The History of Sightings


1997-98 University Research Council Competitive Grants Program A Scientific Investigation of the Brown Mountain Lights Final Summary Report October 1, 1998 Daniel B. Caton We anticipate publishing results in the journal Skeptical Inquirer, as well as in the popular press. Indeed, in order to show that science does investigate so-called paranormal phenomena, the PI has mentioned this project in a column to run in the Charlotte Observer on October 6, 1998. (


In an experiment to determine whether the "true" Brown Mountain lights might be seismic in origin, ORION detonated small charges on Brown Mountain in July 1981. No artificially stimulated lights were recorded. The lights seen on Brown Mountain are according to my research the subject of a family legend. At any rate here goes. (


In 1977, the ORION group conducted a test, which proved that reflected light could produce lights above the crest of Brown Mountain. However, they rejected the theory that the Brown Mountain Lights could be solely explained by reflected light since the phenomenon had been observed long before electricity. The ORION group tried to reproduce the lights through seismic activity but was unable. (

In May 1977, ORION (the Oak Ridge Isochronous Observation Network) placed a 500,000 candlepower arc light in Lenoir, which is 22 miles east of Brown Mountain. At the same time, a group of observers gathered on an overlook on Route 181, which is 3.5 miles west of Brown Mountain, a favorite spot for watching for the Brown Mountain lights. An experiment showed that when the arc light was switched on, the observers saw an orange-red orb hovering several degrees above the crest of Brown Mountain. Final conclusion; the majority of the so-called Brown Mountain lights, particularly those seen above the crest, are refractions of artificial lights. (


The true Brown Mountain Lights appear very rarely, but on occasion do put on an exceptional show. One such show was witnessed by Mike Frizzell in 1974. He had driven out to the Route 181 overlook in hope of seeing the lights. After dark, the lights gave him a spectacular show. For ninety minutes he was able to view them weaving their way along the faces of Brown and Chestnut Mountains. (


The Start of a Legend: The most popular legend came from Shepherd M. Dugger, author of "The Balsam Groves of Grandfather Mountain" in 1937, when at the age of 83 he related the following story and description of the "lights": "I'll tell you a story I heard many years ago about those lights. I don't say that it's true, although there are a lot of people who believe it's so. "Over on, Jonas Ridge, near Linville Falls a man killed his wife about sixty years ago. (ca 1887) That is, she disappeared and everybody thought he killed her. The whole community helped to search the mountain sides, but they couldn't find the body of the woman. One dark night while they were searching the hills some strange lights appeared over Brown Mountain. They weren't like any lights anyone, had ever seen before. Those who hadn't seen them wouldn't believe the ones who said they had, but pretty soon nearly everyone had seen them. Some people got scared and said that the lights were the spirit of the dead woman come back to haunt her murderer, or to keep people from searching for her. The search ended without anyone seeking any trace of her except some blood stains on a rock near Brown Mountain. Her husband said that they were from a pig he had killed a few days before. "A little while after that, a stranger in town left with a fine horse and wagon that had belonged to the dead woman's husband. The husband said the stranger had bought them, but everyone knew that he didn't have any money. He was never heard of again, and folks thought that he had helped with the murder or had known of it and had been bribed to leave. "The lights have been seen ever since. No one had ever seen them before that time. They weren't car lights, like some people say today, because that was long before the days of the automobile in this country. "Well they found. the woman's body under a cliff on Brown Mountain long years after, but without any signs of a head. The legend then took a little twist, of how it was this woman, out with a lanterr4l; looking for her head in the dark of a clear night, and the lights were the woman's lantern, going. from one side of the hill to the other and around the mountain, looking for her head." This was Mr. Dugger's story, and as far as many people are concerned that's still the story of how it happened close to l00 years ago. (


The Andes light and its possible relation to the Brown Mountain Lights became the subject of a paper read before the American Meteorological Society in April 1941. In this report Dr. Herbert Lyman represented the lights as a manifestation of the Andes light. (

In a 1940 report, Hobart A. Whitman concluded that the lights were not the result of natural ground sources. He analyzed rocks and soil from Brown Mountain and the surrounding area for any unusual elements. The rocks and soil didn't differ from rocks and soil across the entire western region of North Carolina. (



ca 1930s

The Guide to the Old North State, prepared by the W.P.A. in the 1930s, states that the Brown Mountain Lights have "puzzled scientists for fifty years." (ca 1890s) The same story reports sightings of the lights in the days before the Civil War. (


National Geographic Magazine, vol. 49. p 51-78 does an article on mysterious lights including Brown Mountain Light. This is according to William Corliss 'Unusual Natural Phenomena,1983 p. 72.


