Things I need to find out:.




What is the 'Radio Tower'(1/23/2001)

 I haven't identified it on the maps yet. One source calls it a radio tower associated with the Border Patrol. The Marfa Chamber of Commerce says it might be a tower from an Alpine station. (1-28-2001)


What are the mountains on the horizon?(1-23-2001)

Looking south across the Old Air Base, you will see Chinati Peak (largest on right. Elevation 7726 feet) The second peak to its east is near Presa Rincon (elevation 6405 feet) although the topo map doesnt give this peak an explicit name. I will call it RINCON for now Highway 67 emerges from a canyon at 4900 and slopes rapidly down to 4600 feet at a distance of 22 miles. This 300 foot drop in only 1 mile would look like lights suddenly appearing near Rincon, and then sharply moving downwards before leveling off and drifting to the right(west). I can imagine seeing car lights at 5 miles, but not 42! The view from the Viewing Area is almost exactly Southwest. There is still work to do on this issue.(1-28-2001)


Where is the Viewing Area located?

It is about 8.8 miles east of town on Highway 90. It is within 100 feet of the entrance to the Old Marfa Air Base. As of January, 2001 there are no exact coordinates for it. This formal Viewing Area restricts peoples access to the lights to a single spot on Highway 90. Why this spot? When was it built? Probably around 1988 which is the date of the historical marker.


In what sector do the lights appear?

 According to the tourist map, they are mostly seen between Cienega and Chinati peaks, and the triangle formed by Highways 67 and 158. There are, however, scattered reports of them in other locations too. They are seen as far eastwards as Goat Mountain, and Twin Peaks.


Marfa7.htm marfa11.htm

How many different kinds of Lights are there?

There are four well-identified classes that come up in the naked-eye and telescopic studies. All of these could be called the 'Marfa Lights' by the casual observer, and this makes sorting out the accounts very hard.

1)Stationary- unknown: on the mountain ridges or on the Flats. They appear suddenly, vary in brightness, then fade in about 1 minute. Very bright.

2)Stationary-man made:Radio Beacons, ranch lights etc. At least the Radio Beacon light is a familiar steady landmark in the dark and most viewers seem to be able to spot it and use it as a reference point without mistaking it for the lights.

3)Moving - car head lights on Highway 67. Usually seen as paired lights in binoculars or telescopes. They follow the roadway to Marfa. Careful observers can discriminate these easily and ignore them. I dont understand how they can see them at all from 8 miles away!

4)Moving - unknown. They start out looking like the Class 1 'Stationary Lights' by suddenly appearing, then changing brightness, but some of them move erratically and split into multiple parts.

marfa16.htm (tele) marfa19.htm (eye)

When was the Viewing Area built?

An Historical Marker is dated 1988 (according to S. Laroche's transcription), but an exact date is still not available(1-25-2001)


What do the Lights look like through a telescope?

Most of them look like headlights. This seems to be especially true of the lights that move. Others don't seem to fit this picture. These are the stationary lights that appear off the road, on the mountain ridges, or well away from Highway 67 and its traffic.

The lights have been viewed with 8-inch reflectors and powerful binoculars by amateur astronomers who should probably know what things look like through the eyepiece. Their reports are rather mixed. Some see car lights for the ones that move, others see more complex things in the stationary lights that they claim can't be accounted for by cars unless an intentional hoax is afoot.

Edison Hendricks gives a very detailed account, and uses a VLF receiver to study them. 'Not headlights in a 9x35 binocular. They move very differently and can be easily distinguised from cars." Emailed him on 2-12-2001.

Alan French "paired head lights and tail lights" Emailed him on 2-12-2001. Mail bounced back. (Unreachable: email bad)

James Long "variability in brightness, singles and pairs"

Joe and Gay Haldeman 'brightest lights could not be split into pairs of headlights"

Daniel ..."all the moving lights looked like cars driven in circles" Note this source is untraceable and cant be verified.

Charlie Miller..."not pinpoint car lights but large glowing disks that changed brightness"



How long have people seen them?

Conservatively, from 1954 based on widespread accounts that the actor James Dean spent time looking for them (1954). There are some pilot accounts from the time of the Old Air Base in 1943-45. Before then, other than local towns people accounts, I haven't found any independent references to them by non-town people. The most common reports come after ca 1986 when the Viewing Area was built for tourists, and the Marfa Lights Festival began.


