Way out on the old Linville Mountain,
Where the bear and the catamount range,
There a strange ghostly light, can be seen every night,
Which no scientist nor hunter can explain. *
Brown Mountain, located in Burke Country, North Carolina, and part of the Blue Ridge mountain chain, is nothing spectacular. It is low-lying and covered with deciduous and evergreen trees like the mountains all around it. But when night falls, something unusual happens on Brown Mountain.
When the sun sets and darkness settles like a blanket over the Blue Ridge, visitors to the Brown Mountain area are frequently entertained by a nocturnal light show, which some say looks like a Roman candle being fired. The lights bob and dip, vanish and reappear, and appear to be white, bluish or reddish in color. Sometimes they travel horizontally through the trees at speeds that would be difficult for a human to track.
Sure, you say. Of course.
But I’ve seen them.
The Brown Mountain Lights are one of the most famous legends in the Tarheel state of North Carolina. Dozens of newspaper and magazine articles have been written about them. One of the earliest was a 1913 account in The Charlotte Observer. In 1926 National Geographic devoted twenty-seven pages to the mysterious lights, and in 1999, the Brown Mountain Lights were even featured in an episode of The X-Files. However, there are oral accounts of the lights dating as far back as 1200 A.D.
The first written account of the lights was in 1771 by German engineer Gerard de Brahm. Being a scientific man, de Brahm had a scientific explanation for the lights. He wrote that “the mountains emit nitrous vapors which are borne by the wind and when laden winds meet each other the niter inflames, sulphurates and deteriorates. This causes the lights to inflame.”
In 1910 a Reverend C.E. Gregory of New York built a cabin in the Brown Mountain area and wrote all his friends about the mysterious lights. By 1913, the U.S. Geological Survey had taken an interest and sent someone to study the lights. D.B. Sarrette conducted his observations and quickly announced that the lights were simply reflections of the headlights of locomotives on the railroad tracks in the valley below.
This theory might hold up but for two facts. Many old-timers living at the time of Sarrette’s report claim to have seen the lights since Civil War times – before the railroad was built. Then in 1916 the Catawba River flooded and washed away the railroad tracks around Brown Mountain. The lights continued to be seen and no one could explain why in the absence of locomotives.
Over the following years, numerous studies were conducted and equally numerous theories about the cause of the lights were proposed. These theories attributed the lights to foxfire (phosphorescent light emitted by decaying trees) and St. Elmo’s fire (a naturally occurring electric spark not unlike a neon light). However, foxfire can only be seen at short distance whereas the Brown Mountain lights are seen from a greater distance, and St. Elmo’s fire always remains attached to an object while the Brown Mountain lights seem to float and travel, attached to nothing.
Another theory attributed the lights to reflections from automobile headlights, yet the lights have been seen in times that pre-date the automobile. A second U.S. Geological Survey claimed that the lights were the result of the spontaneous combustion of marsh gasses. This would be a good explanation if there were any marshy places on Brown Mountain.
In 1919 the lights were brought to the attention of the Smithsonian Institute and the United States Weather Bureau. Dr. W.J. Humphries of the Weather Bureau studied the lights and reported that they were similar to the Andes light in South America, another form of naturally occurring electrical discharge. The leading expert on the Andes light, Dr. Walter Knoche, has studied the western North Carolina terrain and declared that it contained no geological conditions conducive to producing this type of discharge.
Some have even suggested that the lights come from moonshine stills. While moonshining was once a lucrative operation in this area and some of the young men who regularly transported white lightning along curving mountain roads became some of NASCAR’s early drivers, this explanation doesn’t explain the early sightings, which predate moonshining or the more recent ones since it’s been quite some time since there were stills in the area.
In 1962 The Charlotte Observer again reported on the lights. Twelve eyewitnesses observed the lights from a specially constructed sixty-foot tower. When the lights approached the tower, some of the men had sudden bouts of static-like dizziness and when they climbed down from the tower, they could not stand up.
While theories about their cause vary, descriptions of the lights are generally in agreement. The optimal viewing spot for them is at Wiseman’s View off of NC Highway 181. On most any night, the roadside will be lined with cars full of folks hoping to see the lights.
Once darkness descends, viewers look to the southeast and suddenly will see a basketball-size light appear. The light is usually reddish in color, hovers in the air and disappears only to reappear a few minutes later in a different spot. Or the lights may appear as white and bobbing. Or they may seem to skip along rapidly. As is usual with unusual phenomena, different people view it in different ways.
Regardless, they remain a mystery.
According to one source, Brown Mountain was named after a plantation family who owned slaves and perhaps the most popular of the tales revolving around the lights comes from this story. Legend has it that a low-country planter traveled to the region to hunt. When he did not return, his faithful slave went out with a lantern to hunt for his beloved master.
This legend inspired local musician Scotty Wiseman to write “Brown Mountain Light,” which was recorded in the 1960’s by a local singer. Wiseman was no stranger to fame. He and his wife Lulu Belle were regular performers on the “Barn Dance” radio show and even stood on stage at the Grand Ole Opry in Ryman Auditorium. The author of many songs, Wiseman’s most famous tune, “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You,” was recorded by Elvis Presley.
Another favorite story involves the suspicious disappearance of a woman named Belinda around 1850. Many folks believed that her husband Jim had killed her and buried her body somewhere in the vicinity of Brown Mountain. Soon after her disappearance, the lights started, supposedly as a guide to help searchers find her body. Shortly thereafter, Jim disappeared without a trace. Many years later a woman’s skeleton was found on Brown Mountain and the lights continue, perhaps as a warning or perhaps they are a signal from a lost soul.
Possibly the oldest legend dates back to 1200 and is part of Cherokee lore. A great battle was waged between the Cherokee and Catawba Indians. The Cherokee believe that the lights are the spirits of Indian maidens searching for their sweethearts and husbands who died in the battle. Early settlers in the area believed the lights to be the spirits of slain Indian warriors.
While many theories abound, none are considered conclusive. And maybe no cause will ever be found. But the lights still appear and fascinate a new generation of curiosity seekers.
High, high on the mountain, and deep in the canyon below
It shines like the crown of an angel, and fades as the mists comes and goes.
Way over yonder, night after night until dawn,
A lonely old slave comes back from the grave,
Searching, searching, searching, for his master who’s long gone on. *
* From “Brown Mountain Light” by Scotty Wiseman
Are you a paranormal romance fan? Have you every seen anything unexplainable (besides the balance on your credit card bill)?