The Marfa Lights

Okay, I’m cheating again. There is not a new Mystery Monday post this week, but there’s a good reason. After a couple of weeks of being “stuck in the middle” of Blood Red Dawn, I’m writing again. (Sorry, couldn’t resist a reference to an old Steeler’s Wheel song.)

Part of my problem came about because of the third book, Edge of Twilight. I haven’t even begun that one, but a secondary character in Blood Red Dawn will be the male lead of book three. After an evening of serious brainstorming, I addressed my concerns. Not only is Blood Red Dawn moving along, but I’m making notes and a skeletal outline for Edge of Twilight.

To solve the problem for Mystery Monday, I decided to bring back my very first post from 2019. The Marfa Lights have long been a source of fascination for me, so I hope you’ll enjoy reading about them.

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 the third book of my Driscoll Lake Series, 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.

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.

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 from traffic. The team concluded this light did not come from a man-made source but was 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. They 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.

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 in the area.

What do you think? Automobile or campfire lights? A ghost? An atmospheric phenomenon? Please leave a comment.

33 thoughts on “The Marfa Lights

  1. I have seen the Marfa Lights, and I can attest to the fact they are something uncommon. The way they bounce around and move linearly is proof it isn’t automobile headlights. I go with the atmospheric phenomenon, but you know me, and I also lean toward ancient spirits who are drawn to the area for communication or ‘meetings.’ It was a fabulous experience! And I don’t think they’ll ever be explained.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That is so cool, Jan! My brother is the family member who saw them. Automobile lights don’t make sense. They didn’t have cars in the 1800s when these lights were first discovered.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I had a wonderful day on Friday. Best word count in ages. Didn’t get anything done over the weekend. We had a wedding to attend on Saturday and I spent much of yesterday recovering! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Oooh, I love this mystery, Joan. Glad you are getting some writing done and that it gave you a good reason to re-run this post. You know how I feel about the Brown Mountain lights of North Carolina (enough to build the 4th Wake-Robin Ridge book, The Light, around them), and now you’ve given me another creepy mystery to ponder. Sometimes, I’d give anything to know what these lights are, and other times, I hate the idea of losing the mystery behind them. Go figger! 😁

    Thanks for the super post, Joan! And now, I’m going to go sit in the Comfy Chair for a wee bit–my version of “not overdoing.” 😊❤️😊

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This is fascinating. I’m going to go with atmospheric phenomenon given the difference in centuries and how old these things are.

    I also love the way distance is measured in Texas, LOL!


    1. I think an atmospheric phenomenon is a more likely reason for the lights. Yep, the distance between towns in the western part of the state is a lot more than in the east. We had friends who once living in Alpine. At that time, the nearest Walmart was in Midland (148 miles) or El Paso (220 miles).


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