Brown Mountain lights
The Brown Mountain lights are purported ghost lights near Brown Mountain in North Carolina. The earliest published references to strange lights there are from around 1910, at about the same time electric lighting was becoming widespread in the area. In 1922, a USGS scientist, George R. Mansfield, used a map and an alidade telescope to prove that the lights that were being seen were trains, car headlights, and brush fires, which ended widespread public concern. With the original sightings of the early 20th century having been explained, storytellers have been creating imaginary pre-electrification histories of the lights ever since, and the nature of claimed encounters with the lights appears to have changed over the years to suit changing cultural expectations.
The earliest published mentions of the lights begin in 1912, on the heels of the first publication of Jules Verne's 1906 novel Master of the World in English in 1911. An important plot point in the novel consists of a mad scientist constructing an airship inside his secret lair in Table Rock, near Morganton, North Carolina, activities which cause strange lights to appear on the summit of the mountain. The rapidly expanding electrification of the Linville Gorge area from the 1890s through the 1910s, seems to be the origin of the Brown Mountain lights legend, possibly helped by Verne's novel.:loc 281 A number of travelogues, including accounts of mysterious happenings and ghost stories, were published about the region prior to 1900; but there is no mention of unexplained lights in any of these historical sources. Mansfield's investigation found many locals were unaware of any strange lights until 1910 or later. Joseph Loven, who lived next to Loven's Hotel, said he had first noticed the lights in 1897, but took no interest in them, and didn't hear anyone else talking about them, until his neighbor, C. E. Gregory, began trying to draw public attention to them around 1910.:p. 4 Also, Southern Railways had begun upgrading their locomotive headlamps to 600,000 candlepower systems in 1909, rendering their trains' light output greater than that of some lighthouses that were in operation at the time.:pp. 16–18
One early account of the lights dates from September 24, 1913, as reported in the Charlotte Daily Observer. It described “mysterious lights seen just above the horizon every night,” red in color, appearing “punctually” at 7:30 PM and again at 10 PM; attributing the information to Anderson Loven, “an old and reliable resident”.:p. 4
As in Verne's novel, locals asked their Congressmen for a government investigation; in 1913 United States Geological Survey employee, D.B. Sterrett, was dispatched to the area and quickly found that the headlights of westbound Southern Railways locomotives would have been visible from Loven's Hotel, and the train schedules he consulted left him no doubt that these were the cause of the lights that were being reported.:p. 10 In July of 1916, a flood caused train activity around Brown Mountain to cease for several weeks, which provided an opportunity for some to doubt Sterrett's conclusions. George Anderson Loven, whose hotel was doing a good business from all the visitors keen to see the light, told the Lenoir News that September that it was still being seen nightly, although it isn't clear whether it was one specific light that he referred to, or many different lights, or possibly even every nighttime light visible from his hotel that he considered mysterious.:loc 978–983 It was never required that train headlights be the only mystery light source, as car headlights were another likely contributor,:p. 5:loc 980 but this argument is often repeated today.:loc 966, 983
With Sterrett's investigation being considered inadequate by locals, the USGS sent Mansfield to investigate in 1922. As part of his investigation, Mansfield set up an alidade telescope near Loven's Hotel, at the former home of C. E. Gregory. Accompanied by members of the Loven family, he recorded a number of nighttime lights, one of which appeared to move and flare in brightness, making Joseph Loven call it a true Brown Mountain light, but which through the telescope proved to be stationary throughout the entire evening, despite repeated azimuth readings being taken. Another series of lights that were seen were found to plot on a map to a curve in a Southern Railways track, and the time of appearance of that light corresponded exactly to that of a scheduled train. At the end of the observing session, Robert Loven said that he didn't believe that the lights they had seen were bright enough to be genuine Brown Mountain lights, but Joseph Loven said that he considered the lights they saw to have been an average display of the phenomenon.:p. 12 After Mansfield's investigation found the lights to be distant car and train headlights, and brush fires, Joseph Loven, who had inherited the hotel from his father and had been one of the main commentators and local experts on the Brown Mountain lights in the newspapers, seemed to disappear from further commentary on the lights in print for the rest of his life. Ed Speer interprets this as a sign that Mansfield's investigation might have solved the mystery for Loven, as it did for most people.:loc 1182–1194
Ever since Mansfield demonstrated that the Brown Mountain lights that were being seen in 1922 were nothing stranger than distant electric lights, local writers have tried to protect the mystery by inventing new tales of the lights' origins; one apparent goal of this storytelling is to try to insinuate the idea that the lights had been seen before trains and electrification. The first publication of a claim that the lights were in any way referenced by a Native American culture was an article in the Asheville Citizen in 1938; it was merely asserted as fact with no sources being provided. Experts on historical Native American traditions state that this is a myth that was invented by white people to justify their own beliefs in the lights. A new variant of an older ghost story about a woman and baby murdered in the Jonas Ridge community became the first published ghost story to incorporate the lights in 1936. Other ghost stories in similar vein were devised through the rest of the 20th century to the present. Newer ghost stories about the lights include one about a Revolutionary War soldier that was first published in 1982; while a story linking the lights to Civil War ghosts was first seen in 2012, on the internet. The UFO movement began to influence the Brown Mountain lore in the mid-20th century. Ralph Lael, who used to display what he claimed was a mummified alien in his rock shop, self published a book detailing his claimed extraterrestrial encounters on Brown Mountain, and his trip with the aliens to their home planet of Venus, in 1965. At some point, a transition took place between the distant lights that were the foundation of the original legend, and the much more recent stories that feature 'close encounters' with glowing spheres that float in the air, stories that are notably absent from the early 20th century reports, even though thousands of loggers were working in the Brown Mountain area then.:loc 296–303 Currently, the lights draw people interested in the popular 'ghost hunting' hobby; providing them a supposedly haunted location to investigate. The lights, as a cultural phenomenon, evolved over time to suit the desires and changing expectations of the people who participate in that culture, including borrowings from outside.