When was the Old Air Base opened and abandoned?

Building began: June 1942

Closed: December 31, 1945.



 How far away can you see car headlights/taillights?

Under normal conditions, between 2-3 miles for headlights. At 2 miles you can just see that they are double, and at three miles or so their brightness becomes fainter than a +2 magnitude star. For taillights, I can tell they are double and red at 1 mile. Airline pilots say they can just begin to see car headlights at 25,000 feet (4.7 miles) at which point they have a magnitude of about +3.0. I will continue to work on this to verify.

How in the world is it that people are seeing cars on Highway 67 from the Viewing Area 8 miles away???



When was Highway 67 built?

Rand McNally road maps from 1928 do not show it, but by 1938 it is included. In 1934 Highway 67 was extended from Dallas with a terminus of Presidio, Texas. Before then, the US road system consisted of unpaved dirt roads. Old Highway 67 may have been such an unimproved, unpaved roadway, but I have no actual evidence for that as yet.

Possible additional sources of information are Cecilia Thompson' second volumn of History of Marfa and Presidio County 1900-1947, or the Masters Thesis in 1933 by John Ernest Gregg.



When do the lights start appearing?

Right at sunset, within 10 minutes or so into twilight. They continue to be active until local midnight when some observers notice a decrease in their rates of show.

You will read comments about how the lights are visible year-round, but I have come across one comment by Hal Finney (Skeptics) that suggests that the lights are not seen if ". I had also been told that the lights would not appear if it was overcast. (marfa19.htm Item 47). It would be worth emailing him to track this very important fact down to an actual study. I did this on 2-11-2001 and got a bounce-back because its a bad email address. I can't verify this piece of information.




Are there different kinds of lights you can see from the Viewing Area?

Yes, and this makes the eyewitness reports hard to sort out. There are fixed lights from man-made structures, which can appear to move because of known low light-level visual acuity problems.

There are apparently car lights which follow a constant path on a distant roadway ( Highway 67). and then, presumably, there are the 'other' lights which eyewitnesses say are different than the above two categories. When were these 'other' lights first noted?



What are highway mirages, inferior mirages and atmospheric lensing?

These are all phenomena caused by temperature gradients above heated roadways which cause mirages, distortions and even image amplification.

In inferior mirages, the light from a car bends downwards to the road surface and then curves back up to the observer. When the observer extrapolates his line of sight from the angle of the incoming rays, he sees an image of the car, or just its lights BELOW the actual position of the car on the road surface. As the atmospheric conditions and road surface heating areas change, the resulting image can move, change shape, or even vanish altogether. A car 10 miles away photographed on a road near the VLA in New Mexico shows multiple images, and in other instances, images of distant objects and lights can be anomalously bright because of temporary focussing by index of refraction changes in the air above the roadway. This is a common phenomenon in hot areas of the country with long highways and relatively flat landscapes.



 So, if many or most of the images are consistent with common roadway mirages and car lights, why are there reports of these lights before the roadway was built, or before cars were even introduced into the region?

 If we eliminate the now-a-days very common car-roadway lights, and man-made stationary lights, anecdotal and historical records suggest that there were other kinds of 'Class Three' lights in this region. The question is whether these accounts are reliable, of recent vintage, or can be verified by some other means. Do the quoted people actually exist? Among the people mentioned by name who seem to be key to continuing the story are Robert Black at Sul Ross in 1985; Robert Reed Ellison in 1883; Pat Kenney (Geologist) and Joe and Sally Humphreys, 1885. and Dr. Edwin Barker and Dr. Avanash Rangaru. Of these, I can find no record for Pat Kenney.



Did a Japanese team of scientists actually study this phenomenon?

 I have come across several mentions of a team of Japanese scientists who studied the Lights and couldn't decide what they were. Bob Baker at the Sul Ross site says 'early 1990's'. The length of the stay is cited as anywhere from a few weeks to a month. The number of people involved is as high as 40 according to 'Sandy' at the Marfa Chamber of Commerce. Contact Bob Baker (2-12-2001)



Is there a 'geneology' for the stories about the Marfa Lights that can be traced in time?

 Apparently the elements of the story goes back to books and thesis between 1933-1985. I will have a look at the book, and try to verify the Masters Thesis by John Ernest Gregg from the University of Texas in 1933. "History of Presidio County" cited by the Texas Historical Society blurb. Virtually all discussions mention the 1883 sighting by Robert Ellison, and this soighting is described in Cecilia Thompsons 1985 book 'History of Marfa and Presidio County, vol. 1' In fact, people copy her quote almost word for word out of her book.

