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The Marfa Lights

"The Marfa Lights, mysterious and unexplained lights that have been reported in the area for over one hundred years, have been the subject of many theories. The first recorded sighting of the lights was by rancher Robert Ellison in 1883. Variously described as campfires, phosphorescent minerals, swamp gas, static electricity, St. Elmo's Fire, and "ghost lights," the lights reportedly change colors, move around, and change in intensity. Scholars have reported over seventy-five local folk tales dealing with the unknown phenomenon. - 1988"  - Text of the "official" State of Texas road marker

JSJRS Inc. has located an on-line version of the hyperspectral analysis of the Marfa Lights and returned it to the Internet. Alto Technology Resources Inc. originally created this public-forum report. Alto's parent, ChevronTexaco, closed the company in September 2002 and sadly this report, which had been on-line since January 2001, disappeared with it.

This study explains the Marfa Lights. The Lights are in fact car headlights, reflected off white soils that cover the sloping surfaces of mesas and ridges along the northern flank of the Chinati Mountains. Most of these soils are the erosional products of volcanic tuffs (welded ash), and are probably members of the Boludo or Portillo2 Series. The car headlights can be miles from the reflecting surface. Light reflected along curved surfaces tends to form distorted images, as anyone who has visited an amusement park knows (an experimental section using a flashlight and a facial mirror is included).


The hyperspectral data were originally collected on August 25, 2000. Neither the hyperspectral sensor nor the aircraft's pilots could see any lights from overhead, although a ground observer could. The ground observer was in radio contact with the aircraft and recorded the events on conventional camcorder. This study stopped just southwest of the split between Highways 67 and 169, south of Marfa. An expansion of this effort, including the area from Marfa to the crest of the Chinatis, was published in October 2002.

John Janks

May 2003



Hyperspectral Analysis of the Marfa Lights

Alto Technology Resources is in the business of providing airborne sensor and satellite analysis of various terrain covers throughout the world. Normally, but not always, this is done on a proprietary basis. However, in August and September of 2000 our airborne sensor flew a number of places in West Texas, one of which was within a short distance from Marfa, Texas home of the mysterious lights. At our behest, the flight crew acquired daytime and nighttime hyperspectral data over an area from Marfa in the north to approximately Lake San Esteban in the south. Furthermore, we were allowed to present our findings to the public on these fascinating lights. A ground observer was stationed at the Marfa Mystery Light Observation Site while the aircraft was acquiring data. He saw the Marfa Lights in action and recorded them as well as conversations with the pilots on a conventional camcorder. Exact positions were known from onboard GPS units.

The following is a summary of our findings:

1. While the ground observer saw Marfa Light activity, the pilots overhead saw nothing. They saw only known light sources from the town of Marfa, isolated cars on the roadways, a weigh station (or other permanent building along Hwy 67), and the radio beacons.

2. Nighttime sensor thermal infrared data confirmed the pilots' observations. While the sensor was capable of discriminating among soil types, soil conditions, lights, vegetation and roadways, no anomalies were detected. This lack of data effectively rules out ball lightning/plasma, burning swamp gas, radiant gas, pranksters carrying flashlights or lanterns, or direct car headlight beams.

3. Daytime sensor data showed the presence of areas with highly reflective soil in the extreme southwestern portion of the study area. Much of this soil flanked Highway 67 descending from the Chinati Mountains.

4. We combined the computer-generated soil distribution with the US Geological Survey topographic maps and Digital Elevation Models (DEM) that allowed us to view the soils and the topography as they would be seen from the Marfa Lights Observation Site. From our analysis, we believe that car headlights shining in the direction of the Observation Site, reflected along the concave surface of soil alongside of Highway 67 are the source of the Lights. The highly reflective soil acts as a mirrored surface that creates the observed phenomena.

Although we do not have all the answers, those interested in seeing a more detailed description of the project with figures and maps can proceed by clicking here.

