Thursday, November 15, 2012

Brown Mountain lights still enchanting

No one knows the answer to the mountain’s mystery, including C.W. Smith, who has probably spent as much time around fabled Brown Mountain as anyone alive. Smith, 67, spent 33 years with the U.S. Forest Service, patrolling the Pisgah National Forest as a federal law enforcement agent beginning in 1966. He knows every fold of the ridge and is familiar with its marquee mystery, the so-called Brown Mountain Lights. He grew up in nearby McDowell County in western North Carolina and never much believed the stories about nocturnal flickerings. Then while working one night, he caught sight of what looked like a bonfire on the mountain, but in a place where there were no trails. “It started going up the mountain, too fast for someone to be using mountain-climbing equipment. It went up to the ridge line and disappeared.” With that, Smith became a believer, he told a symposium on the phenomenon held Saturday at Morganton Municipal Auditorium. “If you ever see them, you’ll never forget it because you’ve never seen anything like it before.”Brown Mountain, a rugged lump in the wrinkles of the Blue Ridge, has attracted attention since antiquity because of the lights. Folklore holds that Cherokee Indians thought they were torches held by ghosts of grieving maidens. An early European explorer, a German surveyor named G.W. de Brahm, studied the mountain in 1771 and concluded it vented “nitrous vapors which are borne by the wind.” Other theories have been floated through the years.In February 1913, the Observer ran through a few, including dust vented from a mica mine, then added: “Quite a few suspect that some moonshiner, who likes not the limelight, is sending up the light on a kite to frighten his neighbors and others out of that immediate vicinity.” A U.S. Geologic Survey later that year concluded people were observing refracted lamps from locomotives on the Southern Railway. Then came the Great Flood of 1916, which washed away tracks and the theory. Trains didn’t run for a spell, but the lights stayed on the job...more

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