The problem is that Ellison's memoirs were written by him in 1937 at age 70 and he never mentioned the Lights in the memoirs. He mentioned them to his family, so this 1883 story seems to have come from a non-historical source. It could not have been told directly to Thompson by Ellison because of their vast age differences...I assume! William Syers 'Ghost Stories of Texas' mentions Lee Plumbley as a daughter of Ellison (Evelyn b. 1898?) , and Elton Miles a professor at Sul Ross who mentions the Ellison story. Elton may have interviewed Lee Plumbley (Evelyn?)to get this story.


What is the reliability of up-close viewing of the lights?

 Although there are many accounts, usually confusing, of viewing them from a distance, there are a handful of accounts of close encounters. Out of the 44+ stories about them, there are only 5 or so that are 'close encounters' within a few hundred yards. Of these on the ones by Pat Kenney and Robert Black are attributed to real people rather that vague 'reports'. Although Robert Black was verified as a student at Sul Ross in 1985, I can find no record for Pat Kenney. None of the 'old timers' report such close encounters, and generally the concensus is that the 'genuine' lights can only be seen from afar.



 Could the lights really be seen from McDonald Observatory?

In Item 40 of the accompanying file, a story claims that someone's son working at the Observatory used a telescope there to spot the lights, but when they went to the spot the next day they found nothing. This all sounds impressive, with the mental image of a huge powerful telescope probing the distant lights, but so far as I know, no observatory-caliber telescope can point below the horizon! Only an amateur telescope can, and from 100 miles even a 20-inch would see nothing! Still, I need to check this out.


 What other magazines or media reports exist about the lights?

  Some resources say it was in the Skeptical Enquirer, Summer 1992. (can't confirm this). It was in Southwest Airlines 'Spirit' magazine in 1982. It was in Texas Highways magazine (ca July-August 1993). An article may also have appeared in the Big Bend Quarterly ca 1988. Visit the Library of Congress and see what they have.


 What TV program covered the lights in 1989-1991?

 Some accounts say 'Unsolved Mysteries'. Edwin Barker says 'Unseen Mysteries' in his email to me. I think he meant Unsolved not Unseen. I will try to find a log of their programs. The dates for the airing of the show seem to range from 1989 to 1991.

I searched the Sul Ross library catalog and came up with a video product for this show. The show aired on October 25, 1989.



What are some of the ideas, kooky or serious, about what the Lights might be?

 There are over a dozen 'theories' but in most cases there is no record of who was the author of any of them: 1)swamp gas, 2)phosphorescent minerals, 3)jackrabbits, 4)car headlights, 5)atmospheric tunneling, 6)stars and planets, 7)seismic electricity, 8)dust particles, 9)ghosts, 10)Pancho Villas gold, 11)St. Elmo's Fire, 12)Temperature inversion, 13)phosphorescent gases, 14)mineral deposits, 15)mirages, 16)alien spaceships, 17)ball lightning.

It is claimed universally that 'scientists' are unable to explain the phenomenon despite many different groups having studied it. With the exception of ghosts and Pancho Villa, all of the above 'theories' are claimed to have been put forward by 'scientists' but discredited because they do not explain all of the exceptions to how and when the lights are observed.

The Skeptical Enquirer's article on 'Why Bad Beliefs Dont Die' (beliefs.html) by George Lester in the Nov/Dec 2000 issue is very interesting.



 What is some of the common mis-information you can find about the Lights?


You should read the Skeptical Enquirer 'Why Bad Beliefs Don't Die' (beliefs.html) to find an explanation for why these ideas seem so hard to eliminate.

 1...No one has figured out what they are after 100 years of trying.

2...They defy being quantified.

3...Few people that see them see the same things.

4...There is only one kind of Marfa Light.

5...The lights are definitely not headlights.

6...Lights lured cars into head-on collisions on Highway 90

7...An army search team was annihilated

8...Car was pursued at speeds over 100 mph


What kinds of other named people have also seen them and whose names have been directly cited?

