The Brown Mountain Lights
A ghost light in North Carolina has people scratching their heads, but researchers solved it a century ago.
by Brian Dunning
October 5, 2010
Come with us now to the Appalachian Mountains in North Carolina, about 110 kilometers northwest of Charlotte. Within the Pisgah National Forest are rocky gorges, streams, and green everywhere you look. Hikers and backpackers abound. Some of the lucky night time visitors — or perhaps the unlucky, depending on your perspective — may get more than they bargain for. For the region is home to one of the world's infamous ghost lights, the Brown Mountain Lights.
We've covered "ghost lights" on Skeptoid before; specifically the Marfa Lights in Texas and the Min Min Light in Australia. In both cases, those lights were conclusively found to be superior mirages of actual lights below the horizon. The terrain in those places are similar; both are deeply cleft with gulleys which trap hot air from the day which is then overlaid with cold night air, forming perfect conditions to reflect light down from over the horizon. When the weather's within a certain range, the lights appear; and at both locations, researchers have reliably and repeatably correlated appearance of the lights with control lights placed below the horizon. There are many such lights around the world.
At first glance, the Brown Mountain Lights have a lot of the same characteristics, and our first reaction might well be to classify it along with the others. But upon closer inspection, we have to say "Not so fast." For it seems that there are two distinct and very different manifestations of the Brown Mountain Lights.
To understand this, let's take a look at Brown Mountain itself. The main thing you'll notice is that it's hardly a mountain at all. It's in a region of foothills of the Appalachians, cleft by canyons and streams. The highest elevations in the area are hardly more than 850 meters, and one hill is hardly distinct from another. Brown Mountain is one such ridge. If it wasn't already named, it would scarcely occur to you to name it.
Moreover, Brown Mountain itself seems to have little direct relevance to the Lights. There are three most-often cited vantage points for viewing the Lights. The most popular is called Wiseman's View, about 13 kilometers west of Brown Mountain. Another is the Lost Cove Overlook, about 16 kilometers northwest of the mountain. Between the two is a Forest Service overlook about 8 kilometers away. From each of these vantage points, you look toward Brown Mountain, and it's hardly more than a smokey-colored smudge on the horizon. If you're lucky, somewhere in that intervening distance, you'll see the Lights. Brown Mountain itself is not the place to go to see them, nor does it appear to be the place where the Lights appear.
This brings us to what the lights look like and how they appear. To learn this, we'll go to Wiseman's View. Highway 105 runs along a ridge, quite a bit higher in elevation than Brown Mountain, and there's a scenic viewpoint turnoff with a parking lot. The lot overlooks the rocky Linville Gorge. Continue on foot down a paved path to a precarious overlook hanging over the gorge. Looking east across the gorge there's a dip in the opposite side, and through that dip you can see the far away ridge of Brown Mountain, and beyond that, the distant city lights of Winston-Salem. Historically, the lights were described as is printed on this United States Forest Service sign:
The long, even-crested mtn. in the distance is Brown Mtn. From early times people have observed weird, wavering lights rise above this mtn., then dwindle and fade away.
If you tried to observe a hovering light above Brown Mountain from Wiseman's View, it would be lost in the city lights. Modern reports of the lights from Wiseman's View are, as mentioned earlier, a very different manifestation. People point their video cameras instead directly at the face of the hills across the gorge, looking not into the sky above the ridge, but straight at the hills. They report flickering lights under the trees, like people waving flashlights around. What's over there?
The right side of that dip looking across Linville Gorge is Table Rock, the most popular rock climbing destination in North Carolina. It's a dramatic rocky outcrop atop the hill across from Wiseman's View. Table Rock has its own parking lot only a couple hundred meters away, so it's not necessary for climbers to camp out on the slopes with their lanterns and flashlights. Nevertheless, it is approximately along the prominent hiking trails around Table Rock where the appearance of lights seem to be reported from Wiseman's View.
