The Marfa Lights #MysteryMonday

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 took this photo in the town of Marathon which is about 57 miles (or 55 minutes) from Marfa. It gives you an idea of what the West Texas landscape looks like.

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

37 thoughts on “The Marfa Lights #MysteryMonday

  1. Very interesting, Joan! I love a real life mystery like this. In fact, I love it so much, my current WIP (Wake-Robin Ridge #4: The Light) features the Brown Mountain Lights, a similar phenomenon that has been familiar to people in the Blue Ridge Mountains since long before the European settlers arrived. To date, it has never been explained, though many theories have been offered. Everything from swamp gas to ball lightning to ghosts of Cherokee warriors killed in battle. (That last one can’t be disproved, of course, but isn’t high on today’s list of guesses.)

    There is an overlook along the Blue Ridge Parkway (Wiseman’s View) where you can stand as daylight fades to dark and watch for the lights to appear over the top of the distant ridge known as Brown Mountain. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t, but apparently they put on a pretty good show worth waiting for, bobbing around, then darting off in various directions, often shooting straight up into the sky.

    I suspect they will eventually be determined to be of natural origin, but in the meantime, the show goes on. And now, you have me wondering just how many other places may have mysterious, unexplained light shows occurring now and then.

    Cool topic, cool post, cool phenomena. 🙂 Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I had not heard of the Brown Mountain Lights until Mae mentioned it in her comment a couple of days ago. The way you describe them sounds a lot like the Marfa Lights. Interesting about the Cherokee ghosts, so similar to the Apache ghost theory about Marfa. I hope to someday see the Marfa lights. Hubs and are now talking back taking a trip to that part of the state.


      1. Yep, Mae’s right. Some people did say it was caused by traffic or train lights–but if that’s the case, how come those particular lights have been recorded going back way before there even was such a thing? Plus, when you see them, they don’t really look like headlights of any kind. The float in the same spot for long periods of time, for one thing. So that theory’s been pretty much debunked. I do think they’ll figure it out one day, but nothing that’s been suggested so far has proven correct. Probably the same thing for the Marfa lights. Such an interesting world we live in, with so much we still don’t understand or even know about. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

    1. I thought about you when I wrote this. (I need to read your book – you know how that TBR list goes). Several years ago, there was an earthquake near that area. There is a fault line that runs through Central Texas (right down I-35). There’s certainly no swamps in West Texas, but the fault line theory is interesting.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I Googled and the Balcones fault line runs from the southwest part of the state near Del Rio (not too far from Marfa) through Austin and up to Dallas along I35. Back in the 1960s when the highway department was building the interstate, they discovered a cave. It’s called Inner Space Cavern and I’ve been in it a couple of times. The tour guide points out the fault line. It’s interesting. Just purchased my copy of Will O’ The Wisp. Love the idea that it’s set in the 1970s.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. What an excellent post, Joan. I’ve heard of the Marfa Lights before but wasn’t familiar with all of the background. I also love the idea of a observation spot with picnic tables where you can sit and watch the lights appear–if you’re lucky enough to catch them. I’m inclined to think they are weather related in some manner, but the myriad possibilities make speculating utterly fascinating.

    There is a similar phenomenon in North Carolina called the Brown Mountain Lights. that many people want to attribute to traffic, while others say that can’t be the cause.

    You know I love folklore, legends and mysteries, so I look forward to more of these posts!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I believe it’s probably the atmosphere, but who knows. Funny, many residents of Marfa don’t care what they are, they just know the lights exist.

      You and I both share a love of folklore, legends, and mysteries. I hope to have some interesting ones. Always good fodder for stories!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Because I’m writing alien-based sci-fi now, I’ve been studying (more than usual) reported UFO activity, and this story has always fascinated me. And while I don’t think they’re alien, I do think there is a scientific explanation. I just don’t know what it is. I don’t think it’s traffic. Maybe it does have to do with the weather. I’m not sure.

    I’m also not ruling out the Marfa Lights (or something like them) showing up in a future book of mine!

    Great opening to a new series of posts, Joan.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Wow, what a cool phenomenon. I don’t think they’re related to traffic if we have an account from the 1880s and 1890s. I like the mirage theory because of the huge temperature fluctuation.

    And what a cool town. I love minimalist art.

    And what beautiful scenery!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I agree, Priscilla. There weren’t automobiles in the late 1800s. I also like the mirage theory. Western Texas is far different from the area where I live, but it has its own beauty. (We have trees and lots of humidity!)

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I love how they conclude a modern-day phenomenon and disregard the historical–pre-tech–sightings. I lean toward atmospheric conditions, seeing as they’ve appeared in the same area over a prolonged period of time. However, it’s fascinating that some folks spend years in the area an never see them … great story fodder here, Joan. I love the idea of a Mystery Monday set of posts. Thanks! Reblogged on:

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree with you about the atmospheric conditions. Amazing how the did discount historical sightings. It is strange that some people in that area have never seen them. I guess that’s part of their mystery. Thanks for the reblog!

      Liked by 1 person

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