Mark Washburn

Have the Brown Mountain Lights finally flickered out?

It is remembered for its deadly fury, but the Flood of 1916 – one of the state’s greatest calamities – also played an odd role in the mystery of the Brown Mountain Lights.

A U.S. Geological Survey reported in 1913 that the lights were a combination of auto and locomotive headlights and other optical phenomenon activated by peculiar air currents.

Then remnants of two Category 4 hurricanes – one from the Atlantic, another from the Gulf – hit the Blue Ridge in succession a century ago this month, unleashing the biggest flood in historic times along the Catawba Basin.

When it was over, more than 50 people were dead, bridges were ripped from their pilings and modern conveniences like electricity, telegraph, roadways and railroads had to be rebuilt.

But the Brown Mountain Lights kept chugging along. People in the mountains continued to report periodic sightings of the phenomenon in the vast de-electrification caused by the flood.

So the flood had claimed another victim – the official theory of what caused the ghostly lights, which have been observed flickering for more than a century on Brown Mountain, a rugged lump in the wrinkles of the Blue Ridge between Morganton and Linville.

Mountain legends

Folklore surrounds the mystery of the lights.

Some claim that Cherokee Indians thought the lights were torches held by ghosts of grieving maidens.

An early European explorer, a German surveyor named G.W. de Brahm, visited the area in 1771 and concluded the apparitions were “nitrous vapors which are borne by the wind,” but there is no hard evidence his observations were made at Brown Mountain.

There isn’t believed to be a solid historical reference to the lights prior to 1913, when the Charlotte Observer first recorded their appearance. An article offered some theories, including dust vented from a mica mine, and this possibility: “Quite a few suspect that some moonshiner, who likes not the limelight, is sending up the light on a kite to frighten his neighbors and others out of that immediate vicinity.”

A 1999 episode of the “X Files” starred the Brown Mountain Lights and the Kingston Trio once recorded a version of Scotty Wiseman’s bluegrass song about the lights in which a slave’s ghost holding a torch drifts along the ridge searching for his lost master.

Then there was the late Ralph Lael, who ran the Outer Space Rock Shop Museum in the foothills and ran for Congress in 1948. He said he was invited into the mountain by aliens who operated a bustling base there. Lael said they were kind enough to take him for a ride in a flying saucer, an excursion that included attractive female E.T.s in bikinis.

Valid observations

Highly reputable witnesses, including veteran Forest Service officers who patrolled the region, have reported close-up encounters on the mountain with beach-ball sized orbs that floated by, then vanished.

Such descriptions match a phenomenon called ball lighting, which has been observed back to antiquity and is still little understood.

Dan Caton, a physics professor at Appalachian State University and the foremost academic researcher into the lights, has favored the ball lightning theory, but has no idea why it would occur so spectacularly along Brown Mountain.

About three years ago, Caton and a team of researchers set up a camera to stare at the mountain at night in search of the lights. They surveyed the mountainside to eliminate lights from campfires, ATVs and hikers.

Some interesting anomalies were observed, but without a second camera it wasn’t possible to know whether they were a lens flare or some other technical quirk.

So a second camera was added. And suddenly the lights got shy.

“We’ve been running these cameras and we haven’t seen jack,” says Caton. “So I’m getting pessimistic.”

He says he’ll probably continue the experiment through next summer and then decide whether there’s any point to go on.

Is it possible that after all this time, the lights have finally flickered out?

Hopefully, they’re just on hiatus and will swim into Caton’s viewfinder soon. They bring a touch of whimsy and a dash of charm to our gnarled highlands, and remind us that even in an age of scientific miracles, some mysteries are eternal.