Personal Account 

by Lee Bennett Former Marfa History Teacher
Current Marfa Historian

A Childhood Encounter
The first recollection I have of the Marfa Lights happened when I was just 8 years old. We were returning from El Paso - me and my Mom and Dad - and we passed the area where the lights usually are most visible. I was laying down in the backseat and I remember my mom asking, "Don't you want to see the Ghost Lights, dear?" Now, at the time I didn't quite know what a ghost was. . . . I just knew I didn't want to see one. No way. I kept my head down, even when my parents exclaimed, "There they are." I was scared to death. So the first time I remember knowing about them, I didn't even see them.

Varying Experiences
Perhaps one of the things that's so mysterious about the Marfa Lights is that they appear differently to different people. Someone may see them once and then never see them again. In fact, several people can be watching the same spot and not everyone will see the same thing. It's part of their mystery, their charm. They defy explanation. And they're really not flashy or flamboyant. Think of a glowing cotton ball floating in the distance. That's pretty much what they look like. At least . . . that's how they look to me. Some people see colors and flashes. Me, I see cotton balls.

Now more recently, a couple from El Paso, Lois and Doc, came to visit my husband and I. Well, needless to say, Lois and Doc wanted to see the Marfa Lights. Well, we went to the viewing sight and settled down to wait. I do remember it was pretty cold, and there were plenty of people milling around excited at the prospect of seeing the mysterious glowing lights. Suddenly, Lois and my husband cried out, "There they are. Five of them, no three, no six, look!" They went on about how the lights were bobbing and weaving and fading in and out. Now, it's important to note at this point that I have seen the lights many, many times. And each time, I'm charmed by the mystery of it all. So when my husband commented that I didn't seem too excited, I had to tell him, "I don't see them." And I didn't. And neither did Doc. We were standing in the same place, looking at the same spot. My husband saw them. Lois saw them. We stayed for 30 minutes. And I never saw a one. How do you explain that?

Some Theories
Well, an ophthalmologist recently visiting a local ranch had a theory behind that. He explained the phenomenon as a visual trick caused by the eye's refraction. Since no one's refraction is the same, no one would see the same thing. He said it was like seeing a mirage. . . . Two people see the same mirage of a patch of water, one says it's 2 inches deep, the other is certain it is 2 feet deep. In the end, it's all just a mirage. Of course, that doesn't quite explain what's causing the actual mirage now does it?

And he's not the only one who's tried to untangle the Marfa Lights mystery. Oh, no. So many have given it their best shot. I know people think we're kinda backward out here. Being as we can't explain what these things are. So it's not usual for a group to come out here determined to explain it away. Needless to say, they've all left frustrated. I remember a group of hunters came out with all kinds of equipment . . . didn't help. I also remember a group of Japanese engineers who believed we were overlooking something obvious, that there had to be an explanation. They brought out so many pieces of measuring equipment and telescopes. It was quite an impressive group of things. But, still, the mystery couldn't be figured out. All of their advanced equipment and these little glowing balls remain unexplained.

In fact, my son even made his own attempt at explaining the glowing orbs. He was working at the McDonald Observatory, and one night they trained one of their telescopes on the viewing site until they spied some of the glowing lights. Everyone working that night saw them. They pinpointed the location. The next day, they traveled to that exact spot, certain they would find the source. What did they find? Grass, rocks, dirt. That's it. Nothing else.

In a Diary . . .
Perhaps one of my most memorable accounts of the Marfa Lights was a sighting recorded by someone else. You see, I'm the local historian. So when someone in town dies, the families usually give me pieces of history that may have been collected by that person. Well, a special lady on a ranch west of town had kept a little tiny notebook of writings about the local flora and fauna and the general environment out here. But one entry especially caught my attention. She wrote in her own handwriting about driving down an old canyon road - a good 20 miles from the usual viewing site - many years ago. She was rather new to the area, and when she looked to her right she saw Chianti Mountain.

"Isn't that a pretty big mountain?" she asked. Her friend replied that it was one of the highest around. "And there's a road coming down it?" she asked, amazed. Her friend looked at her strangely and answered, "There's no road coming down off Chianti. " "Then why do I see lights coming quickly down that mountain?"

