The Brown Mountain Lights

Posted by | October 29, 2010

Please welcome guest blogger David Biddix.  Biddix co-authored, along with Chris Hollifield, ‘Spruce Pine,’ (Arcadia Publishing 2009), a photographic survey of that North Carolina town’s colorful history.

A true ghost story is found in the hills of Burke County, NC, where the eerie Brown Mountain Lights dance along the ridgeline of a low-slung mountain in the famous Linville Gorge wilderness. On clear, moonless nights, especially in March and October, observers see orbs of light rise from the mountaintop and dance along the ridge before rising and fading into the air. The lights are of various colors, and some even change shades while they are in view.

Brown Mountain is rather nondescript. It rises 2,600 feet at the edge of the Blue Ridge Escarpment and is a long, flat ridge with few distinguishing marks. But when the sun goes down, all eyes nearby turn to its summit hoping for a glimpse of the legendary lights.

Brown Mountain, Burke County, NC

Photo of Brown Mountain taken from atop Table Rock Mountain in the Linville Gorge. The mountain is the long ridge in the middle of the photo.

These glowing apparitions have been seen for hundreds of years. A great battle was fought between the Cherokee and the Catawba Indians near Brown Mountain in the year 1200 AD. According to Cherokee legend, the lights were spirits of Indian maidens who had come to the mountain in search of their lost husbands and sweethearts who were killed in the battle. The first known white man to explore the region was John William Geraud de Brahm, a German cartographer and engineer who was reputedly the most prolific mapmaker in the Southern Colonies. He noted in a 1771 journal the appearance of the strange lights while he was in the region.

One legend explaining the lights involves the disappearance, around 1850, of a woman in a community near Brown Mountain whose husband was accused of her murder. While searchers looked for her, they noted the appearance of the lights and speculated that they were her spirit which had come back to haunt her murderer and warn the searchers away from the region. Years after her disappearance, a pile of bones were supposedly found under a cliff near the mountain and they were identified as her skeleton.

However, the most famous legend was related by Fate Wiseman, whose family was one of the first settlers in the region. He spoke of a southern planter who came to the Linville Gorge on a hunting expedition and did not return home. A faithful slave of the planter was sent to the Gorge in search of him. The planter was never found, and the slave never returned home. Legend has it that the slave continues to wander the mountain in search of his master, and the lights are those of his lantern while he searches in vain.

Scotty Wiseman, who attained fame with wife Lulu Belle on the Grand Ole Opry and the WLS Barn Dance in the 1930s, took Fate’s legend and turned it into a ballad. The Brown Mountain Light went on to become a hit for several artists, including the Country Gents and the Kingston Trio in the 1960s. The song has popularized the lights and brought tourists from around the globe to try and observe them.

Science has tried to explain the processes that cause the lights to appear. In 1913, a scientist from the U.S. Geological Survey visited the mountain, reporting that the lights were the result of train headlights shining over the mountain. The old timers in the region chuckled, noting that the lights had been seen since the times of the covered wagons. Other scientific explanations included car headlights, brush fires, fires from moonshine stills, and swamp gas. However, a flood in 1916 stopped trains and cars in the region, electrical lights in towns were doused, and the ensuing rains would put out any brush fires. But the Brown Mountain Lights kept on shining through it all.

In 1922, H.C. Martin of the U.S. Geological Survey released an extensive report stating that the lights were the result of mirages rising from the electric lights of settlements in the nearby Catawba River Valley.

More recently, groups have camped in the Gorge and videoed appearances of the lights. Several of these can be viewed online. Modern day theories for the lights abound, from foxfire, which is the light emitted from decaying wood, to UFOs, which some have suggested use the nondescript mountain as a base.

So what is really happening on Brown Mountain? No one really knows. But if you’d like a good spook each Halloween, head to the hills in Burke County, when it’s a good time to see the Brown Mountain Lights.


The Brown Mountain Lights:

Mountain Bred Tales by John Parris (published 1967 by the Asheville Citizen-Times)

The Brown Mountain Lights: Debunked?

NC Museum of History:

1922 US Geological Survey Report on Brown Mountain:

Brown Mountain Lights videos (including a performance of the Scotty Wiseman song):

Tommy Faile version of the Scotty Wiseman song:

2 Responses

  • Ed Speer says:

    Mark, I know you’ve written a number of informative articles on the Brown Mountain Lights and I thought you might be interested in a recent Blog that presents scientific research on the phenomena.

    I’m a retired geologist and member of a diverse team of investigators actively pursuing the phenomena. I think you’ll find the Blog is the most unbiased, even-handled and logical source of information available. Should you wish to learn more, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

    All the best…..Ed

  • Beulah says:

    interesting blog I no longer read The Sun news paper at work

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