One of the most intriguing mysteries of the mountains is the ghostly lights that can be seen in several places. They are called by many names such as will-o-wisps, ghost lanterns, and spirit balls. The Appalachian Mountains have always been described as “dark and mysterious” or described as the “dark and bloody ground” because of the many legends and myths that have found fertile ground in the imagination of its people.
The Brown Mountain area is located near the towns of Linville and Morganton, in Burke County, North Carolina. The best views are off of NC-105 S or the NC-181 located near Asheville or Boone, North Carolina. The most likely time to see the ghostly lights is during the cool, and crisp, fall evenings just after a rainfall.
As with all of the mountain ghostly light sightings, there is always a great legend as to why they appear. The majority of them have to do with a Civil War or a Native American battle. The legends of the Brown Mountain Ghostly Lights have changed over time and even caused panic in the early 1900s. Come along with us as we dive through the legend that is the Brown Mountain Ghostly Lights.
Description of the Ghostly Lights
Often the ghostly lights in the Brown Mountain area are described as orbs and come in many colors. The colors of the orbs can vary from blue, white, yellow, orange, or red. They have been described as large balls of fire to small candlelights floating in the air. Cameras have captured them floating still and some of them have been seen dancing in the air before disappearing into the night just as quickly as they first appear.
They hover about 15 feet off of the ground. And several of them can be seen in the tree line in the tourist videos and photographs. But they do not float up into the atmosphere or roll on the ground itself.
The Cheorkee and Catawba Legend
According to several sources, there were two Native American tribes, the Cherokee and Catawba. There was a fierce battle that happened between the two Tribes that was devastating to both sides. After the fighting was over there were many injured and dead men laying all over the area.
In the evening hours, just before dark fell, the Catawba women would light torches, and through the dimly lit paths search among the injured and dead to find their loved ones. Husbands, brothers, sons, and fathers were all involved in the conflict. It is said that to this day the Catawba women are still searching throughout the nights to find the men of their Tribes to help bury and mourn them.
It is claimed that this story can be found in the Asheville Citizen in 1938, however, we could not find the article in our searches. There were no sources listed in the article or where they got the story from. Historians of Native American Culture have stated that this is a made-up legend to justify what everyone is seeing in the mountains. However, this legend still remains to this day as it is repeated on many websites.
First Recorded Sighting
German engineer John William Gerard de Brahm first recorded the sightings of the ghostly lights in his journal in 1771.
Brahm was a very well-known map maker and surveyor of the southern states during that time period. And is credited for being the engineer for the construction of Fort Loudoun in Tennessee, and making the plans for the New Bermuda settlement in Florida.
He reported to King George III that the lights were seen at the same time every evening. Because the lights were seen at the same time every evening in this location, this has led to skepticism from many who have read his journal.
Many of his skeptics came to believe over the years that he was seeing the lights from a train as they had tracks and several trains to run in the area during that time frame. There are other skeptics who claim that the writings about the Brown Mountain ghostly lights were nothing more than Brahm having an active imagination and there are claims that his journal is often misquoted.
Link to Jules Vern That Led to Panic
Jules Verne’s 1906 novel “Master of the World” was first published in English in 1911. One of the plots of the novel is of a mad scientist using a lair in Table Rock, near Morgantown, North Carolina. The proximity of the location in the novel stirred the people’s imagination.
The gist of the novel tells of strange orbs of light moving with great speed across the night sky of the Appalachian skies in the Summer of 1903. A detective by the name of John Strock, who is the narrator of the story, speaks about his adventure and investigation into the mystery. Along the way, he discovers an inventor and scientist by the name of Robur.
Robur had invented the machine he called the “terror”. This was a vehicle that was approximately 33 feet long and was capable of running at speeds of 150 mph on land and 200 mph when flying in the air. This was unheard of speed in the early 1900s.
In the story, Strock tries to capture Robur and his Terror but is instead captured himself. Robur runs into a terrible storm while trying to escape to the Caribbean where the vehicle is destroyed and Robur is not heard from again.
Added to the vivid imaginations of this publication was the fact that Linville was getting electricity from the years 1890 through 1910 and panic soon ensued. As the alarm went through the community the government started sending people from the United States Geological Survey or USGS to help to explain the strange phenomenon.
The Government gets involved
In 1913, the government sent the first person from the USGS. Agency representative D.B. Sterrett was sent to the area. Sterrett surmised that the train headlights on the westbound railways caused the lights seen in the sky. He compared the train schedules with the lights that were seen and they matched. This temporarily calmed the nerves of the residents.
In July 1916, flooding in the area caused the trains to stop running. The lights continued to be seen in the night sky. This disproved the theory that the lights were headlights of the trains that were moving along the tracks around the mountain and its gorge. With the explanation now disproven, this unnerved the residents of the area and panic once again began to grip them.
