At least fourteen separate scientific, or somewhat scientific, investigations over the past 100 years have near-unanimously concluded that the observed BMLs are manmade electric lights. Only the 1921 U.S. Weather Bureau (Brush Lighting) and a 1977 Geologist (uranium ore) concluded otherwise---but neither actually visited Brown Mountain. Although highly unpopular with the local residents, the manmade electric light explanation has withstood the test of time and the repeated review of scientific investigators. These studies include the following:
1913 US Geological Survey D.B. Sterrett---Locomotive Headlightsc1917 Staged Car Headlights at Lawndale (40 mi SE) seen at Loven’s Hotel at Cold Springs
1921 Nat’l Geographic Soc & US Weather Bureau---Brush Lighting (St. Elmo’s fire/Andes Lighting)
1922 US Geological Survey R.G. Mansfield---90% Refracted Manmade Lights & 10% Brush Fires
1928 NC State College Physics professors---Binoculars & Transit Surveys---Hudson town lights
1929 E.M. Bell---First BML Photo---City Lights
1940 H.A. Whitman---Transit Triangulation Survey---BML photo---Refracted City Lights
1958 B. Brown---BML photos---Refracted City Lights
1962 S. Rowe & C. Holler, Jr.---Transit Surveys & site visits---Reflected City Lights
1977 Geologist Francois Schumacher---Uranium ore may the source of the lights
1977-81 ORION---Staged Lenoir Spotlight & Explosives on BM---Refracted Manmade Lights
1978 Enigma Project---Refracted Manmade Lights
2005 Astrophysicist Daniel B. Caton---Camera, Binoculars, Telescope---Refracted City Lights
2012-13 BML Research Team---BMLCam1; Staged Light Tests; Telephoto Photography
The possibility that the lights seen over the top of Brown Mountain were manmade lights reflected and/or refracted by air layers was first mentioned in H.C. Martin’s 1916 article in the Morganton News Herald. Martin specifically noted the presence of warm and cold air layers that he thought were due to the recent forest clear-cutting on the mountainous terrains. He felt that the density variations in these layers caused reflection and refraction of visible manmade lights. US Geological Survey Geologist G.R. Mansfield expanded on this observation in 1922. In fact, it is the refraction of the city lights by rising heat waves (mirages) that causes the observed lights to dance, wiggle, wobble, vibrate, change colors, and fade in and out. Aggravatingly, this minor but very noticeable movement of the lights results in out-of-focus photographic time-exposure images of the lights; thus producing the ‘circular orbs of light’ reported by most observers.
Extended horizontal or vertical movement of the lights, which is often reported by distant observers, is due to the tiring of one’s eye muscles while focusing on individual bright lights in a dark setting. This lack of movement is easily demonstrated by viewing the suspected light through the viewfinder of a stationary tripod-mounted camera, binoculars, or telescope and was first reported by J.B. Derieux and A.A. Dixon in 1928. Likewise repeated photography of the lights by tripod-mounted cameras re-set in the same spot hours, days or even weeks later also shows that the lights are stationary and do not change location (Brown Mountain Lights Research Team, 2012).
The report of mystery lights appearing immediately after the July 1916 flood that destroyed the Catawba Valley railroads is often quoted as proof that the lights were not locomotive headlights as previously proposed by U.S. Geological Survey Geologist D.B. Sterrett in 1913. In his August 29, 1916 letter to the Lenoir News (September 8), G.A. Loven, owner of Loven’s Hotel in Cold Springs states:
“The light still appears every night now, for six years since it was first seen. It shows to be some four or five miles beyond the top of Brown Mountain.
It was supposed by some that it was a train headlight; the recent floods stopped the trains from running, but it did not stop the
light from showing. We watched close and it showed every night just the same.
It is not confined to one place; it varies sometimes from two to three miles either east or west. It seems to go up over the treetops from fifty to sixty feet.”
Note that Loven refers to a single light and fails to mention the presence of the numerous city lights which were reported to be visible from his hotel the previous year by Dr. C.L. Wilson (1915). And based on 1922 interviews with eyewitnesses, U.S. Geological Survey Geologist G.R. Mansfield reported that moving lights seen from Cold Springs immediately after the 1916 flood were automobile headlights on the roadways not washed away by the flood. Presumably these and other car headlights were also visible before the flood. If so many lights were visible from Cold Springs both before and after the flood, why did Loven mention only one? As revealed by other newspaper articles of the time, Loven’s Hotel was experiencing increased visitation due to patrons wishing to see the BMLs; thus Loven may have been simply perpetuating the legend of the lights to enrich his income.
Reported BML sightings before the era of electric lights are also often mentioned in post-1900 published documents as proof that the BMLs existed before the time of manmade lights. However, these reports are not based on confirmed facts and no such light sightings have been found in any document actually published before 1900.
Slowly at first, and then with ever increasing certainty, manmade electric lights were reported to be visible over the top of Brown Mountain. In 1915, Dr. C.L. Wilson, identified the community lights of Joy, Lenoir, Connelly Springs, and Rutherford College while observing from Loven’s Hotel at Cold Springs. Oddly enough, no one else of this early-BML era mentioned being able to see city lights over the top of Brown Mountain; instead they apparently interpreted all of the visible lights to be the mysterious BMLs.
In the most comprehensive and detailed scientific study ever conducted on the BMLs, Geologist G.R. Mansfield reports (1922):
“In summary it may be said that the Brown Mountain lights are clearly not of unusual nature or origin. About 47 percent of the lights that the writer was able to study instrumentally were due to automobile headlights, 33 percent to locomotive headlights, 10 percent to stationary lights, and 10 percent to brush fires.”
In his 1923 report, F.J. Haskin wrote: “Somewhere in the broad Catawba valley or beyond was the origin of the light.” In the same year, the Statesville Landmark reported a light (presumably a town light) visible to the east from Brown Mountain itself and located midway between the towns of Drexel and Lenoir. In 1928, Professors J.B. Derieaux & A.A. Dixon, using survey equipment, identified the town lights of Hudson in the Catawba Valley visible directly over the top of Brown Mountain. E.M. Bell’s 1929 ‘first ever’ photograph of BMLs resembles today’s photographs and highly suggests city lights in the valley beyond Brown Mountain. In 1932, F.D. Ruggles reported seeing hundreds of city street lights along a 35-mile length, but concluded they were burning gases instead. H.A. Whitman’s 1940 transit triangulation survey concluded that the lights were refracted city lights. And so it goes right on through all subsequent scientific surveys.
Over time, as the increasingly electrically-lit population (i.e., light pollution) increased in the Catawba and Yadkin Valleys south and east of Brown Mountain, the realization began to set in that the BMLs were simply manmade lights. In the early days of the BML legends (c1854-c1920), these distant lights were a new and mysterious phenomenon that sparked the imagination of the residents in the mountains to the east and north of Brown Mountain who probably lagged behind the town and city residents in the use and understanding of electric lights. While today the manmade lights are obvious to most observers, some still mistake them for mystery or spook lights.