Over the course of several months between the final weeks of 1896 and the early summer of 1897, newspapers throughout the United States had been reporting on odd stories of airships that were purportedly being seen across the nation. Beginning in California, the sightings continued in the months ahead as the area of sightings slowly expanded eastward into states like Arkansas, Missouri and Texas.
One of the most interesting accounts from the era appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on the date of April 16, 1897, which announced that the mysterious airship had been viewed through a telescope by one Dr. Leo Caplan while it passed over Missouri.
“The airship visited St. Louis again Thursday night,” the Post-Dispatch report read. “This time the bright searchlight was not only seen by thousands but the object was observed through a telescope and the outlines of the craft were seen.”
Dr. Caplan, who was described in the article as a medical doctor and “a dabbler in astronomy” and frequent stargazer, had been convinced that what he observed was no star.
"I was walking to my home on Washington avenue last night about 7:45,” Caplan explained, “when I saw a bright light almost overhead.” The light appeared to the northwest of where Caplan stood observing.
"But the moment I saw this light,” Caplan explained, “I realized it was something unusual and I hastened home, ran to the roof and brought my telescope to bear on the object. Before taking a sight I noticed the light was swaying from side to side.” Caplan likened this peculiar motion to that of “a searchlight that was being manipulated.”
Most intriguingly, Caplan also said that he was able to observe through his telescope “a long black body behind the light,” which he described as being similar to other reports of a large, cigar-shaped object reported by other observers around the time who had seen the mysterious craft during its mostly nighttime visits. One day after Caplan’s observation, another purported sighting of the strange aerial visitor was logged by an Arkansas constable named John J. Sumpter, who saw the airship with his Deputy Sherriff John McLemore.
Amidst newspaper reports like these that had been occurring in the spring and early summer of 1897, there had been other unusual sightings taking place even further east. Around the same time, Joseph Loven, a resident of the Cold Springs community along Jonas Ridge, North Carolina, first said he observed peculiar lights that appeared at night and could be seen from his home off in the direction of a location now famous for the strange lights said to manifest there: a long, flat ridgeline called Brown Mountain.
The Brown Mountain Lights, as the phenomena reputed to occur near Linville in Western North Carolina has since come to be known, would seem to be quite different from the reports of airships that were afoot during the 1890s. However, is it possible that there might nonetheless be a connection between them?
In 1906, nine years after the American airship affair had died down (and some of the earliest alleged sightings of the Brown Mountain Lights were said to have occurred), author Jules Verne still had airships on his mind. His novel Master of the World, a sequel to his earlier book Robur the Conquerer, was now hitting the shelves, which continued the adventures of the fearful Robur and his penchant for building magnificent flying ships. In Master of the World, Verne described a rather unique location as the base of operations for Robur’s latest operations, as featured in the opening pages of the story.
“The strange occurrences began in the western part of our great American State of North Carolina,” Verne explains. “There, deep amid the Blueridge Mountains rises the crest called the Great Eyrie. Its huge rounded form is distinctly seen from the little town of Morganton on the Catawba River, and still more clearly as one approaches the mountains by way of the village of Pleasant Garden.”
Verne goes on to paint the Great Eyrie as a strange prominence rising above the surrounding landscape, describing it as “rocky and grim and inaccessible,” noting that “under certain atmospheric conditions [it] has a peculiarly blue and distant effect.” Verne elaborates further, speculating that the summit of the Great Eyrie, which remained impenetrable to even the most experienced climbers, might have been an ancient volcano, “one which had slept through ages, but whose inner fires might yet reawake,” which he likens to Krakatoa, Mont Pelee, and potentially being host to an “eruption such as that of 1902 in Martinique.”
This much might have been evident by the many sightings of smoke, or the “unexplained rumblings” cited by locals which appeared to emanate from the Great Eyrie. This, and the fact that, as Verne recounts, “A glow in the sky had crowned the height at night.”
“And finally,” Verne tells us, “one stormy night pale flames, reflected from the clouds above the summit, cast upon the district below a sinister, warning light.”
