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.
A 1916 study concluded the glow was the result of “sulfurated hydrogen vapors” – better known as swamp gas.
In 1922, another geologist spent a week in the mountains and declared the lights were nothing more than auto headlights, train lamps and optical illusions. Fred May, editor of the Lenoir News-Topic, called it shoddy science.
“Weather conditions were such that he had only two cloudless and fogless nights during the week he was here making observations,” May reported.
Ball lightning theory
Dan Caton, a physics and astronomy professor at Appalachian State University in Boone, is one of the foremost academic researchers of the lights.
He believes most sightings are bogus – people are seeing campfires, headlights, aircraft, even the lights of distant Lenoir. Caton, who spoke at another symposium on the lights in February, estimates that maybe 5 percent of reports are legitimate.
He favors a theory that the lights are ball lighting, a little-understood but long-observed phenomenon. He has interviewed people who describe misty or fireworks-like miasma about as big as a beach ball floating up the mountainside, a good account of ball lightning. Why it occurs with regularity in the Linville Gorge, he said, needs to be further explored.
Caton and a team from the university are setting up a camera pointed toward Brown Mountain that will feed to the website brownmountainlights.org and should be in operation by month’s end.
One of the best pictures taken of the lights was displayed at the symposium by Charles Braswell Jr., a Taylorsville professional photographer whose work is familiar to readers of the Our State magazine.
In 2001, he shot a video of lights rising above the north ridge mountain, then opened the shutter of his camera for a 90-second time-lapse exposure. On the video, the light flared and ebbed, then crept to left, paused and drifted to the right.
On his film, it left a streak painting its path, which Braswell estimated was 3 miles long.
He said Brown Mountain is full of deception. People think they’re spying the mystery, but really only looking at campfires, mountain bikes or off-road vehicles.
“They’re unmistakable if you know what you’re looking for,” Braswell said. “There’s only one way to see the lights, and that is to spend a lot of time looking.”
A close encounter
On one still autumn night, Les Burril had a close encounter.
“Something just illuminated a few feet away,” said Burril, a career Forest Service officer who worked six years in the Pisgah.
“It looked like a candle. … It continued to brighten for a few seconds and just sat there. Another one lit up a little farther away. I probably stood there eight or 10 minutes and watched. It moved down, smaller and smaller, then blinked out.”
Burril, assigned to hunt poachers and vandals, said he never thought much about the silent apparitions on his beat.
“We weren’t paid to look for the Brown Mountain Lights. I always looked at it as some kind of physical phenomenon. I wasn’t worried about them. Now, a guy who might rise up out of a bush under the light, yes.”
Burril, 56, retired and living in Georgia, said he has no idea what they are.
“There are guys a lot brighter than me who have tried to figure it out, and I didn’t even try.”
He’s not alone. No one knows the answer to the mountain’s mystery.