The entry went on to describe several lights that shot down the side of the mountain, directly toward them. They danced in the canyon and moved right up to the hood of the car. In her own words she wrote, "I felt so special. We were never afraid. In fact, we had sort of a warm feeling."

That's how most people experience the lights. Few people are frightened. Most everyone has a sort of peaceful, intrigued feeling when they see them. Sure, they're a little weird, but they're more fascinating the frightening.

Sharing a Local Mystery
Being the local historian, I visit the elder hostel groups who visit a ranch nearby. I tell them stories about Marfa, the history of Big Bend and the surrounding area and - of course - they always ask about the Marfa Mystery Lights. I tell them various stories about who's seen them and the theories people come up with to explain them. And then I'll ask if anyone in the group has seen them. Well, they usually answer, "No." So I tell them I'll show them the Marfa Lights right then and there. That's when I bring out my Marfa Mystery Light Cookies. That's right . . . there's actually a recipe here in Marfa for Mystery Light Cookies. "Hold them up to the light and you can see the Mystery Lights. . . ." Actually, they're white chocolate chips, but they get a laugh nonetheless.

A Final Note
If you ask me, I hope they never solve the mystery of the Mystery Lights. Part of the fun is not really knowing exactly what they are. And it certainly doesn't look like anyone's going to be figuring them out anytime soon. That's fine with me. We here in Marfa like our mystery.

Official website: The Marfa Lights

Brown Mountain Lights of North Carolina

I used to live near Brown Mountain when I lived in North Carolina. Western NC sky is completely filled with anomalous events around and near Morgantown  and Linville Caverns, NC . Western North Carolina makes for some wonderful sky watching -Colleen

From the official Brown Mountain website:

Brown Mountain is a long, low-lying ridge on the border of Burke and Caldwell counties in Western North Carolina. Most of it belongs to the Pisgah National Forest. For perhaps 800 years or more, ghostly lights have been seen flaring and creeping along, and below, the ridge at night.

Some of the earliest reports came from Cherokee and Catawba Indians, settlers, and Civil War soldiers. Thousands have witnessed the spectacle, which is ongoing to this day. The lights have been investigated three times by the United States government, and countless times by private groups. However, a provable explanation for the spectacular phenomenon has never been found.

The eerie lights capture the imagination of those who see them, and were even featured in a 1999 episode of The X-Files.

1997-2003, X-Project Paranormal Magazine. All right reserved.

Brown Mountain Lights

The Brown Mountain Lights are one of the most famous of North Carolina legends. They have been reported a dozen times in newspaper stories. They have been investigated at least twice by the U.S. Geological Survey.  And they have attracted the attention of numerous scientists and historians since the German engineer, Gerard Will de Brahm, recorded the mysterious lights in the North Carolina mountains in 1771.

"The mountains emit nitrous vapors which are borne by the wind and when laden winds meet each other the niter inflames, sulphurates and deteriorates," said de Brahm. De Brahm was a scientific man and, of course, had a scientific explanation. But the early frontiersman believed that the lights were the spirits of Cherokee and Catawba warriors slain in an ancient battle on the mountainside.


One thing is certain, the lights do exist. They have been seen from earliest times. They appear at irregular intervals over the top of Brown Mountain - a long, low mountain in the foothills of the Blue Ridge. They move erratically up and down, visible at a distance, but vanishing as one climbs the mountain. From the Wiseman's View on Linville Mountain the lights can be seen well. They at first appear to be about twice the size of a star as they come over Brown Mountain. Sometimes they have a reddish or blue cast. On dark nights they pop up so thick and fast it's impossible to count them.

Among the scientific investigations which have undertaken from time to time to explain the lights have been two conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey. The first was made in 1913 when the conclusion was reached that the lights were locomotive headlights from the Catawba Valley south of Brown Mountain. However, three years later in 1916 a great flood that swept through the Catawba Valley knocked out the railroad bridges. It was weeks before the right-of-way could be repaired and the locomotives could once again enter the valley. Roads were also washed out and power lines were down.