Soon, newspapers throughout the region would begin to report on the mysterious light show occurring in the skies above The Great Eyrie, and as Verne tells us, “curiosity among those who being in no danger themselves were interested in the disturbance merely as a strange phenomenon of nature,” while others nearer to the mysterious mountain lived in fear of possible forthcoming danger.
“Those more immediately threatened were the citizens of Morganton,” Verne tells us, “and even more the good folk of Pleasant Garden and the hamlets and farms yet closer to the mountain.”
English translations of Vern’s novel wouldn’t make their way onto the shelves of American bookstores until 1911, but by the time they did, people around real-life Morganton, North Carolina, were already familiar with similar strange happenings said to occur in their region.
An example appeared in The Charlotte Daily Observer on the date of September 23, 1913, which provided the following account:
“The mysterious light that is seen just above the horizon almost every night from Rattlesnake Knob, near Cold Spring, on the Morganton road is still baffling all investigators. With punctual regularity the light rises in a southeasterly direction from the point of observation just over the lower slope of Brown Mountain, first about 7:30 p.m. and again at 10 o'clock. It looks much like a toy fire balloon, a distinct ball, with no atmosphere about it. It is much smaller than the full moon, much larger than any star and very red. It rises in the far distance from beyond Brown Mountain, which is about 6 miles from Rattlesnake Knob, and after going up a short distance, wavers and goes out in less than 1 minute. It does not always appear in exactly the same place, but varies what must amount in the distance to several miles. The light is visible at all seasons, so Mr. Anderson Loven, an old and reliable resident testifies There seems to be no doubt that the light rises from some point in the wide, level country between Brown Mountain and the South Mountains, a distance of about 12 miles, though it is possible that it rises at a still greater distance."
According to most sources, no written records of mysterious lights appear in the region prior to around 1912, although most newspaper accounts begin appearing in 1913. These state that locals had been troubled by the appearances of the lights for the last “two or three years,” which as Geologist Ed Speer, a researcher who has studied the lights for several years has pointed out, would roughly coincide with the appearance of English translations of Jules Verne’s Master of the World in 1911.
However, some sources such as Joseph Loven, who claimed to have seen the lights as early as 1897 (when mysterious “airships” were frequent appearing, at least in American newspapers) also said he wouldn’t begin to pay attention to the lights until 1910, when others began to bring attention to them like Rev. C. E. Gregory, his neighbor at the time.
Is it indeed possible that there could be any connection between beliefs about the Brown Mountain Lights—appearances of which have been said to persist now for decades—and the mysterious airships of the 1890s? Admittedly, the appearance of "The Great Eyrie" as depicted in art from Verne's novel bears a striking similarity to Table Rock, a prominent mountain in the Linville Gorge wilderness a short distance from Brown Mountain where reports of the mysterious lights have also been logged over the years.
It would be difficult to imagine Jules Verne (who despite his gifted imagination, never strayed far from his home in France) had somehow heard about quaint local traditions in the southern Appalachians regarding ghost lights at the time he wrote of the “strange occurrences… in the western part of our great American State of North Carolina” in Master of the World. This is especially unlikely since newspaper accounts detailing the lights appeared no earlier than 1912, one year after the publication of his novel.
Conversely, the skeptically inclined would argue that stories about the lights, rather than inspiring Verne’s story, had actually been influenced by its publication instead. Then again, if this were true, what can be said of the endurance of reports of the lights now for more than a century? A final possibility would simply be that there are no connections, apart from the coincidental appearances of the lights shortly after the publication of Verne’s book, which borrowed from the lingering interest in prospective airships seen in America in the 1890s (although it should be noted that a similar rash of sightings occurred in Britain in 1909, Verne’s novel was published in France three years before this, and thus couldn’t have been inspired by the sightings of “Scareships” over Europe).
Some of the similarities between these late-19th and early-20th century oddities are certainly difficult to ignore. Ultimately, they could be suggestive of the cultural influence one of the most renowned early science fiction novelists had on the development of a famous folk tradition of “ghost lights” in the American southeast.