Hey, y’all! If any of you have read the “about me” page, you know I love a good mystery. I also enjoy hearing and reading about legends and folklore. Mysteries and unexplained events have generated ideas for several of my stories.
Today, I’m excited to have the first post of a new weekly series—Mystery Monday. Each week, I’ll feature a different event. Some posts will be mysteries involving real people, while others may be a legend or piece of folklore that’s been passed down from generation to generation. So, without further ado…
What better place to begin than with a famous mystery from my home state?
The town of Marfa is located in Presidio County between the Davis Mountains and Big Bend National Park. With a population of less than two thousand, it might just be another dot on the map in a remote area of Texas where people measure distance by minutes and hours rather than miles.
“How far is it to San Antonio?”
“About six hours.”
“Where’s the closest Walmart?”
“Three hours away.”
In recent years, Marfa has become a center for minimalist art. The Chinati Foundation and Building 98 are two of its major attractions. I frequently mention Marfa and the art community in my most recent release, Unclear Purposes.
But long before the artists arrived in the Trans-Pecos region, Marfa became famous for something entirely different—a mysterious phenomenon known as the Marfa Lights. Just what are these lights and when were they first discovered?
In 1883, Robert Ellison and his wife were driving cattle westward from the railroad in present-day Alpine through the 5,067-foot Paisano Pass when they stopped their wagon on a high, open plateau called Mitchell Flat. Around sundown, the mysterious lights appeared. Ellison thought them to be the campfires of Apache Indians.[i]
Not long afterward, a surveyor named O. W. Williams claimed to have seen the lights. He later recorded in his journal the Indians of that region believed they were the spirit of an Apache chief named Alsate. Ranchers in the 1890s saw the lights and assumed they were Apache campfires. However, when they checked the following day, no one could find signs of any fires.[ii]
Sightings continued throughout the years, including during World War II when the Army established a pilot training base near Marfa.
I first heard of the Marfa Lights in the late 1980s when the television show Unsolved Mysteries did a story about them. In July 1989 the show’s producers asked three scientists from Sul Ross University and the nearby McDonald Observatory to investigate the lights. One was a professor of chemistry, the other was a geologist, and the third was an astronomer. The investigation included eleven other technicians and observers.
The team placed border markers along the road through the Chinati mountains to easily identify automobile headlights. Around midnight, a light appeared near one of the markers which were determined not to be traffic lights. The team concluded this light did not come from a man-made source but were unable to determine the origin.
In 2004, a group of students from the University of Texas at Dallas spent four days studying the lights and concluded they were from automobiles traveling along U. S. 67. In May 2008 scientists from Texas State University spent twenty nights in the area and also concluded the lights could be attributed to headlights from vehicle traffic.
Other theories include they are a mirage caused by gradients between warm and cold layers of air. Marfa is at an elevation of 4,688 feet and can experience as much as 40-50 degree temperature differentials between night and day.[iii]
It’s not surprising these lights have become a popular tourist attraction. They are best viewed on US 90 about nine miles east of Marfa. There is a pull-off, complete with tables, where you can have a nighttime picnic and wait for the lights to appear.
In 2003, the town of Marfa used $720,000 from the Texas Department of Transportation and the federal government to build the Marfa Lights Viewing Center. It has restrooms, mounted binoculars, and several bronzed plaques.
I have never seen the Marfa Lights, but I have a family member who has. A friend who once lived in the neighboring town of Alpine saw them several times. Ironically, her husband, who was with the border patrol, never saw them during the years he worked the area.
What do you think? Automobile or campfire lights? A ghost? An atmospheric phenomenon? Please leave a comment.
[i] Source: Portraits of the Pecos Frontier by Patrick Dearen
[ii] Source: Unsolved Texas Mysteries by Wallace O. Chariton
[iii] Source: Wikipedia