'No place to run': Loch Raven Reservoir's forgotten UFO, 60 years later

Around midnight on Oct. 26, 1958, Alvin Cohen and Phillip Small were taking a drive by Loch Raven Reservoir in Towson when they said a great, iridescent, egg-shaped object appeared above a bridge.

The young men inched closer and the car stopped dead — no headlights, no engine, no ignition, as if the entire electrical system had given out.

“There was no place to run,” Small, then 27, told an Air Force investigator less than two weeks later, according to an interview transcript in a declassified report of the incident. “We probably would’ve if we could’ve but we were terrified at what we saw.”

Cohen, then 24, told investigators the men hid behind the car and watched the object hover. There was a flash of light and noise and heat — and then, Cohen said, it rose into the sky and disappeared.

Oct. 26 this year will mark 60 years since Cohen and Small reported seeing the mysterious object above the reservoir, at the height of the American obsession with unidentified flying objects, or UFOs.

The incident inspired UFO hunters through the years and launched an official Air Force investigation. But today, locals say, the story has largely been lost to history and many do not know it ever happened.

After conducting interviews and examining the scene, the investigating officer, 2nd Lt. Bert R. Staples, wrote in the 1958 report: “This UFO remains unidentified.”

Saucers and spies

The Loch Raven incident was one of many strange occurrences reported in the 1940s through the 1960s, when Cold War paranoia intersected with a fascination with outer space and the unknown.

Pennsylvania State University history professor Greg Eghigian, who studies the history of UFOs, said in the late ’40’s and early ’50’s, even mainstream news outlets would report strange sightings of “flying saucers.”

Around the same time, the U.S. government started investigating the reports — not looking for signs of alien life, but for signs of spy technology from the Soviet Union. From 1947 to 1969, the Air Force investigated these occurrences under a program called Project Blue Book.

According to a 1985 Air Force fact sheet posted on the National Archives website, 12,618 sightings were reported to Project Blue Book. Of those, just 5 percent were never explained. The Loch Raven incident was among the 701 that remained “unidentified.”

The Air Force was not the only organization watching the skies. According to the Air Force report, after the object disappeared and Small and Cohen found that their car would start again, they drove to the intersection of Loch Raven Boulevard and Joppa Road to make a phone call. Their first call was not to police, but to the Ground Observer Corps, a civilian organization that watched the sky for enemy airplanes during the Cold War.

Tom Graf, a Baltimore County Historical Society board member who has studied the Loch Raven incident, said he was fascinated that the organization was the first call the men would make “when the strangest event in your life happens.”

“A million and a half people watching the skies; they don’t do that today,” Graf said. “It was just a different world back then.”

Other groups watching for UFOs included the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena, or NICAP. The group, founded in the 1950s, visited the site of the Loch Raven incident to conduct its own forensic tests, which were inconclusive, according to the Air Force report. The Air Force report was accessed on the NICAP website.

By 1958, Eghigian said the media and the public had tired of UFO watching unless an incident was “something really unusual or arresting.” The Loch Raven incident fit the bill, he said.

“It’s what’s later going to be called a real-close encounter,” Eghigian said. “The idea that would grab attention is … they are very, very close to this thing. It’s not up in the sky miles away.”

Though the Air Force was not looking for aliens, Eghigian said many civilians certainly were — and incidents like Loch Raven concerned those UFO watchers, dubbed ufologists.

“If these are really aliens, they’re getting kind of close to us, a little bold, a little less reserved,” Eghigian said ufologists thought at the time. “There are some ufologists who are going to start seeing these stories as indicative of something more sinister.”

A compelling story

Graf, of the Historical Society, is not exactly sure what happened that night in 1958, but it seems like something did.

“You read the report and it sounds like these two guys were telling the truth,” Graf said, adding that, separately, “they sounded scared.”

“I am sorry I saw it; I wish I hadn’t seen it,” Small told the Air Force.

Eghigian said the UFO community seeks out “compelling” reports that have three elements. The people who report them should be believable. The details should lend credence to the stories. And there should be forensic evidence. Loch Raven, he said, had all three.

“Both SMALL and COHEN appeared to be well educated and spoke in an intelligent manner,” wrote Staples, the Air Force lieutenant. “ They seemed sincere and they indicated that they did not want publicity.”

Efforts to learn Small and Cohen’s present-day whereabouts were unsuccessful.

The lieutenant also interviewed other witnesses, including a 16-year-old boy and two employees of a lakefront restaurant, who all saw similar glowing objects around the same time and location. The restaurant employees also heard the same sound the men reported: a loud boom that sounded to Cohen like an explosion, to Small like a thunderclap.

Then there was the car’s electrical system, which allegedly shut off when Phillip and Small got close to the object. Eghigian said that could be considered forensic evidence.

After the object disappeared and Small and Cohen made that first phone call, the Ground Observer Corps member who answered said “Aww, come on now,” and hung up. They then called the Towson Precinct of the Baltimore County Police Department, which sent two officers to the scene and took a report.

After the “tremendous heat wave” from the object, Small said he and Cohen felt as if their faces had been sunburnt. They went to St. Joseph’s Hospital “to try to determine if possibly they were some kind of radiation burns,” he said.

The hospital did a cursory examination and released the men. Small said his face was noticeably red, and The Baltimore Sun reported that December that he said his wife and colleagues had noticed the change in color.

The Air Force investigator was convinced: Staples wrote that with all the credible witnesses, “it can be assumed that the sighting did actually occur.”

But the Air Force could find no explanation for the glowing egg, the report said. No unusual meteorological activity, no thunderstorms, no clouds, no possibility of it being an aircraft at such a low altitude. And “no special projects are known to be operating in that area.” The Air Force had no answers.

Mystery in the neighborhood

David Riley is not sure where he first heard about the Loch Raven UFO, but now that he has he is going all in.

The Knollwood Association president mobilized his southeast Towson neighborhood last year to host an “alien invasion” themed Halloween display, one he said will return this year.

“It was such a cool story, and something that really wasn’t well known,” Riley said. The self-described horror and science fiction fan bought an alien prop from a movie house in L.A. and staged a series of videos and photos picturing a world in which aliens invade Knollwood. In some of the photos, a dead alien holds a map of the Towson neighborhood.

Someday, Riley said, he hopes to organize an “alien festival” in downtown Towson around Halloween, to draw people into the business district during the colder months.

“It’s something that has been kind of buried in time and has never been part of local lore,” Riley said. “And you know what, I think there’s so much potential there to have fun with it and expand it.”

Graf, the Historical Society member and a Lutherville resident, said he walks his dog by Loch Raven Reservoir and drives through the area at night and thinks about what it must have been like to see that glowing egg.

“It’s fun to know that people were crazy and paranoid back then, just like they are now,” he said. “And it’s really nice to know that the Air Force, with all the resources that were available to them, they didn’t crack the case.”

Eghigian, the historian, said UFO stories don’t grab people or make people nervous today, the way they did in the 1950s. But “it still has a draw,” he said.

“There’s kind of an inexhaustible, unquenchable thirst many people have for thinking about things they consider to be mysterious or paranormal,” Eghigian said. “That speaks to a thing I think is almost virtually universal in people: wanting to understand and think the universe is actually a lot bigger than most of us can comprehend. Strange things happen in the world, and these things are not going to be explained at first glance.”

Graf said he is fine with not knowing exactly what happened near his Lutherville home in 1958; in fact, he likes it.

“It’s fun to have a little mystery in the neighborhood,” he said.

asolomon@baltsun.com

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