One explanation that's been offered, but not well received, is that these lights appearing on the face of the hills are reflections off of illegal moonshine stills, of the moon or other lights, or even the fires from the stills themselves. This is something that could be easily verified, but never has been. In any case, around the slopes of the state's most popular rock climbing destination, in plain view of the most famous overlook in the state, would not be a very clever hiding place for the shrewd distiller.
This type of light — a flicker directly visible on the hillside, as opposed to a probable refraction apparently hovering above the ridge — also contradicts local legend about the Lights' origin. According to modern locals, the Cherokee natives of the region believed 800 years ago that bereaved wives wandered the skies above the hills with lanterns, looking for the souls of their brave warrior husbands killed in battle. I say "supposedly" because I was unable to find any reference to such a belief outside of publications about the Brown Mountain Lights. That doesn't mean the Cherokee did not actually have such a legend; it only means I couldn't find it. I don't, however, recall the ancient Cherokee having lantern technology. Perhaps they meant torches, I don't know. But the retellings of this legend that I did find are unanimous in that the Brown Mountain Lights are specifically the type that appear in the sky above ridges, not flickering through the trees on the face of the hill.
This is also supported by one of the early "scientific" explanations of the Brown Mountain Lights. In 1771, the most prolific cartographer in Colonial America was the Dutchman John William Gerard de Brahm. He was appointed Surveyor General by the British and traveled throughout the Colonies constructing fortifications and bridges. He was also something of an amateur mystic. While in the southern United States, de Brahm is said to have published the following hypothesis (more on this in a moment):
"The mountains emit nitrous vapors which are borne by the wind and when laden winds meet each other the niter inflames, sulphurates and deteriorates."
This is essentially the same "swamp gas" explanation used today to answer everything from ghost lights to UFOs, and which we looked at in detail in the episode on the Naga Fireballs in Thailand. As a serious theory, it falls short of credible. Swamp gas never been found to spontaneously ignite in nature, as it would require a highly improbably mixture of gases in critical proportions. When these conditions have been created artificially in the lab, the gas burns bright bluish-green with a sudden pop, producing black smoke. Under no conditions does it burn slowly, or hover, or in any way resemble the reports of the Brown Mountain Lights. Although it sounds scientific and convincing, the swamp gas hypothesis is almost certainly not the explanation.
By studying the oldest literature, we find that the Lights have been at least partially explained. Often cited as one of the earliest print references to the Brown Mountain Lights is a 1913 article from the Charlotte Observer entitled "No Explanation" that described how the light appears regularly at 9:30 or 10pm nearly every night. In 1922, the US Geological Survey produced a special report based on an exhaustive investigation of the Lights, and found that since 1909 a regularly scheduled locomotive on the plains beyond had been casting its headlight in precisely that direction every night at that same time. In fact it was due at a stop along there at 9:53pm every night. The locomotive's headlight was visible in a direct line of sight from a hill six miles beyond Brown Mountain, and certainly would have been from other locations as well. If it was not the source of the light described in the 1913 article, it would have been in direct competition with it; but witnesses reported one light, not two. Moreover, back in 1909 the USGS had actually made an earlier report in response to sightings of the Brown Mountain Light, and the investigator found that the sightings were all of this same train.
One member of the 1922 USGS team, a Mr. H. C. Martin, initially found geographic conditions in the region to be completely unsuitable to produce superior mirages of the sort that could refract distant lights from over the horizon and make them appear to hover in the air. But upon further investigation, he found that such refraction was taking place, nearly every night, above the basin now occupied by Lake James, and around which were numerous settlements with plenty of electric nights. From all observing stations, these lights were routinely seen above the horizon. The report noted:
"As the basin and its atmospheric conditions antedate the earliest settlement of the region, it is possible that even among the first settlers some favorably situated light may have attracted attention by seeming to flare and then diminish or go out."
This fits well with modern reports from Wiseman's View and the other overlooks that if you move up or down the mountainside, the lights vanish. Martin noted a narrow 3-4° angle in which such refracted lights would be visible.
