A History of the Brown Mountain Lights in North Carolina

  • Post category:History

Mountains and Mysteries

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The mountains of western North Carolina are home to many interesting landmarks and historical sites. Some of these include Mount Mitchell, the highest peak east of the Mississippi River; Linville Gorge, sometimes referred to as the “Grand Canyon of the East;” and the Blue Ridge Parkway, which stretches into Virginia and covers 469 miles. North Carolina’s mountains hold a significant place in American historical memory.

In the American Revolution, mountain men gathered and rallied in various locations, along the way to Kings Mountain, which proved to be a turning point for the southern theater of the war. During the Civil War, many living in the mountains broke away from the Confederacy to rejoin the Union, as the southern Appalachians contained some abolitionist and unionist sentiment. The history of these amazing mountains goes much further back than that, however.

The Legend of the Origin of the Lights

Two notable tribes – the Cherokee and the Catawba – inhabited the region. One location within the Blue Ridge, according to legend, served as the site of a major battle between the Cherokee and Catawba. Located not far from the Blue Ridge Parkway, Brown Mountain rests near Linville Gorge across the road from Highway 181.

Local folklore states that, around the year 1200, a large battle occurred between the two tribes, resulting in many casualties. As a result, Native women within the tribes began to search the area for their loved ones. For over a hundred years, people have claimed that the spirits of those searching for their loved ones still roam the area.

What are the Lights?

The Brown Mountain Lights may have originated as local legend, but today, they have some national prominence. There is no specific time to see the lights, and no one has truly been able to solve their mystery. What is known for sure, however, are a few simple facts.

At any time of night, at any time of the year, viewers at Brown Mountain Overlook on Highway 181, or Wiseman’s View, as well as a few other locations, may see glowing lights that have the potential to rise into the sky and disappear. The lights have no set color, and may be white, yellow, or red. They have been seen on the ridges in the range of Brown Mountain, as well as in the valley below the overlook.

At Brown Mountain Overlook, there are several signs that describe various aspects of the area. One of the signs reads: “Thousands of people have witnessed the strange lights, and legends of the lights date back to as early as the year 1200. A single light or hundreds of lights can appear according to various accounts. The lights are said to float up the ridge and hover above Brown Mountain, where they drift about, change color, blink and then disappear.”

The US Geological Survey, the US Weather Service and the Smithsonian investigated the phenomenon and proposed many causes for the lights. It’s been suggested that the lights are simply burning marsh gas, reflected train or automobile lights, city lights or radium rays. But none of these theories have been been proven. Perhaps the most interesting and enchanting explanations are the legends.

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Surprisingly, according to a report made by George Mansfield in 1971, many people living in the region had never heard of the lights prior to 1910. Mansfield remarks that H.L. Millner, an engineer who surveyed railroads in the area during the early 1900s, stated that he had never heard of the lights prior to 1910. However, Wade Harris, an editor for the Charlotte Daily Observer, said that people had seen the lights prior to the Civil War. Joseph Levin stated that he had seen the lights in 1897, but that he did not start paying much attention until 1910.

Some Things are Best Left a Mystery

The Brown Mountain Lights have intrigued people across the country for decades. Some people suspect them to be ghost lights, while others believe them to be formations caused by natural gas, and yet others believe them to be reflections. People for generations have witnessed this phenomenon, and yet no one has been able to explain the cause.

During my several trips to Brown Mountain Overlook, I have only seen one light. It slowly appeared on the ridge at Brown Mountain, flickered like a bright candle, darted across the ridge, and disappeared. I believe there is a possibility that the lights will never be explained, regardless of how much research is put into the subject. Perhaps some things are better left a mystery.

Garrett Smith
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