Location: Brown Mountain, North Carolina
Appearance: White, yellow, or red spherical lights hovering high in the valley or just above the mountain.
- The lights are spirits of Native American tribesmen killed in battle.
- The lights are the ghosts of a woman and her child murdered by her husband on the mountain.
- The lights are the lanterns of Revolutionary War soldiers.
- The lights are lanterns of a Civil War-era servant searching the mountain for his lost master.
Other explanations: Probably car headlights.
Additional notes: The lights were studied by members of the United States Geological Survey in 1913 and 1922. Their report in 1922 concluded that the lights came from automobile headlights, locomotive headlights, stationary lights, and brush fires.
The Brown Mountain lights are one of the most well-known cases of American ghost lights. They have a paper trail back to at least September 1913, when an article about them appeared in the Charlotte Daily Observer. At that time the lights were described as round in shape, “smaller than the full moon” but “larger than any star.” They were said to rise in the valley below Brown Mountain before winking out.
There are several legends told about the lights. One holds that they are the spirits of Native American tribesmen killed in battle long ago. Another details a tragic tale involving an abusive husband murdering his wife on the mountain, while still another claims that the lights are the lanterns of Revolutionary War soldiers. Most popular and common seems to be a story of a Civil War-era servant searching the mountain for his lost master. These are detailed below in the reader comments I received over the years.
Despite this apocryphal backdating of the lights, it does appear that prior to the publishing of the 1913 newspaper article, the lights were perhaps not a popularly attested phenomenon. Although some modern media articles describe sightings of the lights back to the 1800s, I’ve found no original sources backing up these claims.
The Brown Mountain lights are unique in being the only set of ghost lights that have been studied by actual scientists and subsequently published in an official publication. In 1913 and again in 1922, members of the U.S. Geological Survey made attempts to explain the origin of the phenomenon. George Rogers Mansfield, in his 20-page 1922 USGS report, made very thorough observations of the lights and in the end attributed their appearance to locomotive headlights, automobile headlights, stationary (permanent) lights, and brush fires.
The lights are generally described as spherical and hovering either high in the valley or just above the mountain. Their color varies from white to yellow to red depending on the account. Some witnesses have described other colors, but this seems to be relatively rare. It is interesting to note that although nearly every source on the internet characterizes the lights as above, the stories I received 20-plus years ago demonstrated remarkably more variation.
Investigation of and speculation about the Brown Mountain lights is still ongoing. In recent years, various organizations have placed webcams around the site or otherwise attempted to record the lights. The resulting footage is interesting, but unfortunately not especially illuminating (pun intended) as to the source of the mysterious lights.
(1) Date received: Fri, 18 Jun 1999
I have seen the Brown Mountain lights myself. The legend I’ve heard and read of tells that the lights are supposed to be the search lantern of a slave who went in search of his master lost on the mountain; neither returned. When I saw the lights, I was looking at a sort of cleft between two portions of the mountain. The lights would appear somewhat down on the mountainside, and make their way up to a point on a cliff face. From there, they would shoot up into the sky and simply vanish.
It’s been said that the lights are simply reflections caused by motor traffic on the far side of the mountain, but I can’t understand the movement of the light and how it shot up into the sky if this were so. It did not look to me like reflected light bouncing off low hanging clouds, but who really knows?
Just another bit of info.
(2) Date received: Mon, 21 Jun 1999
My grandmother told me that at Brown Mountain, North Carolina one can see a “ghost city.” Basically, it’s a city where the outlines of structures are visible, but the lights are very clearly “manifested.” For example, one sees, in her words, the headlights of the cars as they travel, the stop lights changing, the lights in the office buildings being turned on and off… overall, it’s a city!
If I recall correctly, she did describe the area that the city is viewed in as a valley or a depression in the ground. Cars of people interested to see the city park all around and shut off their lights to view this spectacle. Some speculate that it’s the curvature of the earth that causes this city to be seen. Some think it is a reflection of a city that is somehow manifested in that particular area.