1...Robert Reed Ellison (Thompson: 1883 rancher) His daughter was Evelyn Ellison (b. 1998) (see 1900 Census and Thompsons book p. 337)

2...Joe and Sally Humphreys (Thompson:1885 rancher) Cecilia Thompson says their granddaughter is Anne McCracken. (p. 197 of 'History of Marfa and Presidio County') They told Anne this story.

3...Liz Browning (Liz Lowry: store owner)

4...Hallie Stillwell (Janet Christian: authoress)

5...Fritz Kahl ( Mayor and former air pilot)

6...Kirby Warnock (Dallas Journalist)

7...Walter T. Harris (Railroad Worker ca 1890s)

8...Stan Redding and Carlos Antonio Rios (Syers: Houston Chronicle reporter and photographer)

 9...Joe Bunton (Syers:Sheriff from 1926-1940's)

10...Lee Plumbley (Syers:daughter of Ellison)


What kinds of scientists and other degreed professionals have been named as witnesses and investigators?

1) Don Witt (Physicist, Sul Ross). There is a string theorist and relativist at the University of British Columbia, now, but I don't know if that's the same one. He's a high-powered theorist and I can't believe he would start out at a backwater place like Sul Ross. Curiously, his CV is not available at the UBC faculty page. There's also a Donald Witt at the Nassau Community College. He was cited as a consultant for an undergraduate astronomy textbook.

2) Pat Kenney (Geologist) The only place his name turns up in a web search using Google is on pages for the Marfa Lights when you search under 'geologist, Pat Kenney'

3)Graduate Student Robert Black (Sul Ross: Geology) The Alumni Office at Sul Ross confirmed that he was a geology student there in 1985.( January 2001) (Fact)

4) Dr. Avinash Rangru (Prof. Chemistry ). He is real, and still works at Sul Ross. I emailed him twice at 2 different addresses but he does not reply. (Fact)

5) Dr. Edwin Barker (Astronomer) He is real, and I emailed him. He verified his story of observing the lights. (Fact)

6) Dr. Ray Hauser. (Hauser Laboratories, Boulder Colorado) He is a real person and did work at Hauser Laboratories until 1999. He replied to me on February 12, 2001 and said he was doing this 'research' about ca 1990.

7) Dr. Elton Miles (Sul Ross English) has assembled an extensive paper history of the lights according to William Syers 'Ghost Stories of Texas'. He is not listed as a faculty member at Sul Ross, but the Alumni Office (2-10-2001) says he was indeed at Sul Ross at the time the book was written. His book, was published by Texas A&M University.


 Who was Robert Reed Ellison?

  Texas Historical Society says he was a cowhand ca 1883 who brought cattle to Marfa for his father, J.R. Ellison. I have confirmed from the 1900 Census that a Robert Ellison born ca 1867 did live in Presidio Precinct 2. He wrote a memoir in 1937 at age 70. His daughter is Lee Plumbley of Marfa (is this Evelyn born in 1898?).




 Who were Joe and Sally Humphreys?

  I have confirmed from the 1900 Census that the Humphreys did live in Presidio Precinct 1. Cecilia Thompson's History of Marfa and Presidio County mentions them extensively.



 Who is Liz Browning?

  She is claimed to be the proprietor of the Cows and Udder Crafts store in Marfa. Says that the lights can't be cars unless the drivers enjoy driving creatively. Only quote I could find was from Louise Lowry's 'World of the Strange' web site ca 1999. Can't verify that she is the owner though.


 Who is Hallie Stillwell?

  She was born ca 1897 and dies in 1997. Only reports seeing the lights from afar. No location given. Possibly in Marfa. Only citation to her was from Janet Christian's 'Urban Legends' site ca 1993.

She was a well-known author who was cited in the New York Times. There was an Arthur Stilwell mentioned in Cecilia Thompson's 'History of Marfa and Presidio County, but no Hallie. Arthur Stilwell was not related to her as the spellings of their last names suggest.



 When did the Robert Ellison, 1883 story first get started?

Not certain.

The Texas Historical Society 'Online Handbook' mentions the 1883 Robert Ellison story. (See Item 5 and 11.) It was written by Julia Cauble Smith. She got it from Cecilia Thompson's History of Marfa and Precidio County. Thompson got her information from Robert Ellison's 1937 memoirs, however, it is noted that the 'Marfa Lights' story was not in the memoirs, but was an account that he had told his family. Ellison's recollections of Marfa in 1884/6 were not infallible at the age of 70. He got the date for an historic cattle drive wrong. The problem is, where did Thompson get this anecdote? Surely it was not from Ellison himself who would have to have told it to her when she was a young girl!

