I had spent the morning in Asheville and found a place to spend the night in Morganton before I set out to explore. Stopping at the desk of the hotel, the lady there told me “All I had to do was follow Route 181 north and I would find a lookout after a short drive.” Following her directions, I set out, taking the road out of town and into the mountains of western North Carolina. Her definition of a short drive did not match mine. I carefully navigated the sharp turns of Route 181 as it climbed out of Morganton, moving deeper into the Pisgah National Forest.
I was beginning to think I really misunderstood the directions of a “short drive” as I had already driven close to twenty-five miles. I was ready to give up and started to look for a place to turn around to return to Morganton, when suddenly the pull-off to the overlook came into view on my right.
Entering the parking area, I stopped at the far end of the lot, away from a van that was at the southern end of the parking lot. I stepped out and took in the beauty of this spot that overlooked the Linsville Gorge and Brown Mountain. I walked over to investigate the informational plaques scattered around the parking area. They shared the history of the area and the mystery of the ghost lights that had been spotted here over the years.
“You here to watch for the lights too?” the voice startled me. The young man had walked over from the group gathered at the van. When I said I always had an interest in the Brown Mountain Lights, he offered to allow me to join their watch group. The four of them were college students who had come to North Carolina from Wisconsin to explore the Brown Mountain Lights. This was the third night of watching the gorge and they still had two more nights to stake out the overlook in search of the ghost lights.
After introducing me to the group, he excitedly explained the equipment they were using. His excitement was definitely contagious, although I really did not understand all the information he was throwing at me. But I did understand they were there to investigate the mysterious lights that have been spotted in the region for years.
The Brown Mountain Lights are mysterious orbs of light that have been spotted rising from the gorge and eventually disappearing into the night. The lights, which originally were described as being round, glowing balls of white light, are now reported in a variety of bright colors and while they are most often spotted in March and October, they have been reported throughout the year.
Exactly when the lights were first spotted remains a debate in itself. Newspaper articles reported the Brown Mountain Lights began appearing in the 1910s. Some state they were first recorded in the late 1890s, but if so, it does not seem to have been reported in any publications.
By 1913, the lights had attracted enough attention that the US Geological Survey sent D.B. Sterrett to investigate. He discovered these reports of the Brown Mountain Lights had witnesses on top the mountains seeing the lights at certain times each evening and those times matched up with the train schedule.
While this explanation satisfied most, many were not happy with his findings.
In 1922, the US Geological Survey sent George Rogers Mansfield into Southern Appalachia to determine the origin of the lights. He published his findings in “Origin of the Brown Mountain Light in North Carolina” (Geological Survey Circular 646). Mansfield dismissed any supernatural origins of the lights and concluded “47 percent of the lights that the writer was able to study instrumentally were due to automobile headlights, 33 percent to locomotive headlights, 10 percent to stationary lights, and 10 percent to brush fires.”
Mansfield attempted to eliminate many possible sources of the light, which he also released in his report. The ghost lights eliminated were “Will-o’-the-wisp” because there were no marshy grounds found in the area of Brown Mountain and “St. Elmo’s fire” because “there seems to be little in common between the lights seen by the writer and St. Elmo’s fire as usually described.” He eliminated phosphorescence – more commonly known as fox fire – because these lights, which are created by decomposing wood, “are too feeble to be seen at a distance of several miles.”
One of the more interesting light sources Mansfield eliminates as a possible source of the Brown Mountain Lights are moonshine stills. He admits there are numerous stills in the region, but “there are not enough such stills and they probably would not be in sufficiently continuous operation to produce lights in the number and in the regularity of appearance of those seen.”
Although the US Department of Interior was satisfied with Mansfield’s results, it did not stop the lights from becoming a part of regional lore and soon stories about the origins of the Brown Mountain Lights began to circulate. The most popular of these original stories claim the Brown Mountains Lights involve a great battle that happened here between the Cherokee and Catawba in 1200. According to legend, after the battle, maidens from both sides searched the battlefield in search of their kin. As darkness fell, they lit torches to continue their search and to this day they continue to search for their loved ones.
Another story to explain the Brown Mountain Lights involves the disappearance of a woman in the 1850s. According to the story, the lady was murdered by her husband and her body was hidden beneath a pile of rocks on the mountain. After her disappearance, mysterious lights would appear, travel to the rock pile where the woman’s body was hidden, and disappear.
A third origin of the Brown Mountain Lights is one that has been set to music and was a favorite bluegrass tune at one time. It states that a wealthy Southern planter had gone into the mountains to hunt and disappeared. A slave went out with a lantern to search for the missing man and still continues to search until Judgement Day. Note: This origin story is a popular explanation for a number of ghost lights in Southern Appalachia. and appears in many stories to explain the phenomenon.
In modern times, the origins of the Brown Mountain Lights stem from ghost lore to other possible paranormal explanations. Among these are the lights are the work of fairies while others believe the lights are UFOs and some believe the lights are alien lifeforms.
“What do you think the lights are?” I was asked by the group. I responded that I did not have an explanation for them. “What if you were told the Brown Mountain Lights are actually two different types of light?” They proceeded to explain why they believed there were two different types of lights that roam the area around Brown Mountain. The first are lights that are low and appear to be in the woods. The second type of lights are those that have been spotted in the air, above the trees and mountains. They concluded by stating they believed “both types of lights seem to have an intelligence.”
No matter what the source of the Brown Mountain Lights may be, they continue to draw countless people into the mountains of Western North Carolina. Every visitor has their own theory about the lights and their origins, but which one is correct will always be a subject of debate.
As the sun disappeared, they broke out coffee, preparing to spend the night watching for the lights. I wished them well and left them to their research. They gave me a lot to think about as I headed back to Morganton as they remained at the overlook, attempting to explain the lights that have baffled the region for centuries.
Note: If you were one of those four students from Wisconsin, who happened to be investigating the Brown Mountain Lights in the summer of 2018, drop me a line – I would enjoy hearing what you may have discovered.