Fate Wiseman's light
Josiah Lafayette "Fate" Wiseman (1842-1932) was the great uncle of Scotty Wiseman, whose song, The Legend of the Brown Mountain Lights (1961), greatly popularized the Brown Mountain lights, making them the most popular ghost story in North Carolina. His is also the oldest report of a strange light near Brown Mountain, though it wasn't well known at the time, and played no role in founding the legend. According to a tradition that was passed down through the Wiseman family, but that wasn't published until 1971, some time "around 1854" young Fate Wiseman was camping at Wiseman's View with his father when he first noticed a flash of light in the distance. Wiseman found that the same momentary flash would appear at the same place on the horizon at about the same time (varying by at most half an hour) each and every night. He would often return to the place and, at the expected time, he would stare into the distance until he saw a glimpse of the light.:loc 778–790
It's unknown how reliable or precise the date of "around 1854" is, because the source, Scotty Wiseman, was remembering things that 79-year-old Fate had told him when he was 13 years old, 50 years prior. However, the description of the light is consistent with a distant train headlight turning a corner, the first train in western North Carolina began nightly service between Morganton and Salisbury in 1858, and trains are known for following consistent and regular schedules, as the light did.:loc 778–790
Appalachian State University installed two low light cameras on rooftops that overlook Brown Mountain and Linville Gorge; by 2014 these cameras had produced 6,300 viewing hours worth of data without any unexplainable lights being recorded.:loc 2761
There are roadside locations for observing the purported lights on the Blue Ridge Parkway at mile posts 310 (Brown Mountain overlook) and 301 (Green Mountain overlook) and from the Brown Mountain Overlook along North Carolina Highway 181 (NC 181), near Jonas Ridge, North Carolina. Additionally, lights have been reported from the top of Table Rock and Wiseman's View, both located in the Linville Gorge Wilderness.
In popular culture
The lights are the inspiration for the bluegrass song “Brown Mountain Lights,” by Scotty Wiseman, later performed by The Hillmen (Vern Gosdin – vocals) and also the Kingston Trio and the Country Gentlemen. In this version, the light is being carried by "a faithful old slave/come back from the grave" who is searching for his lost master. The song was also recorded by the progressive bluegrass band Acoustic Syndicate and performed by Yonder Mountain String Band. This song was also performed and recorded by Sonny James, Roy Orbison, Tommy Faile, and Tony Rice.
The 1999 episode "Field Trip" of the paranormal drama show The X Files centered around a mysterious case of missing hikers that were found dead in the vicinity of the Brown Mountains of North Carolina; the show mentions the Brown Mountain lights (the show's main character Fox Mulder believed it was due to UFOs).
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- Speer, Wade (2017). The Brown Mountain Lights: History, Science, and Human Nature Explain an Appalachian Mystery (Kindle ed.). McFarland & Company Inc. ISBN 978-1-4766-2620-8.
- Mansfield, George R. (1922). Origin of the Brown Mountain Light in North Carolina (PDF). USGS Circular 646. USGS.
- Nickell, Joe. "The Brown Mountain Lights: Solved! (Again!)". Skeptical Inquirer. Retrieved 27 February 2021.
- Dunning, Brian. "The Brown Mountain Lights". Skeptoid Podcast. Retrieved 23 February 2021.
- Sakowski, Carolyn (2011). Touring the Western North Carolina Backroads. Touring the backroads (illustrated ed.). John F. Blair. p. 245. ISBN 978-0895875600.
- Bogdanov, Vladimir (2003). The Definitive Guide to Country Music. all music guide (illustrated ed.). Backbeat Books. p. 566. ISBN 0879307609.
- "Reopening The X-Files: "Field Trip"".
- "Alien horror movie claims to be based on 'true phenomenon' in North Carolina". Fox 8.
- Rubinstein, Mark (2015-07-21). "'Speaking in Bones,' A Conversation With Kathy Reichs". Huffington Post. Retrieved 2015-09-19.
- Jerome Clark, Unexplained! 347 Strange Sightings, Incredible Occurrences, and Puzzling Physical Phenomena, Visible Ink Press, 1993.