He must have told it to an intermediary ( his daughter Evelyn b. 1898?) who then wrote or told it to Thompson. The name of this intermediary is not mentioned, but is buried in the massive bibliography that Thompson gives for this chapter on Ellison. Could it have been 'John Ernest Gregg's 1933 Masters Thesis 'History of Presidio County'? According to William Syers 'Ghost Tales of Texas',

Dr. Elton Miles seems to have offered this quote, and 'Mrs. Lee Plumbley' was Ellison's daughter who might have been quoted by Miles. I discovered this by reading Syers book.



 When did the Sally and Joe Humphreys 1885 story first get started?

Not certain. The Texas Historical Society 'Online Handbook' mentions them in 1885 (See Item 5, 6 and 11 in the accompanying file.) It was written by Julia Cauble Smith, she refers to Cecilia Thompson's book 'History of Marfa and Presidio County' and Thompson discusses the Humphreys and their sighting. The source for this anecdote, however, is buried in Thompson's long and tedious bibliography in the back of her book.



 Who did the research that turned up Robert Ellison and Joe and Sally Humphreys? What primary sources did they use?

Julia Cauble Smith is listed as the author of the Texas Historical Society blurbs in the Online Handbook. She seems to be an historian/geneologist but her professional credentials are not given. (See accompanying file, item 5,6 and 11) She cites the following sources: (Item 5) Dallas Morning News, July 4, 1982. Fort Worth Star-Telegram, August 3, 1980. Elton Miles, Tales of the Big Bend (College Station: Texas A&M) University Press, 1976). William Edward Syers, Ghost Stories of Texas (Waco: Texian Press, 1981). Wall Street Journal, March 24, 1984. (Item 6) Russell Gardinier, "The Physical Geography of a Significant Border Region, La Junta de los Rios," Journal of Big Bend Studies 1 (January 1989). John Ernest Gregg, History of Presidio County (M.A. thesis, University of Texas, 1933). Cecilia Thompson, History of Marfa and Presidio County, 1535-1946 (2 vols., Austin: Nortex, 1985). (Item 11) John Ernest Gregg, History of Presidio County (M.A. thesis, University of Texas, 1933). Cecilia Thompson, History of Marfa and Presidio County, 1535-1946 (2 vols., Austin: Nortex, 1985)

Elton Miles is an emeritus professor at Sul Ross. William Syers 'Ghost Stories of Texas' says that he is the meticulous historian of the Lights. Based almost entirely on stories Miles collected from local residents, Tales of the Big Bend, first published in 1976, "should find a well-merited place next to the works of such Texas folkloric giants as Americo Paredes and J. Frank Dobie."-Journal of the West (

Cecilia Thompson: Author of History of Marfa and Presidio County (1985). Her Acknowledgment section is massive and shows a wide breadth of resources and institutions consulted. No further information about who she was or where she lived. No other books credited to her.

John Ernest Gregg: ( 1933) A Masters Thesis 'History of Presidio County' is frequently mentioned by Thompson and others as a source of historical information about Marfa. Does this include sightings?

William Edward Syers: Author of Ghost Stories of Texas (1981) as well as five other books, mostly about Texas.


 How many Robert Ellisons are there listed in the Mormon geneology archives or from Texas? From the US, who were born ca 1840s-1870s?

About 9. There was a huge clan of Ellisons in Texas at the time, in a different county. I have asked for a copy of the 1880 and 1900 Census to see if any Ellisons or Humphreys were recorded in Presidio County. There was, in fact, a Robert Ellison listed in the 1900 Census who was born in 1867 and was 16 years old in 1883.



Is tourism a big deal?

Yes. The movie 'Giant' was filmed here in 1955. The Lights are a major attraction. They got a Texas Dept. of Transportation grant of $832,483 to build an expanded Lights Visitor Center. They have held a Marfa Lights Festival over Labor Day since 1986. In ca 1989 or 1991 the TV program "Unsolved Mysteries' did a story about the Lights with Dr. Robert Barker rom McDonald Observatory. William Corliss does not mention the Marfa Lights in his 1983 book. (1-25-2001)



 Can the Marfa Public Library help? Inter-library Loans?















Copyright (C) 2001 Dr. Sten Odenwald