(3) Date received: Mon, 10 May 1999
In October 1969, I was en route to Asheville, North Carolina. It was somewhere between Knoxville and Asheville, around midnight or later, well into the mountains. I looked into the sky and saw what looked like an ordinary spotlight beam. I may have been the first to comment on it—I don’t recall for sure—but it was visible to the other passengers as well.
We presumed it to be what it looked like, a conventional spotlight beam. We couldn’t see the source because of trees and a shoulder of the mountain. When we rounded a curve of the road, the full length of the beam was exposed. That’s when the unexpected and unexplained began to unfold.
The beam had no source on the ground. It was simply suspended in the sky, with no observable source. It was a white light, and as I said looked exactly like the shaft from a conventional spotlight, wider at one end than the other, but at the end you would expect to connect to a ground source, it was simply cut off and blunt, and had no connection to the mountain.
Then it began changing shape. I’ve never seen a beam of light go through the changes of shape I observed in the next few minutes. The ends began to close in, so that it became something like a fat toothpick. The end pointing toward the mountain began to open out into an arrow or spearhead shape, with the rest of the beam becoming the shaft. Then, the shaft began to shorten, as though it were being absorbed by the head, until it was gone. I think all of us were somewhat stunned. We made no real conversation about it.
When we were in Asheville we asked about it and were told it was the Brown Mountain lights. However, this doesn’t fit the descriptions I’ve read of those lights.
Are there any descriptions out there of this, or was this a unique experience?
Nice website. I hope you find this an interesting story.
(4) Date received: Fri, 02 Jun 2000
Hi, my name is Emily, and I am a western North Carolina native. I just came across your site and I thought you might want to know the real story of the lights as I have heard them all my life. I have been here for the majority of my life and know all the local western North Carolina ghost stories.
The Brown Mountain lights story goes like this. A very long time ago a young woman fell in love with a much older man. Her family was very against the marriage and begged her not to marry him because he wasn’t someone who was easily trusted.
Of course her heart ruled, her senses lost, and she married him. For a short while they lived near her family, but then he thought they should move to Black Mountain against her family’s will. He kept her locked up and wouldn’t let her leave to see her family. Her husband loved to hunt so he stayed gone most of the time and out of fear she stayed at their home.
She found out that he had been cheating on her, so she wanted to leave. She waited for him to go on his usual hunting trip but he was suspicious of her actions. She by this time had a child and packed up her and the child’s belongings and went out into the woods. He followed with an axe and chopped her head off and killed the child as well, then buried them both.
He went home and became frantic with “worry” and summoned all the neighbors to help him look for them, because they were missing. Everyone had loved the woman, so people came from miles around to aid the man. They all brought lanterns and divided up, looking for them all through the woods, and of course never found them.
The man eventually moved the other woman in with him, but after some time the guilt weighed on his mind and he became crazy and eventually killed himself. The neighbors never stopped looking for the bodies of the woman and child. Those are the lights that you are supposed to be seeing. That’s the short version of the story but basically it.
There are so many western North Carolina ghost stories, and as a child I became fascinated by them. Everything I could get my hands on I read, and everyone that knew anything about it I talked to. If you want to know any more to add to your site let me know.
Everyone that I know that has seem the lights (except me, I scare easily) has tried to walk up to the lights, but they vanish. Scientists have studied it and once said it was marsh gases but then later came back to say that they had no real explanation for it. There are no marshes and there are no marsh gases. You don’t get marshes or marsh gases in western North Carolina, so for now it’s still completely a mystery.
(5) Date received: Unknown
The lights seen on Brown Mountain are the subject of a family legend, which I was told quite often when I was younger. I haven’t heard it in many years, so I may not get this quite accurate. At any rate, here goes.
My mother’s family was related to the Browns, who this mountain was named after. They were a plantation family, and owned slaves. During the Civil War, one man was a colonel in the Confederate Army. He was wounded, and came home in 1863 or thereabouts. One day he went up the mountain ( I don’t remember what for, though that was told to me) and did not return. After a few days, they sent the man’s personal servant after him. The servant’s name was Jim. This, I remember with extreme clarity, though I don’t know why. He took only a little food, some water, and two lanterns. He had grown up on the mountain, and did not expect to look for long. Brown Mountain is not a big place.