Margaret Jordan of the Davenport Weekly Record of Lenoir, North Carolina, wrote in April of 1922 that "the mysterious light on Brown Mountain . . . has again been seen by the Burke County people." She went on to recount one of the first attempts to explain the lights, noting that on June 8, 1908, "a body of men was immediately dispatched from Morganton to learn the cause of the light, but the expedition was a failure." Those curious men from Morganton shouldn't have felt too badly, even though they trooped over to Brown Mountain again three nights later when the light was spotted once more. Every scientific attempt since then to explain the appearance of the ghostly Brown Mountain Lights has failed.


Late in 1919 the question of the Brown Mountain Lights was brought to the attention of the Smithsonian Institution and the United States Weather Bureau. Dr. W.J. Humphries of the Weather Bureau investigated and reported that the Brown Mountain Lights were similar to the Andes light of South America. (

Dr. W.J. Humphries, of the United States Weather Bureau presented a paper before the American Meteorological Society in April 1941, which concluded that the Brown Mountain Lights were similar to the Andes light of South America. While not exactly an explanation, Humphries findings did let folks know that Brown Mountain had a cousin to the South. (


In 1916 a great flood that swept through the Catawba Valley knocked out the railroad bridges. It was weeks before the right-of-way could be repaired and the locomotives could once again enter the valley. Roads were also washed out and power lines were down. But the lights continued to appear as usual. It became apparent that the lights could not be reflections from locomotive or automobile headlights. (


The First USGS Investigation: Among the scientific investigations which have undertaken from time to time to explain the lights have been two conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey. The first was made in 1913 when the conclusion was reached that the lights were locomotive headlights from the Catawba Valley south of Brown Mountain. (

In 1913, the first Geological Survey investigation decided the lights were caused by reflected light from locomotive headlights in the Catawba Valley, south of Brown Mountain. However, when the great Catawba Valley flood of 1916 knocked out power lines, roads and railroad bridges, suspending train traffic for weeks, the lights still appeared. Apparently, the lights were not caused by reflected light. (

In History: September 13th, 1913 marks the first known printed reference to the mysterious Brown Mountain Lights. The nature of the lights which appear near Brown Mountain North Carolina have baffled people for many years. The newspaper reported that "the mysterious light is seen just above the horizon almost every night." Some researchers contend that the lights can be explained by such common things as cars and trains. Others think that lights are "spooklights" or "earthlights" that are somehow generated by seismic activity. (






. The lights have been observed since about the 1890's, and were often thought to be souls of American Indian braves killed in battles long ago. Although they are famous, they do not appear all that regularly, but when they do, they are often spectacular. (


The legends of the Brown Mountain Lights are many and varied, and have been told down through the years, perhaps as early as 1879. To this day, people still are undecided as to their origin and the stories of yesteryear are as thrilling as those of today. (


As is the case with most ghost light reports.. there is a fantastic explanation and a spooky legend to explain the source of the lights. The story dates back to 1850 and a night when a woman disappeared in the area. There was a general suspicion that the woman's husband had murdered her and everyone in the community turned out to help search for her body. (

Ca 1776

Other legends are even older that of Mr. Dugger's. One takes the lights back to the 1700s, during the Revolutionary War, a fitting time for this bicentennial issue. A family had migrated across the mountains ' of Western North Carolina, finally settling close to Blowing' Rock, at the foot of what is now known as Brown Mountain. At the outbreak of the Revolutionary War the father left his wife with her three small children to fight for his country. After the war, he returned to find only the charred remains of his home. Half crazed by despair and grief, he searched frantically for any signs of his lost family. All day he hunted and when night came he continued his long search, lighting his way, with a crude torch. Constantly roaming, it is said that, overcome by hunger and fatigue, he died on the top of Brown Mountain. Thus it is his restless, ever-searching spirit that wanders over that mountain to this very day, haunting it with his eerie beacon. (


In 1771, Gerard Will de Brahm, a German engineer, wrote about the lights. He believed them to be the result of nitrous vapors carried on the wind. This theory of flammable fumes has been a popular one but there have never been recordable levels of flammable vapors, and it is hard to blame swamp gas when there are no swamps! (

The lights are mentioned in local Native American mythology, and by Geraud de Brahm, a German engineer and the first white man to explore the region, in 1771. The lights have been described in many ways from being a glowing ball of fire, to being a bursting skyrocket, or a pale almost white light. The fact that they never seem the same is as fantastic as the lights themselves. (

Gerard Will de Brahm, recorded the mysterious lights in the North Carolina mountains in 1771. "The mountains emit nitrous vapors which are borne by the wind and when laden winds meet each other the niter inflames, sulphurates and deteriorates," said de Brahm. De Brahm was a scientific man and, of course, had a scientific explanation. (


Cherokee Indians were familiar with these lights as far back as the year 1200. According to Indian legend, a great battle was fought that year between the Cherokee and Catawba Indians near Brown Mountain. The Cherokees believed that the lights were the spirits of Indian maidens who went on searching through the centuries for their husbands and sweethearts who had died in the battle. (

Copyright (C) 2001 Dr. Sten Odenwald