Klass Warfare: Skeptics Debunking Natural Phenomena?

The lights were colorful, bright, and big. Robert and his associate, Bill, had seen them before, and tonight they stared on with the same wonder of previous viewings of this enigmatic phenomenon, as each of them worked hurriedly to set up their cameras. Within moments, Robert’s lens was focused directly over a bright orb hovering several miles away, which had appeared glowing with a purplish hue directly over the southern summit of Table Rock in the Linville Gorge Wilderness. Photographs would ensue shortly afterward, providing long exposures of these strange light manifestations, which appeared to move back and forth along the visible ridge in the distance, and even change colors as they drifted about.

Since at least the early twentieth century and, according to Native American legends, perhaps several hundreds of years earlier, a phenomenon has occurred here around the vicinity of Brown Mountain, North Carolina, from which the anomalies draw their famous name: The Brown Mountain Lights. But for as long as modern news services and popular writers have sought to document their presence, there have been researchers of both the “skeptic” and “believer” camps that have sought to go about studying these strange lights, with the apparent intent of forcing explanations onto their presence, rather than seeking to truly understand their anomalous appearances.

In his 1974 book UFOs Explained, noted UFO researcher and debunker Phillip Klass famously took a stab at the phenomenon in the book’s seventh chapter, titled “The Brown Mountain UFOs.” Klass, although having mentioned earlier in the chapter the possibility of “some freak natural phenomenon” while citing an article from Argosy magazine by Herbert Bailey, nonetheless went on to surmise that every instance of illuminations seen above Brown Mountain were merely the headlights of locomotives in distant towns. To be fair, this is certainly a fair estimate as to the cause of some of the ghostly appearances of unexplained lights throughout the region, and the evidence Klass offered nearly four decades ago certainly does illustrate one of several explanations for the phenomenon.

However, there are other circumstances which must be considered just as well. For one, with the title of the book in question, UFOs Explained, we see clearly already that Klass, who by 1974 had become well known for his skeptical inquiry into the nature of UFO phenomenon, was actively pursuing a debunker stance. Not only that, but Klass had also been intentionally trying to derail the argument that a phenomenon like the Brown Mountain Lights might have anything to do with “flying saucers,” as a few writers and, yes, opportunists, had begun to do around that time. This would end up being an easy task for Klass, since there are indeed an entire host of phenomenon that are quite prosaic, and which could mislead a viewer several miles away into thinking a glowing light had appeared hovering over a mountain such as Brown Mountain.

But there are a few flaws with this argument that the lights are, in nearly every case, locomotive lights. For one, Klass uses a Geological Survey report written in 1922 by George Mansfield as the sole justification for the “locomotive light” hypothesis. Furthermore, this obviously rather outdated report discussed how Mansfield’s methodology involved the use of an alidade and a topographic map, in conjunction with binoculars, a barometer, a camera, two magnetic compasses and a plotting table; but here’s where things begin to get interesting; it also mentions that Mansfield’s observation stations in each instance (locations at nearby Blowing Rock, Loven’s Hotel, and Gingercake Mountain), were all at least 1000 feet higher in elevation than Brown Mountain. In other words, in every instance, the landscape in the distance was able to serve as a backdrop, from which the obvious presence of earthbound light sources could be seen.

In all fairness, this is understandable to an extent, since the appearance of lights in this capacity predated the use of most modern aircraft which might draw attention of ground-based viewers upward. After all, the first powered flights by the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, hadn’t taken place more than two decades prior to Mansfield’s observations. While a variety of planes were in use by this time, the first commercial flights between the US and Canada had only occurred three years prior to Mansfield’s research in 1922. Quite simply, there was far less to be seen in the skies at the time, and hence, skeptical observers were more likely to look to the ground for evidence of more “prosaic explanations,” as Klass surmised. Funny, since by the time he had authored this book in 1974 (and ultimately serving as editor of Aviation Week & Space Technology for thirty-four years), Klass should have been well aware of the fact that many of the lights had appeared as airborne illuminations, viewed from lower elevations where no landscape could serve as a backdrop, but instead only open sky.