The servant also never returned. No trace of Jim or his master was ever found, and no one knows what happened to them to this day. Shortly after they disappeared, two bobbing lights started to appear on the mountain. The legend has it that these lights are the lanterns Jim took with him, and that he is still looking for his lost master. Another version says that the lights are Jim and his master, and that they each carry a lantern, trying to find their way back to the home that is no longer there. Does anyone else have a version of these events, or a different story relating to the lights on Brown Mountain? I would really love to hear them.
(6) Date received: Fri, 7 Mar 1997
I have had personal contact with the Brown Mountain Lights all my life. I first ran across them when I was in Gatlinburg, some 40 years ago when we were roofing the Joy Motel. I was an installation supervisor in the waterproofing business back then and a friend and I were free to wander the surrounding countryside as pauses in construction time permitted. I found the lights to be something of an enigma and I began to search for answers.
Over the next five years I learned all there was to know about the Brown Mountain Lights. Driving from Atlanta to Washington, I made it a point to stop by and check to see it they were still there.
The next time I confronted them was on my honeymoon, in 1961 when my new wife and I were again in Gatlinburg, wandering through the Smokies over a two week period. We found ourselves over on the “other” side of the mountain, and with a motel accommodation secured for the night, we drove up to the area where at that time the state had cut an overlook into the side of the mountain across from what is basically known as Brown Mountain. It wasn’t more than just a bulldozed level area, then eroded by spring rains, but it was adequate for me to set up my tripod. I shot 36 exposures in Ektachrome of the lights as the sun went down, and dusk settled. Kodak Ektachrome ASA 64. Fast film for back then.
I was fascinated as the lights began to show up at dusk, quite clearly visible back then, because pollution had not yet filled all the hollows of the Smokies and other mountains. Their appearance coincided with dusk falling, just as the sun was going down, and they were roughly one-half to three-quarters of a mile away from us, across the valley that separated us. Their color was pale, yellows, blues, greens, pinks, oranges, all of a translucent coloring, as though there was some sort of light within them. I had studied all I could find on swamp gas, will-o’-the wisp and other phosgene emanations, and it just didn’t make sense.
Over a period of about 45 minutes, we sat there and watched with 7×50 binoculars as these large lighted objects would just appear, about five to ten feet above the ground, and then ascend to a height of sometimes about 100 to 150 feet in the air, pause there for some minutes, and then descend again to the level of the mountaintop as visible to us, and then wink out.
Immediately others would appear, always different in color, and continue the rising, resting, and falling pattern, and again, each one starting at a different spot on the ridge.
All this took place across the entire crest of the mountain, from about one-quarter mile to our left, to somewhere around three-quarters miles to the south. We were to the west of Brown Mountain, on the east side of the mountain across the valley, about three-quarters of a mile away, remember.
When it finally became too dark for them to be easily seen, for some reason, the activity stopped. We waited around for some little time, fifteen or twenty minutes, and seeing that the “show” was over for the evening, we drove back to the motel.
Back in Atlanta, where we were living then, the film was processed by Kodak in Chamblee, at their processing plant, and I got normally exposed slides of these lights, which are still in my possession. Over the past 40 years, I’ve taken them out of storage to show to people who have been interested, and they rest in my attic in my storage area even as I write.
The next time I was up there was around 11 years later, which would have been around spring in 1973. My wife and I were separated, pending a divorce, and I had my girls with me for a week’s vacation. We wandered through Gatlinburg again, and by way of something to do, we drove over to the overlook opposite Brown Mountain.
The overlook had been finished by the state, and a marker had been erected, describing the overlook and what could be seen each evening at dusk it doesn’t take off for Saturdays or Sundays, but it had been badly damaged by graffiti. Phrases left by local people with nothing to do had fouled it with all manner of four letter words, steeped in eschatology.
Also, pollution was beginning to form there in the hollows and valleys, and the visibility was markedly reduced from where it was some ten years before.
