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Shedding Some Light on Brown Mountain

By Jesse Campbell (

Article Published: Oct. 31, 2013 | Modified: Oct. 31, 2013
Shedding Some Light on Brown Mountain

Want to try and see the Brown Mountain Lights for yourself? Brown Mountain Overlook is located 20 miles north of Morganton on N.C. 181. Wiseman’s View Overlook is located five miles south of Linville Falls on Kistler Memorial Highway/Old N.C. 105. Lost Cove Cliffs Overlook is located on the Blue Ridge Parkway at milepost 310, two miles north of the N.C. 181 junction.
File photo

For a hundreds of years, Brown Mountain has captivated much of northwest North Carolina with purported sightings of mysterious orbs and lights, and science has yet to offer a solid explanation.
That soon might change.

A team of scholars, led by Appalachian State University astronomy professor Dr. Dan Caton, is looking to capture images of the anomalous lights through two satellite-linked cameras that are focused in the vicinity where the majority of the sightings have occurred.

One of the cameras overlooks the N.C. 181 viewing point in Burke County, while its counterpart examines Linville Gorge from the south, Caton said.

The cameras run every night and take a sequence of images that the team examines before uploading on YouTube for the public.

In searching for any anomalies, Caton said the team is also recording geophysical conditions and other analytical data that could be linked to any sightings captured on film if, in fact, they happened.

While theories abound as to what is the true source of the Brown Mountain Lights, Caton believes that 95 percent of the sightings that have sifted into his office over the years are bogus, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t open to other possibilities.

“It’s very difficult to say anything about the lights,” Caton said. “All of the reports are anecdotal, and most people can’t remember the time, date or the weather conditions during the sighting. The data is not very good, so how do you sort out what is real and what is not?”

According to Caton and company, the early history of sightings is somewhat unclear, with some writings suggesting they were seen by Native Americans some several hundred years ago, while another claims that surveyor D.E. Brahm saw them in the 1770s.

The recorded legend began with a single sighting by a fisherman in 1913. Later that year, a member of the U.S. Geological Survey was sent to Brown Mountain to observe the lights. After a few days of investigation, D.B. Sterrett determined the lights were nothing more than locomotive lights, according to a USGS report. Reports of the lights, however, persisted following the Flood of 1916, which prevented any trains from running in the vicinity.

For decades, the legend was sustained by several additional unconfirmed sightings.

With the arrival of electricity in Burke and Caldwell counties confounding additional reports, Caton explained there became a “huge contamination of noise” in the vicinity of Brown Mountain, causing people to confuse sightings with human infrastructure.

“I’ve had a huge amount of people emailing me and describing what they’ve seen,” Caton said. “One account was, in fact, clouds moving in and out with a bright star popping out, which can look creepy.”

Other sightings originated from confused viewers who mistook the lights for a cell phone tower or even the city of Lenoir.

“Part of the problem is that people are totally unfamiliar with the nightscape,” Caton said. “They are used to being inside watching TV or on the computer at night. There are a whole range of lights people are seeing that we understand to just be normal lights. Maybe a small portion of those lights is real.”

Not convinced? Check out the team’s progress on YouTube. Search “Brown Mountain Lights Caton” online.

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