Let’s return for a moment to the story which I used to open this essay, which described how two associates of mine, Robert Ashmore and Bill Fox, had been setting up to photograph the Brown Mountain Lights many years ago from a vantage at Wiseman’s View, near the little town of Linville Falls. Wiseman’s View is a cliff side location where two small stone turrets were constructed, to serve as viewing stations overlooking the beautiful Linville Gorge Wilderness (see image, right). Located in Burke County, the elevation at this spot is 3,438 feet. Table Rock, adjacent to Wiseman’s View, is another popular location from which the so-called Brown Mountain Lights often emanate (although this obviously isn’t even Brown Mountain, as we can see, hence why locals in the region often refer to these illuminations as the “Linville Lights”). It should be noted here that the summit of Table Rock is at an elevation of 3,930, granting it a 500-foot height advantage over the Wiseman’s vantage. In other words, when looking directly across from Wiseman’s View toward Table Rock, one will not be able to see the lights of oncoming locomotives or automobiles in the distance, but again, only open sky instead.

Thus, below I have included a long exposure shot of one of the photographs taken that evening, showing Table Rock and an odd illumination as it ascends over it, as seen from Wiseman’s View. The photograph is courtesy of Robert Ashmore (with more photos from this sequence available for viewing by clicking here):

While the photo appears blurry, taken at night from a distance, and enlarged slightly here for illustration, we can clearly see that the object in question is above the horizon; furthermore, other photos in the sequence (linked above) show the object as it changes colors, as well as it appears to move gradually across the summit of Table Rock, as Robert Ashmore reported to me that the lights had done. We cannot, on the other hand, be entirely sure what this object is… although we can rule out with a fair degree of certainty the presence of a locomotive light, or for that matter, any other earthbound illumination in the distance, at least in this instance.

Granted, a number of photographs, as well as independent studies over the last several years, have already put forth such ideas as the presence of some ball lightning-like phenomenon occurring throughout the Linville Gorge. However, the point here has less to do with surmising what the lights may actually be, and more with understanding how easily one can take available evidence, especially if there are bits and pieces that are convenient in terms of supporting one’s presuppositions regarding any observable phenomena, and then using that to prop up a half-hearted “explanation” that did not work toward reviewing all the available evidence before putting forth conclusions.

Klass, like so many others, was a master of scraping crust from around the periphery, so to speak, and never getting to the pie in the center; with his “research” into Brown Mountain, we see a unique example of how even an aviation expert, blinded by his own preconceptions about UFO phenomena, was curiously led to rely on a woefully outdated Geological Survey document to support a conclusion that failed to even consider airborne illuminations in the first place. It not only makes him look careless, but his neglectful treatment of the literature which, even in 1974 no doubt made at least some references to airborne illuminations at Brown Mountain (and not just the perceived appearance of such aerial phenomena) undermines the merit of his entire philosophy; highlighting instead the rabid preconceptions of his own doubt-based belief system.

In short, what we’re left with, friends, is bad science. No decent researcher would ever leap to conclusions in the absence of available proof, and thus, what we must understand about the enigmatic Brown Mountain Lights is that while some variety of unexplained phenomena may be occurring, it remains precisely that: unexplained. Hence, the verdict is still out, and the true skeptic will do nothing more than what the origin of the word entails: refrain from making any judgement that cannot be supported with facts.


Micah Hanks is a writer, podcaster, and researcher whose interests cover a variety of subjects. His areas of focus include history, science, philosophy, current events, cultural studies, technology, unexplained phenomena, and ways the future of humankind may be influenced by science and innovation in the coming decades. In addition to writing, Micah hosts the Middle Theory and Gralien Report podcasts.
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