The USGS also included historical research that found that it was not until 1910, when a Reverend C. E. Gregory moved into the area and began making reports, that the Lights became generally known. Even the belief that the Cherokee and Catawba natives had legends did not appear until about this time. Sightings that predate this period seem to all be apocryphal, with no actual print references known to exist. Even the often-cited 1771 report from de Brahm is suspect. It's always given out of context, and is, in fact, misquoted. De Brahm was not talking about any lights at all, he was giving his mystical and somewhat alchemy-centric opinions on how thunderstorms work and why the air is so clear in the Great Smoky Mountains. Here's what he actually said, and it was in his undated Report of the General Survey in the Southern District of NorthAmerica:
"Although these Mountains transpire through their Tops sulphurueaous and arsenical Sublimations, yet they are too light, as to precipitate so near their Sublimitories, but are carried away by the Winds to distant Regions. In a heavy Atmosphere, the nitrous Vapours are swallowed up through the Spiraculs of the Mountains, and thus the Country is cleared from their Corrosion; when the Atmosphere is light, these nitrous Vapours rise up to the arsenical and sulphureous (subliming through the Expiraculs of the Mountains), and when they meet with each other in Contact, the Niter inflames, vulgurates and detonates, whence the frequent Thunders, in which a most votalized Spirit of Niter ascends to purify and inspire the upper Air, and a phlogiston Regeneratum (the metallic Seed) descends to impregnate the Bowels of the Earth; and as all these Mountains form so many warm Athanors which draw and absorb, especially in foggy Seasons, all corrosive Effluvia along with the heavy Air through the Registers (Spiracles) and thus cease not from that Perpetual Circulation of the Air, corroding Vapours are no sooner raised, than that they are immediately disposed of, consequently the Air in the Appalachian Mountains in extreamely pure and healthy."
Taken in context, it's clear that de Brahm's quote has nothing whatsoever to do with the Brown Mountain Lights. This leaves us with no documentary evidence that the Lights existed at all prior to the arrival of electric lights and people in the area in the early 1900's.
So let's wrap up what we've learned about the two different manifestations of the Brown Mountain Lights. Regarding those that appear in the sky above a ridge, it's apparent that the 1922 USGS report solved it as described in the following conclusion. Today, nearly 90 years later, the lights are coming from different sources but this analysis probably still holds up:
"In summary it may be said that the Brown Mountain lights are clearly not of unusual nature or origin. About 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."
As for the lights appearing on the faces of the hills, we find there are no historical references to such a thing, and only a few recent YouTube videos and modern claims reporting it, in this age of LED flashlights, lanterns, headlamps, and iPhone screens. So I'm confident calling this one unexplained, but also not especially interesting or surprising.
It is all too often that we eagerly accept wild and sensational phenomena, which causes us to shut out the real science behind what's going on. I find real wonder in mirage refractions, and I find great excitement in such perfect solutions as the correlation of the locomotive with the 1909 Lights reports. This wonder and excitement are lost to those who replace science with sensationalism.
By Brian Dunning
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "The Brown Mountain Lights." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
5 Oct 2010. Web.
17 Nov 2017. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4226>
References & Further Reading
Caton, D. "See the Lights." The Brown Mountain Lights. Appalachian State University, 15 Mar. 2005. Web. 30 Sep. 2010. <http://www.brownmountainlights.org/>
De Brahm, J. Report of the general survey in the Southern District of North America. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1971.
Editors. "No Explanation." Charlotte Observer. 24 Sep. 1913, Newspaper: 2.
Johnson, R. Hiking North Carolina: A Guide to Nearly 500 of North Carolina's Greatest Hiking Trails. New York: Globe Pequot, 2007. 149-150.
Mansfield, G. Origin of the Brown Mountain Light in North Carolina. Washington: United States Geological Survey, 1971.
Norman, M. Haunted Homeland: A Definitive Collection of North American Ghost Stories. New York: Macmillan, 2008. 308-310.
Sceurman, M., Moran, M. Weird U.S.: Your Travel Guide to America's Local Legends and Best Kept Secrets. New York: Sterling Publishing Company, Inc., 2009. 103.
Toomey, M. Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture. Nashville: Tennessee Historical Society, 1998.
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