Still, when the sun began to set, the same activity began to occur, almost on schedule, and as my daughters and I watched, the same old panorama began. Though difficult to see, there again were the pale colored globes of light, somewhere around 50 feet in diameter, possibly less, appearing from nowhere, rising 50 to 100 feet, pausing for a while, then slowly dropping back to the ridge, to stop, and then wink out, just as before. The girls were first fascinated, and then a little bit frightened.
Again, the area covered remained the same. From about one-quarter mile to the left of the overlook, down about three-quarters miles to the south. Not so clearly visible, due to the pollution, but still there and still performing as they’ve been doing since the days of the Cherokee Indians, and probably before them.
I’ve researched the stories of lights reflected from headlights or towns to the south. There were no towns or lights visible anywhere around us for the light to be reflected from, or directed towards us from. 35 years ago, sitting on the overlook or alongside the highway, it was pitch dark, as it usually is in the mountains.
I know the story of the plantation owner who went hunting one night and never came back, and I know the story of the faithful servant who went looking for him with a kerosene lantern and never came back. I know all the theories as to what’s going on, and I find them flawed in one way or another.
Are the Brown Mountain Lights real? Yes. Can you walk up close to them and examine them? The family that owned the mountain years ago would not permit it. I tried. Beyond this, there is the current information concerning them, that when you walk up onto the ridge itself at dusk, they are never seen. I don’t know.
I do know they are still there. I think they will possibly be there as long as the world stands. Do I worry about them? Not anymore. I’ve found that there truly are more things in heaven and earth than I’ll ever understand. I leave it there.
I am an adult male, approaching 67 years of age, and I’ve wandered three-quarters of the world in the past 50 years. I do not recall who Obiwan was, in my original contact with you, although it must somehow be involved with Obiwan Kenobi from Star Wars, but if you are truly interested in this sort of thing, from personal experience, I’m willing to continue this e-mail link. Not too many people are truly interested in what’s really out there.
Like someone told Agent Mulder, “The truth really is out there.”
(7) Date received: Tue, 13 Jul 1999
My friends and I decided to go and view the Brown Mountain lights. We live about an hour or so away in Charlotte. My friend Dave was driving, and we took the camcorder so we could tape it for our associates at the S.P.I.R.I.T. website.
We finally arrived at the gravel overlook and parked. It was about 3:00 AM and very foggy. We couldn’t really see the mountain. We were about to leave when we saw a foggy glow that was rising from the valley. The glow was dull white and changed to a dull blue. We were inside the car and recording. We were all speechless!
The glow moved from the center of the overlook to the right. We had thought our eyes were tricking us until it started to come closer and pick up speed. My friends and I are longtime ghost hunters, and very skeptical, but this freaked us out. We sped away from the overlook when the glow got too close. We went about 17 miles down the road to a gas station and got gas and smokes.
This is where we really started to get scared; I had a flashlight in my lap and we went around a small curb. Suddenly, my flashlight launched from my knee and hit me friend Dave who was driving in the leg. It hit with such force that he almost lost control of the car. Just as the flashlight hit Dave, I saw a golf ball-sized red light streak in front of the car. I was the only one who saw it. That rattled us, but we went on.
When we got back to the overlook, we parked and did a quick narrative on camera to explain what was going on. We turned the camera off and sat in the dark. We didn’t see any lights, but Dave heard a strange noise that he would later say sounded like E.T. (I don’t know). But we all heard something tapping on the trunk of the car. I thought it was my brother in the back seat, but knew it wasn’t when he yelled for us the get the hell out of there. We drove off again, but this time, there was a loud swirling noise from under the car. This is when we really freaked out. The noise stopped when we pulled out from the overlook.
We got the courage to go back one more time at about 5:00 AM and get out. We parked and began to film. We saw an occasional light glow and dozens of red and blue pin prick sized lights that would quickly flash and disappear. Our camera is a piece of crap and didn’t pick up much. Before we left we saw what looked like a blue horseshoe spinning and rising in the valley. I have never seen the likes of that.