To help calm the nerves of the residents and ease the growing panic, in 1922, the government sent USGS scientist, George R. Mansfield to solve the matter. Bringing his alidade telescope and a map of the area, Mansfield surmised that the orbs were nothing more than trains, brush fires, and car headlights. This calmed the fears of the people living in the area. Although the Loven family members were with Mansfield at the time they disputed that these light sources were bright enough to cause the phenomenon. The Loven family were owners of the local hotel that relied on the tourist business from the Brown Mountain Ghostly Lights.
Other Ghost Stories and UFO Explanations
There are several other ghost stories that surround the lights on Brown Mountain. According to one source, there is a story that concerns a woman and her child that were murdered on Jonas Ridge. This story was published in 1936. We could not find the reference or the newspaper article referring to this story.
According to another source in 1982, there was a story published that the ghostly lights were linked to a Revolutionary War soldier’s ghost. Newer stories that started to appear in 2012, claim that the ghostly lights belong to a Civil War soldier.
Not to be outdone, the UFO movement has also laid claim to this area’s strange phenomenon. In the mid-20th century, Ralph Lael, who owned a rock shop, used to display a mummified alien and wrote and self-published a book about his encounter with the aliens in 1965.
The ghostly lights can be seen to this day and have been recorded a great deal throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. Many recordings come from the Brown Mountain Overlook, Wiseman’s View Overlook, and Lost Cove Cliffs Overlook. These overlooks are free to the public and give breathtaking views of Brown Mountain and the Linville Gorge.
Appalachian State University
In 2014, Appalachian State University decided to study the strange phenomenon of the Brown Mountain Lights. The University installed low light cameras on rooftops to overlook the Brown Mountain and Linville Gorge area. After reviewing over 6,300 viewing hours, there were no lights recorded.
In folklore, the Will-o-the-wisps are in swamps and wooded wet areas. They are sometimes called “ghost lights”. Many cultures all over the world have different explanations for them. Even science has tried to explain them. While many of the Will-o-the-wisps are weather-related. Others are a little harder to explain.
Long ago many people figured out that the “Ghost Lights” were not a good sign and learned to never trust them. They lead the person who sees them to their deaths. Many see them as floating lanterns, flames, lights, and orbs. They have many names. Such as corpse candles, ghost orbs, pucks, hinkypunks, and Jack-o-the-lanterns. They are well known to be mischievous.
Most of the tales surrounding the lights have to do with a man who walks with a lantern because of his misdeeds. His name is usually Will or Jack. Granted a lump of fire coal or fire flame from hell to light the path on his journey throughout time. Denied entry into heaven or hell because of his deeds. Forever doomed to walk the earth for eternity.
We have always left it up to our readers to make up their own minds whether or not a story is a fact or fiction. But we do have a few questions for our readers and listeners to consider. Are these people really seeing something in the Appalachian Mountain woods? Why are people able to record the ghostly lights on their video cameras but Appalachian State University was unable to capture the phenomenon? Why are the lights seen with the naked eye to this day if they are claimed not to be real? Could Brown Mountain and the Linville Gorge be an optical illusion?
We cannot say what the explanation for the ghostly lights could be. We can only say that others believe that they have seen these lights over many centuries. All we can say is that many legends and myths of the Appalachian people are handed down generation after generation and are held close and dear to the people of the mountains. However, it is interesting that the legend that surrounds the Brown Mountain Ghostly Lights has morphed and grown over time.
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We thank you for continuing to support Kentucky Tennessee Living. As we bring to you the history of the Appalachian Mountains.
Letcher County Haunted History: Part Three
BlueRidge Towns and Trails
Morganton Mystery: The Brown Mountain Lights
Brown Mountain Lights
North Carolina Ghosts
Brown Mountain lights
Appalachian Folklore, Monsters and Superstitions
March 18, 2022 by Amy Lewis
John William Gerard de Brahm
Master of the World (novel)
Ghost Lights: A Weather Folklore
Historic American Newspapers.
Library of Congress.
Marion progress. Marion, N.C., 04 Aug. 1932.
The Washington times. Washington [D.C.], 19 May 1922.
The Lincoln times. Lincolnton, N.C., 28 April 1955.
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When we forget our past and who we are as a people, then we become who “they” say we are. ~~ David Sergent
I have attended the University of Kentucky. I have an Associates Degree from Hazard Community College and Technical School. I have also attended the University of Pikeville. I have taken several classes in Journalism as well as in the Appalachian History, Literature, and Sociology during my time at those schools.
I was born in Florida and grew up in Burdine, Kentucky. I have been married to David W. Sergent since May 4, 2013. I have two children and four grandchildren from a previous marriage. I currently live in Tennessee but my hope is to one day come back home to live in the beautiful mountains once more.