From the recording Songs From Burke County

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The Lights Above Brown Mountain
(Mark W. Winchester)

For as long as people have lived in the region, interest and mystique has surrounded Brown Mountain. At an elevation just under 2,300 feet, she is far from the tallest in the area; however, Brown Mountain has something that none of her peers can compete with- a story. Ages before the first white men settled these parts, the Indians told of the vibrant red, yellow, and sometimes blue orbs that floated above Brown Mountain.

Although everyone seems to agree that the Brown Mountain Lights exist, no one concurs on their origin. Dating back to the German engineer Gerard William de Brahm in 1771, scholars have tried to find a scientific reason behind the mysterious lights. A study conducted by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) in 1913 concluded that they were coming from train lights, but when the train tracks were washed away during the great flood of 1916, the Brown Mountain Lights continued. The USGS paired with the United States Weather Bureau in 1922 to complete a more comprehensive study. The results indicated that the lights were caused by the spontaneous combustion of marsh gasses. Due to the absence of any marsh like areas on or around Brown Mountain, this hypothesis fell short. Although none have been successful, academics have continued to search through present times for a logical explanation for the lights, including ventures by the Smithsonian Institute and numerous private entities.

Fortunately, where science has failed to explain the Brown Mountain Lights, folklore and imagination have more than adequately filled in the gaps. The oldest legend says that the lights are the torches of Indian maidens searching for their husbands who never returned home from an ancient conflict between the Catawba and Cherokee tribes. A classic song written by Scotty Wiseman attributes the lights to the lantern of a faithful slave searching for his master. Then there is the pre-Civil War tale of Jim, an abusive husband who killed his wife and newborn baby, only to have the Brown Mountain Lights appear above where he disposed of their bodies. The lights have been the subject of novels, documentaries, and have been referenced in television shows and movies.

While highly debated, many believe that the best time to view the Brown Mountain Lights is in the fall. Popular viewing sites include Wiseman’s View and the Lost Cove overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway.