Thomas Divide Overlook
Mile Marker 464
Blue Ridge Parkway
Near Cherokee, North Carolina
And down in the valley below,
It shines like the crown of an angel
And fades as the mists come and go.
Way over yonder,
Night after night until dawn…
— from the classic Bluegrass song, “The Brown Mountain Light,” by Scotty Wiseman
My mother couldn’t quite grasp what we were seeing a couple years ago.
“You mean there’s nothing over there?”
“Well, there’s a mountain, but it’s inside the park so it’s undeveloped.”
My parents and I returned to watching the lights up on the mountain across the valley from the Thomas Divide Overlook off the Blue Ridge Parkway. The lights put on a spectacular show for us that night as well as the other spectators who had gathered to observe the mysterious phenomena. We watched for a few minutes as the lights flickered on, shone brightly for a few minutes, then flickered off, all from the ridge opposite. One light appeared to divide in two and another light changed color—from a white light to red. At one point, the lights even appeared like the brake lights of a car.
I’ve written quite a bit about Cherokee, North Carolina, where I’m currently spending the summer. Sitting at the heart of the Qualla Boundry—commonly known as the Cherokee Indian Reservation—this land is filled with the magic and mystery of the Cherokee who have existed here for centuries. As a Cherokee friend of mine stated a few years ago, “To the Cherokee, the supernatural is just natural.” Here, ghosts and spirits are just another feature of the landscape. The spiritual activity here is stunning and ranges from ghost lights to full-blown apparitions.
Ghost light lore is found throughout the world and on every continent. Throughout the South these ghost lights appear with regular frequency: from Maryland’s Hebron Light to Florida’s Oviedo Lights, Beauregard, Mississippi’s Illinois Central Light to Georgia’s Surrency Light. North Carolina has a number of ghost lights: the Maco Light in Wilmington, the Cove City Light, the Vander Light in Cumberland County, the Pactolus Light in the small town of Pactolus and the previously mentioned Brown Mountain Lights on Brown Mountain near Morganton. Notably, the Maco, Vander and Pactolus Lights are associated with railroad tracks. The Brown Mountain Lights, according to L.E.M.U.R. Paranormal Investigations, were first seen by the local Native Americans and first recorded by German engineer, John William Gerard de Brahm one of the first explorers of the area. The lights have been seen by many and various legends have grown up to explain them.
Of course, science has attempted to explain these various lights throughout the world. Commonly, they are explained as swamp gas or, more properly, biogas that’s released as organic matter decays. Another explanation lies in ball lightning, a phenomena that’s not well understood. For many of these lights, their frequency would seem to rule out the ball lightning theory and certainly in dry area such as the desert surrounding Marfa, Texas, home to the famous Marfa Lights, the dry conditions would rule out swamp gas. The Brown Mountain Lights have been investigated by the United States Weather Service and the Geological Survey and neither have conclusively explained the lights. The Geological Survey blamed car headlights and locomotive headlights, but that would not explain the sighting dating to the eighteenth century, well before the existence of cars and trains.
The Thomas Divide Ghost Lights are apparently North Carolina’s least known ghost lights. So far in my research, I’ve found little documentation, but I can personally say that there is something going on at Thomas Divide. On more than one occasion, I’ve watched the strange lights.
To experience the lights one drives up to the Thomas Divide Overlook after dark and parks facing the Thomas Divide Ridge ahead across the valley. After flashing your headlights and possibly honking your horn the lights may appear in the distance. The first time I saw the lights, they appeared as balls of lights that shot up vertically in the air like a bottle rocket, but then circled around to drop back to earth only to shoot up again to follow the same route. The lights were rather dim when I saw them in the middle of the summer, but according to an article in the Western Carolina University Western Carolinian, they are brighter in the winter.
When I saw them with my parents, the lights were very bright; so bright it was like looking at a lighthouse. There was already a crowd assembled, so we didn’t worry about flashing our headlights. At other times, however, the lights are quite dim, possibly affected by fog or mist in the area.
There are numerous legends behind the lights. The WCU article does mention the legend stating that it involves a Cherokee shaman who tried to remain in the beloved mountains that the Cherokee had called home for centuries after the American government ordered their removal. Believing he and his family could remain on their land, they escaped into the deep coves of the mountains. Many natives escaped into the mountains and were tracked by soldiers. When the shaman was caught he was executed as an example to the others. His body was dismembered and the parts spread throughout the mountains. The Thomas Divide Lights are his spirit attempting to find all of his parts.
Other legends include the lights as being from the lanterns of the Cherokee Little People or fireballs hurled by Judaculla, a mythical giant from Cherokee lore. More sensible people have suggested that the lights may be hikers or from camp fires, though that would not explain the erratic movement or the lights changing color.
Like the Brown Mountain Lights, these lights may be just as old. A recent article about the phenomenon from The Smoky Mountain News, quotes the Beloved Man of the Cherokee, Jerry Wolfe. Nearing 90 years of age, he recalls seeing the lights when he was a teenager. A local paranormal investigator is quoted in the article as saying that, according to lore from various Cherokee families, the lights have been seen since the 18th century.
Regardless of their origin, the lights still flicker and glow nightly and I’m glad I was able to share them with my parents.
I saw the Thomas Divide Lights a few months after posting this and described my experience here.
- Ball lightning. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 12 September 2010.
- Brown Mountains Lights. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 12 September 2010.
- Hester, Margaret. “The Thomas Divide.” The Western Carolinian. 10 November 2006.
- Kasper, Andrew. “Theories swirl around perplexing mountain lights.” Smoky Mountain News. 23 January 2013.
- L.E.M.U.R. Paranormal Investigations. History. BrownMountainLights.com. Accessed 12 September 2010.
- Rivers, Micheal. Appalachian Mountain Folklore. Atglen, PA: Schiffer, 2012.
- Toomey, Michael. John William Gerard de Brahm. Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture. Accessed 12 September 2010.
- Will-o’-the’wisp. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 12 September 2010.