29, the Intelligencer Journal reported that about a dozen people called the newsroom to report seeing mysterious lights in the sky over the city. Newspaper staffers headed to the roof of their 8 W. King St. office to see the lights for themselves.

And see them they did - though after the fact, no two viewers could say they saw exactly the same thing, as the lights seemed to appear and disappear at different points in the sky. They all agreed, however, that they weren't seeing stars, planets or airplanes.

The next night, Intell staffers set up a small telescope on the roof, and invited a local expert - Leon Duckworth, head of the county's Air Observation Corp - to the roof for some saucer-spotting. Duckworth "took a dim view" of the saucer craze, but in an almost absurd stroke of luck, did in fact see something in the sky that night that he couldn't identify, even after consulting with the nearby Office of Civil Defense air observation post, located atop the Griest Building.

Griest spotters 1952

Mr. and Mrs. George Tomlinson and their son, 7-year-old George Jr., were among the volunteer spotters for the Civil Defense air observation post atop the Griest Building in 1952.

On July 31, the Intelligencer Journal reported that the mysterious lights had appeared over the city for the third night in a row. This time, multiple shifts of civilian spotters on duty at the Griest Building air observation post saw objects over the city that blinked with red and white lights, moved quickly and silently around the sky, and at times emitted a glowing white or silver "tail".

At the same time, the national saucer craze was ramping up in intensity. The Aug. 1 New Era carried a front-page photo taken by a Coast Guard photographer  that was purported to show a formation of UFOs off the coast of Massachusetts.

Needless to say, Lancaster County was producing its own experts on the subject of the saucers - foremost among them, perhaps, being George McGinness. A private pilot, operator of Columbia Airport and longtime swimming coach at Franklin & Marshall College, McGinness had been researching the flying saucer phenomenon for years, collecting articles and books on the subject, and was convinced the saucers were indeed craft from another world.

As various social clubs and civic organizations around Lancaster County began booking saucer enthusiasts and/or skeptics as guest speakers, McGinness would become a frequent presenter at local lectures for years to come.


1953: Interest from the Air Force

Air Force official 1953

Air Force Lt. Joseph W. Widing Jr., security officer for Olmstead Field in Middletown, points to a map while discussing UFO reports made to the base in this 1953 Air Force photo.

With the Air Force investigating hundreds of UFO sightings a month nationwide, the local base, Olmstead Field in Middletown, was keenly interested to learn more about the sightings in Lancaster County. 

This interest began in early 1952, with a notice appearing at the bottom of the Intelligencer Journal front page on April 15, but ramped up significantly the following year - even as the number of sightings once again dwindled.

On Feb. 1, 1953, the Sunday News featured a large story about the Air Force ordering 100 special cameras, designed specifically to overcome the problems inherent in trying to photograph objects in the night sky. One of the cameras was slated to be set up at Olmstead Field. (The cameras had been manufactured and were up and running by November.)

Teen spotters 1953

Bill Ford and Gordon James were among the teenagers who volunteered as spotters at the Neffsville Ground Observer post in 1953 as part of the national Civil Defense program. The two were among five teenagers who spotted UFOs from that post.

Also in February, the Sunday News featured a front-page story detailing exactly how the Air Force crew at Olmstead Field responded to reports of UFOs. In the previous year, more than 40 official reports of UFOs in Central Pennsylvania had been filed at Middletown, and most had been explained away as planes, blimps, weather balloons and the like. About six or seven remained truly unidentified, according to Lt. Joseph Widing Jr., who handled all of the reports at Olmstead.


The mid-'50s: Pop culture

Betty White 1954

Betty White appears with Maj. Donald Keyhoe, a retired Marine Corps officer who asserted that flying saucers were in fact alien craft, in this photo from the Intelligencer Journal of April 9, 1954.

There was never another moment in the local history of flying saucer sightings to compare to the summer of 1952. But as the frequency of UFO claims dropped, the concept of flying saucers became deeply entrenched in pop culture.

Every weekend, drive-in movie theaters advertised films such as "Invaders from Mars" and "Earth vs. the Flying Saucers."

Any article of clothing that was even remotely disc-shaped - from hats to handbags - was advertised as a "flying saucer." Here's an example of a flying saucer bag available at Watt & Shand in 1954.

(This ad for Stan's Record Bar got in on the act, too.)

And on television, celebrities were discussing saucer sightings on evening talk shows. Here's a young Betty White, on TV with Maj. Donald Keyhoe, a retired Marine Corps officer who asserted that the saucers were in fact alien craft, and that the Air Force was withholding information about them.


1956: A local saucer spokesperson

bernhardt 1955

Eileen Bernhardt, center, wearing white socks, is seen with a group of people watching the skies for UFOs at her farm near Holtwood in this photo from Nov. 26, 1955.

Lancaster County had several vocal saucer enthusiasts, but perhaps none was as committed to spreading the word as Eileen Bernhardt, who, decades later, would go on to be a beloved Santa Claus at various local retailers.

Bernhardt's first appearance on the local front page occurred in late 1955, when she hosted an ultimately unsuccessful UFO watching party at her farm near Holtwood. She asserted that, beginning on Easter 1952, she saw otherworldly craft at her farm, racking up about two dozen sightings. She reported hearing some sort of heavenly music emanating from the things, and on several occasions called neighbors to join her, several of whom also said they saw the objects.

In 1956, Bernhardt stepped up to chide none other than Arthur C. Clarke, author of "2001: A Space Odyssey" and many other classic science fiction books, after he was the guest of honor at a University Club lecture at the Hotel Brunswick. Clarke spoke about the dawning of the "space age," but at one point was asked about the flying saucer phenomenon. He replied with derision, saying that anyone who believed they had seen an alien spacecraft needed psychological help.

Bernhardt and several other county residents who were saucer believers wrote to the Intelligencer Journal to express their displeasure. Bernhardt suggested it was Clarke who needed the psychological help, and volunteered to take a lie detector test regarding her many saucer sightings, including instances of the craft landing and taking off.

The Intell ran the story on the front page, along with a cartoon by Intell staffer Jim Kinter depicting a whimsical scene of alien craft and their robotic occupants landing on an Amish farm.


1966: Continued interest

letters 1966

Sunday News, April3, 1966.

As the 1960s began, flying saucer mania largely dissipated, not only from pop culture, but from local skies as well.

But the craze never fully went away, as sporadic saucer stories continued to appear in the local papers throughout the next decade.

As the nation saw a slight resurgence in sightings in 1965, so did Lancaster County. Here's a report of two of them in the Aug. 8 Sunday News.

And when the Sunday News put a call out to readers to share their thoughts about the UFO issue, scores of letters poured in, virtually all stating their belief that the saucers were something real, and most expressing the conviction that they were piloted by alien visitors.

Truly, in Lancaster County at least, the flying saucer phenomenon wasn't over.

Could "Ancient Aliens" be far behind?