1913, July 31: Mysterious Lights at Brown Mountain

Brown Mountain
Brown Mountain [Larger version here]

Brown Mountain, in Pisgah National Forest, North Carolina, USA, is now well-known for reports of 'ghost lights' that are said to appear on and around the mountain regularly enough that they cannot be denied. These lights have been attributed to a large number of possible explanations, with the reflection of train or car lights and/or lights caused by unsusual geologic activity being the most common theories put forth. It's also commonly said that the first mention of these odd lights in print is from the Daily Observer, newspaper of Charlotte, North Carolina, for September 24, 1913.

        What is not commonly said, however, is what the Daily Observer article actually says about the matter, so I dug up a copy... and discovered it's not the first mention in print of the lights.

The Reports

        Previous to the Daily Observer article in September 1913, I found that two earlier articles regarding the situation had run in the Asheville-Citizen Times, newspaper of Ashville, North Carolina, on February 19 and September 11, 1913... the following is the sum total of what all three articles report regarding the mysterious lights at Brown Mountain, with some additional details from a 1922 Geological Survey report.

        The first known reports of lights seen on or near Brown Mountain were made sometime in 1908 or 1909 by members of the Morganton Fishing Club, B.S. Gaither being the club member who first saw the strange phenomena. Unfortunately, the members of the club were ridiculed and belittled for their claims, which is likely why the details of these reports don't appear to have ever been published.

        What did get the attention of local papers was the fact that on February 18, 1913, a Mr. R. T. Claywell of Morganton, who was in Washington campaigning for a congressman from Asheville, took time out to visit the offices of the U.S. Geological Survey and described to them the reports he had heard from friends of the strange lights on the mountain. Clayton had gotten the director of the Geological Survey, George O. Smith, to assure him an agent of the survey would be sent to investigate the strange occurrences immediately. Clayton had not seen the lights himself, but had it from trusted friends that the light appeared at 9:00PM each night "with remarkable regularity."

        In July of that year, Claywell was staying at a cottage near the Cold Springs Hotel on 'Rattlesnake Knob' with eight friends when they all saw the light for themselves. As recounted in the September 11 article in the Asheville newspaper, Clayton said that on July 31st, the fourth night of their stay, everyone was up later than usual just sitting out on the cottage's porch and talking. At "exactly 10:05 o'clock," the company noticed two hazy lights across the valley on Brown Mountain at two different spots.

        Everyone was focused on the two strange lights when, a few minutes later, a brighter light appeared at the foot of Brown Mountain, "where Upper Creek cuts it at Joy." This new light appeared to be "swinging to and fro, pendulum like," and rose to a height of about 200 feet. As the round light rose, it changed from a yellow color to a redder tone as it got higher up, until it "appeared like a flaming Red Ball;" but it didn't seem to cast off light or glow, it's shape very defined against the dark sky. Clayton estimated this light was accross the valley from the cottage at a distance of about twelve miles. It had rained earlier that day in Morganton; when the red ball reached an estimated height of 1200 feet, it disappeared behind a rain cloud and wasn't seen again.

        Everyone was astounded. One of the women in attendance fainted. Clayton suspected that they could have seen the strange sight on the other three nights, if they had stayed up and out long enough into the evening... though, realistically, nothing in this particular report would show this was a recurring event. The details of this event became publically known on September 11, when it appeared in an article in the Asheville newspaper, which further explained that Clayton was back in Washington again to assist another campaign, and had once again taken the time to visit the offices of the Geological Survey to explain what he had seen himself this time. Once again he asked them to send a government scientist to look into the matter.

        Which brings us to the contents of the September 24, 1913, article from the Charlotte Observer... the article often cited as the first mention of the Brown Mountain lights phenomena in print. This article is very general in its contents, not describing any individually witnessed event. Only one witnesses in named, though it is also mentions that the Morganton Fishing Club had seen the phenomena as a group "two years earlier," with no actual details of their sighting. We are told the lights continue to occur, and that attempts to explain them have so far failed to cover the known facts. The behavior of the strange lights is now said to be predictably regular, and year-round:

"With punctual regularity the light rises in a southeasterly direction from the point of observation, just over the lower slope of Brown Mountain, first about 7:30 pm, again about 20 or 30 minutes later and again at 10. It looks much like a toy fire balloon, a distinct ball, with no atmosphere about it, and as nearly as the average observer can measure it, about the size of the toy balloon.

"It is much smaller than the full moon, much larger than any star and fiery red. It rises in the far distance, from beyond Brown Mountain, which is about 6 miles from Rattlesnake Knob, and after going up a short distance, waivers and goes out in less than one minute. The observer has to watch the sky closely at the right time, or he will miss it. It does not always appear in exactly the same place, but varies what must amount in the distance to several miles. The light is visible at all seasons, so Mr. Anderson Loven, an old and reliable resident, testifies. During the winter it appears far off to the south of its usual summer position, and is not visible from Rattlesnake Knob, but is seen from a point farther down the turnpike, around the point or ridge that hides it from the summer point of observation."

So by this point, the newspaper is presenting the lights as something that is undoubtedly happening. The newspaper also claims that the theory of the light as a reflection has been disproved, but again with no further details. The idea that it could all be a hoax seems disproved by the apparent fact that the lights have been happening for years, and often miles apart with a few minutes of different occurrences. The article concludes that the main reported light, the one that rises into the sky above the mountain, seems to originate in the level country between Brown Mountain and the South Mountains, which is a distance of about twelve miles, though it's admitted that perhaps the light is even further away.