Brown Mountain’s Witch Fires

The Brown Mountain Lights have fascinated spectators for over a century. Every year, countless tourists make the journey to North Carolina in hopes of watching the phenomena. These mysterious lights have even been the inspiration for an episode of the “X-Files,” entitled Field Trip. While it’s alleged to be an ancient phenomenon, the lights did not draw any attention until after the turn of the Twentieth Century, despite a variety of farms and homes nearby. Documentation does not support the extensive history often attributed to the lights.

Brown Mountain is likewise not without history beyond the lights. In 1893, a deadly fight occurred on Brown Mountain between two men, named George and Nunn. George murdered Nunn by stabbing him multiple times. There is also a record of Deputy Wyatt Simmons attempting suicide via laudanum at Brown Mountain, in 1897.

J.A. Hill, a resident at Brown Mountain, gained a reputation as an impressive inventor. In 1902, he engineered a flying machine. He perfected the design, but lost his financial supporters. Several airship disasters occurred in Paris that year, all with fatalities. The “Pax” exploded over Paris in May, and the gondola slipped away from the ship “Bradsky’s,” in October. His financiers refused to be a part of such a dangerous venture.

Hill didn’t stop. He went on to invent many more things. Some of his gadgets included a pocket-sized cigarette-rolling machine, and legend said he was the creator of the “rocker-recliner” chair.


Then it Got Strange

Professor Robert Turner Claywell was an integral part of the early Brown Mountain light fandom. He also had a considerable history in North Carolina beyond the ghostly lights. He was a merchant who had a knack for the creative. He was the first individual to discover the mineral cassiterite on Kings Mountain, in 1882. He invented a musical instrument called the “jugina.”

When a friend went into politics, Claywell accompanied him to Washington, DC. Claywell’s earliest area reports didn’t involve the lights at all. In 1890, he was the spokesperson for the communities at Brown Mountain. The area experienced a strange earthquake in August, around nine o’clock PM. Claywell wasn’t certain as to what happened. He believed someone set off dynamite.

A man named Carlyle Crouch also made a discovery on Brown Mountain, around 1912. The lumber camp worker wandered away from the camp after his shift ended. He found a huge stone circle about four or five miles from camp. The large stones had sunk into the ground. One large tree, felled at the time, had grown atop one of the stones.


The Lights Came On

The area was still quiet until 1914. This was the beginning of the Brown Mountain lights, as we know them. Articles frequently ran throughout local North Carolina areas about the “new phenomenon.” Claywell stated the lights began around four months earlier, but they had appeared nearly every night since. He first witnessed the lights with a group.

They sat outside the Cold Springs hotel that May evening. It was 10:05 PM. A hazy light in the distance caught there eye. It changed into two hazy lights. A third ball appeared as a round, yellow light. It grew more intense and resembled a fireball. All balls of light danced and one darted behind a low-hanging cloud before it disappeared.

A government official from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) came to the region to investigate. Locals grew irate with his behavior. They claimed he drove a few miles out of town, didn’t see any lights, and dismissed the whole thing as a train’s headlights.

Visitors flocked to the region every year and the lights never failed to entertain. Residents finally received a respectful response from the USGS around 1921. The government, however, still held fast to the headlight theory. The flood of 1916 debunked this theory. The entire area washed out. There was no electricity or auto and train traffic. The lights still appeared.

Hickory resident, Alice B. Council, also made a formal statement concerning the lights in 1922. She said many people recalled the days before automobiles and electricity, and the lights were still there. Council further stated a German scientist explored the strange activity 75 years earlier and she had a copy of his article. Unfortunately, no known copy of this article exists. Council never produced the piece to era journalists.

There have been as many theories as there have investigators. The lights have been blamed on the elements, will-o’-the-wisp, foxfire, St. Elmo’s fire, the Andes Lights, radium, mirages, chemical reactions, atmospheric phenomenon, ghosts, spirits, aliens, and a plethora of even more obscure causes. Investigators have explained the orbs come from electricity, streetlights, train lights, and car lights. They remain unexplained even today. National Geographic set a film crew to capture the lights in Brown Mountain. The crew successfully filmed many orbs, and the footage is available on YouTube. National Geographic stated the lights were electrical phenomena combined with atmospheric conditions.


Addressing Rumors

The rumored history is another realm, altogether. These are more common stories and legends.

Legend says the history of the lights can be traced, through the Cherokee and Catawba, as far back as 1200 A.D. This is unlikely, as Cherokee mythology and folklore was a common subject of interest in the Victorian era, particularly during the era of the “noble savage” stereotype. No mention of the lights can be found in such volumes. Two of the most common native-related rumors are the lights come from the spirits of great warriors searching for their loved ones, or a native maiden searching for her beloved.

According to legend, the theories progressed as did time. The lights were “enemy” signals during the Civil War. Later on, they were signals of moonshiners warning one another against “revenuers.” Then, they were the ghost of a wife, who returned from the dead, to haunt her murderous husband. More obscure rumors stated the lights are a spirit that guards a vast treasure, and attacks any who might find it. One legend said the ghost of a kind-hearted moonshiner, killed during a raid, who wanted to help others evade the authorities so his spirit “dances” along the path they should take.



It remains up to the spectator to draw their own conclusions on what these mysterious lights are. People still dismiss the activity as flashlights, or laser lights, or some other modern apparatus. Perhaps it is most appropriate to say the lights remain proof that our world is filled with more mystery and wonder than we can fathom.


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