Brown Mountain is a low ridge in Burke County that, during dry, crisp evenings in the autumn, is host to a genuine and baffling mystery. When conditions are right, mysterious glowing orbs can be seen to rise up off the mountain, hover and wobble about fifteen feet up in the air, and then disappear. There's no denying that the lights are real. They have been observed by countless witnesses and photographed on many occasions. But what they are is still unknown.
The Brown Mountain Lights have been observed for centuries, and multiple legends have arisen around the phenomenon. The Cherokee were aware of the lights, and according to some accounts claimed that the lights were the souls of Cherokee women searching for their men who had died in a great battle between the Cherokee and the Catawba that took place on Brown Mountain. Another legend says that the lights are the the ghostly echoes of lights that appeared during a search for a murdered woman in the 19th century.
But what was once the most widely known legend was recorded in song in the 1950s by the duo known as the "Sweethearts of Country Music." Scott Wiseman and Myrtle Eleanor Cooper were both North Carolina natives, who sang recorded as Lulu Belle and Scotty from the 1920s until the 1950s. A married couple, the two performed together from 1935 until 1958 as regulars on the Chicago radio station WLS-AM's National Barn Dance program. At the time, they were one of the biggest acts in country music.
The song Brown Mountain Light, penned by Wiseman, tells a version of the story where a man, accompanied by a slave, becomes lost while hunting on the mountain. The man is never found. The slave returns to the mountain every night with a lantern to hunt for him, carrying on this search even from beyond the grave.
Wiseman, who was from nearby Boone, said this version of the story is one he head from his uncle, who took him hunting and camping near Brown Mountain. The song rose to the top of the country charts and subsequently became the best-known version of the legend for a generation.
The legend of Brown Mountain recorded in the Lulu Belle and Scotty song is somewhat dated, particularly in regard to its unforgivable romanticizing of slavery. Indeed, it's easy to imagine a retelling of this story where the lights are from people looking for the slave who, when realizing he was alone on the mountain, seized his chance and hightailed it for Ohio and freedom.
As for the lights themselves, many different possible scientific explanations have been offered, from swamp gas to the reflections of automobile headlights from the valley below. But every explanation offered up so far seems to be too easily disproved. The lights have been observed since before automobiles existed, so headlights are an unsatisfactory explanation, and the lights were even observed during the 1916 flood that shut down all automobile and railway traffic in the valley below. The swamp gas theory seems to bed crimped somewhat be the distinct absence of a swamp on Brown Mountain. Some have theorized that the lights may be a naturally-occurring electrical discharge caused by the slow movement of the geological fault line below the mountain.
Whatever their cause, people still flock to see the Brown Mountain Lights, but spotting them is never guaranteed. Reportedly, your best chance to see the lights comes on a dry, clear night in October or November, after all the leaves are off the trees.
Where to go to see the lights
- Brown Mountain is located in the Pisgah National Forest, and there a few nearby overlooks commonly used to observe the lights.
- Brown Mountain Overlook, located 20 miles north of Morganton on NC highway 181, 1 mile south of the Barkhouse Picnic Area.
- Wiseman's View Overlook can be found 5 miles south of Linville Falls on Kistler Memorial Highway, which is also Old NC 105 and State Road 1238.
- Lost Cove Cliffs Overlook, which is found on the Blue Ridge Parkway, at mile-post 310, 2 miles north of the NC highway 181 junction.
- The lights are most commonly seen on clear, dry nights in the autumn. Moonless nights can be a boon to visibility. The lights are a relatively rare occurrence, and many people have sat on a car hood late into the evening staring into the darkness and seeing nothing. But it's definitely worth a look.