But the lights continued to appear as usual. It became apparent that the lights could not be reflections from locomotive or automobile headlights.

The Guide to the Old North State, prepared by the W.P.A. in the 1930s, states that the Brown Mountain Lights have "puzzled scientists for fifty years." The same story reports sightings of the lights in the days before the Civil War.

Cherokee Indians were familiar with these lights as far back as the year 1200. According to Indian legend, a great battle was fought that year between the Cherokee and Catawba Indians near Brown Mountain. The Cherokees believed that the lights were the spirits of Indian maidens who went on searching through the centuries for their husbands and sweethearts who had died in the battle.

The lights can be seen from as far away as Blowing Rock or the old Yonahlosse Trail over Grandfather Mountain some fifteen miles from Brown Mountain. At some points closer to Brown Mountain the lights seem large, resembling balls of fire from a Roman candle. Sometimes they may rise to various heights and fade slowly. Others expand as they rise, then burst high in the air like an explosion without sound.

Late in 1919 the question of the Brown Mountain Lights was brought to the attention of the Smithsonian Institution and the United States Weather Bureau.

Dr. W.J. Humphries of the Weather Bureau investigated and reported that the Brown Mountain Lights were similar to the Andes light of South America. The Andes light and its possible relation to the Brown Mountain Lights became the subject of a paper read before the American Meteorological Society in April 1941. In this report Dr. Herbert Lyman represented the lights as a manifestation of the Andes light.

The second U.S. Geological Survey report disposes of the cause of the Brown Mountain Lights by saying they are due to the spontaneous combustion of marsh gases. But there are no marshy places on or about Brown Mountain. The report also states that the lights from foxfire would be too feeble to be seen at a distance of several miles.

The report rules out the possibility that the lights are a reflection of mountain moonshine stills. "There are not enough such stills and they probably would not be in sufficiently continuous operation to produce lights in the number and regularity of those seen at Brown Mountain."

St. Elmo's Fire, that electrical phenomenon familiar to sea voyagers, was dismissed by a scientist from the Smithsonian Institution. He stated that St. Elmo's Fire and similar phenomena occurred at the extremity of some solid conductor and never in midair as in the case of the Brown Mountain Lights.

Some scientists have advanced the theory that the lights are a mirage. Through some peculiar atmospheric condition they believe the glowing balls are reflections from Hickory, Lenoir, and other towns in the area. The only drawback to this theory is that the lights were clearly seen before the War between the States, long before electricity was used to produce light.

In recent years scientists have been more concerned about exploring outer space. Perhaps they have forgotten that there are mysteries on our own planet still unsolved The Brown Mountain Lights are one of them.



Burke County's Mysterious Light Still Baffles Investigators.

From The Charlotte Observer in 1913


Linville Falls, Sept.23.--The mys-terious light that is seen just above the horizon almost every night form Rattlesnake Knob, near Cold Spring, on the Morganton road, about seven miles from here, is still baffling all investigators. All theories as to its origin or nature have either been exploded or fall through from lack of evident to support them.

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 p.m., again about 20 or 30 minutes later and again at 10 o-clock. 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 six miles from Rattlesnake Knob, and after going up a short distance, wavers 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 the usual Summer position, and is not visible from Rattlensake [sic] 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
Many have scoffed at this "spooky" thing, and those members of the Morganton Fishing Club who first saw it more than two years ago were laughed at and accused of "seeing things at night" as a result of a common human frailty. But as more and more persons have seen it, various attempts have been made to explain the mystery
That it is no mere reflection of some other light has been disproved. Some have declared that it was some practical joker sending up a light to mystify people, but it would hardly be kept up for several years, nor would it appear miles apart within a few minutes. There seems to be no doubt that the light rises from some point in the wide, level country between Brown Mountain and the South Mountains, a distance of about 12 miles, though it is possible that it rises a still greater distance.




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