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“The Mystery of the Brown Mountain Lights”

July 2, 2007

The southern Appalachian Mountains are rich in natural beauty and haunting folklore. Brown Mountain lies in the foothills of the Blue Ridge northwest of Morganton, North Carolina, in Burke County.  The 2,600-foot mountain and its mysterious lights have intrigued locals and interlopers alike for hundreds of years.

            The fascinating lights have been described as glowing circles of fire, as bright lights resembling exploding fireworks, or as lights shining brightly, then fading to a pale glimmer. Sometimes the lights move, drifting slowly across the mountain ridge. At other times they whirl like pinwheels and then dart rapidly away.

            Ghostly legends abound. As far back as the year 1200, each period of regional history has produced a new tale.

            According to Native American lore, a fierce battle was fought on Brown Mountain between the Cherokee and Catawba tribes. The Cherokees believed that the lights were the spirits of Indian maidens searching for their warriors slain on the mountainside.

            In 1771, a German engineer, the first European to explore the region, reported in his journal, seeing the lights on Brown Mountain.

            One legend tells of a Revolutionary War soldier, an Over-the-Mountain Man. Returning to Brown Mountain, he found his home destroyed by fire, his family missing. The spirit of the grieving patriot, still carrying his torch, roams the mountain.

            In his book, Haunted North Carolina, Troy Taylor relates the story of a murder in 1850. One dark night, a mountain woman disappeared. Folks thought that the woman’s husband had taken her life. The community turned out to search for her body. As the search continued, strange lights appeared over Brown Mountain. Some believed they were the spirit of the dead woman, coming back to haunt her killer.

            The woman’s husband disappeared. Years later, a pile of bones was found under a cliff on Brown Mountain. They were the skeletal remains of the missing woman. The lights have appeared frequently ever since.

            Most widely circulated is the legend of a plantation owner from the Lowcountry. Traveling to Brown Mountain on a hunting excursion, the man became lost. One of his slaves came to look for him, faithfully searching with a lantern, night after night. According to myth, the spirit of the old slave still searches the mountainside, his lantern glowing in the night.

            A Bluegrass song popularized by The Kingston Trio has perpetuated the legend. The words to the chorus are:

            High on the mountain, and down in the valley below,

            They shine like the crown of an angel, and fade as the mists come and go.

            Way over yonder, night after night until dawn,

            A faithful old slave, come back from the grave,

            (Searching) For his master who’s long gone on.


            No suitable scientific explanation exists. Many have tried to solve the mystery. Theories include the will-o’-the-wisp, methane gas rising from bogs; fox fire, a dim light sometimes seen on decaying wood; St. Elmo’s fire, a glowing discharge of electricity usually observed on a ship’s mast; luminescent phosphorus; or radium rays. All have been dismissed.

            Some have suggested the lights could be fires from moonshine stills on the mountain. Others contend the lights are automobile headlight reflections from Rattlesnake Knob.

            The lights have been cited as a manifestation of flying saucers. In the 1950s, Ralph Lael, a Burke County resident, claimed that aliens from outer space living inside the mountain create the lights. The aliens apparently took a liking to Ralph because they invited him inside the mountain and showed him their base. Then, he accompanied them on a trip to Venus.

            Scientists have advanced the theory that the lights are a mirage; refracted light from nearby towns in the area.

            A United States Geological Survey decided in 1913 that the lights were locomotive headlights from the Catawba Valley. However, three years later a great flood swept through, washing out railroad bridges, roads, and power lines. The lights on the mountain continued to appear as usual.

Dr. Greg Little videotaped the Brown Mountain lights in 2003. He believes they are earthlights. Photographs from satellites show luminous balls emerging from fault lines. The Grandfather Mountain Fault runs directly under Brown Mountain, lending credence to the theory. 

            Dr. Don Caton, a professor at Appalachian State University, has vowed to debunk the legend of the lights. He speculates they are caused by reflections of stars above Brown Mountain.        

A 1922 study by scientists from Georgia Tech came to this conclusion: the lights defy simple explanations. One thing is certain, the Brown Mountain lights do exist, a natural phenomenon that scientists have yet to explain.

The best place to observe them is at Wiseman’s View, an overlook off Highway 105 above the Linville Gorge. Clear weather with limited moonlight is optimal. The lights have been seen at all hours between sundown and sunrise.     

            Several years ago, I stood at Wiseman’s View in Pisgah National Forest hoping to view the Brown Mountain lights. As dusk gave way to darkness, stars filled the sky.

To the southwest, I saw dozens of flickering lights. I gazed in amazement at the tiny lights moving back and forth, flickering off and on.

I rubbed my eyes, blinking a couple of times, before I realized the lights before me were lightening bugs just like the ones I used to catch as a kid.

   Oh, for an empty mayonnaise jar!

-Kirk H. Neely 

© H-J Weekly, July 2007

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