LENOIR, N.C. — Those dancing evening lights on Brown Mountain near Lenoir
are the spirits of Catawba women looking for their departed love ones, a
local legend says.
The story is told of a bitter battle between Cherokee and Catawba warriors
on the mountain during the 1200s. After the fight, both tribes left many
dead warriors on the battlefield.
During the evening, Catawba women went to the battleground. With
torchlights in their hands, they looked for their dead husbands,
sweethearts, brothers and fathers. Now, the lights seen by thousands of
tourists every year are said to be spirits of those Catawba women, still
searching for their loved ones after 800 years.
Almost every evening, but especially in September and October, the lights
appear: moving up and down for a few seconds, then disappearing and later
reappearing. Some witnesses have seen them shoot up into the air. The
lights can be seen only from a distance, not up close.
During the past 300 years, many (including scientists) have tried to
explain the cause of these mysterious lights. They usually appear from just
after sundown to around 10 p.m. but sometimes they appear all night on the
mountain, located in the Pisgah National Forest northwest of the towns of
Morganton and Lenoir.
As Europeans moved into the area, they developed their own stories about
the Brown Mountain lights. One story tells about a couple living in the
area around 1850. The husband, who was cheating on his wife, killed her.
The dead woman’s body disappeared, and the local people began looking for
Suddenly the lights appeared, and the searchers surmised that the lights
were part of the woman’s spirit returning to haunt her husband.
One of the first white men to see the lights in 1771 was a German engineer,
Geraud De Brahm. He said the lights were “vapors which are borne by the
wind and when laden winds meet each other the niter inflames, sulphurates
One scientific explanation said the lights were made by radioactive uranium
in the area; another said the mysterious lights were a reflection of lights
from nearby towns like Lenior, Hickory and Morganton. However, these lights
were seen before those towns were settled.
In 1913, a U.S. Geological Survey team conducted an investigation and
decided that the lights were reflections of motor vehicle headlights in
Catawba Valley to the south of Brown Mountain. However, a flood in 1916
disproved that. The flood damaged the roads and railroads, and there were
no vehicles in the area for several months. The lights continued to appear
as usual during that time.
The survey team also said the lights were caused by spontaneous combustion
from marsh gases, but there are no marshlands near Brown Mountain.
One explanation says the mysterious lights are like the South American
“Andes lights,” which are caused by lightning discharging from clouds into
the mountains. But the Brown Mountain lights are not lightning strikes.
They are balls of light that appear spontaneously on the side of the small
mountain, which lies at the bottom of the larger Blue Ridge Mountains.
Another explanation suggests that the lights are foretelling of a
catastrophe about to occur in the region. They are “earthlights,” the
explanation says, similar to the ones seen in the 1970s on the Yakima
Indian reservation in Washington not long before Mount St. Helens erupted
in 1980. The Yakima lights disappeared after the eruption caused
earthquakes on the reservation.
“If that is true, and if the Brown Mountain lights are earthlights, it may
be that an earthquake may be looming,” wrote Greg Little in a report. A
geological fault line, Grandfather Mountain Fault, runs under Brown
Every evening, curious onlookers gather in several places to see the
lights. Among these places are Brown Mountain Overlook on N.C. Highway 181;
The Wiseman’s View Overlook on Old N.C. Highway 105; and Lost Cove Cliffs
Overlook, also on Highway 181.