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Chapter 1 — Introduction

 

Connections.  Are there connections between Mysteries, Science, and Mythology?  That’s what the reader on the left is trying to discover.  In the first chapter, we take a look at the relations between mysteries, science, and mythology.  We’ve clipped some text to give you a glimpse of Chapter 1 – Introduction.

 

Everyone loves a mystery.  And, it is even better if the explanation invokes mystical and supernatural powers.  The Greeks had their all-powerful Zeus hurling lightning bolts from Mount Olympus. 

 

            [In a similar, though less dramatic way,] much of the renown of Marfa derives from its mysterious lights. These lights have a history that is larger than the popular mythology. And that history does not stand alone. It is intertwined with the opening of the West to commerce and travel. The story begins in 1850 with the exploration of west Texas and the subsequent diffusion into the Big Bend region of settlers, cattle, soldiers, and their attendant lights. It continues with the legend of the first mysterious light sighting on the Marfa plain in 1883 and works up to the present considering all the lights employed over the years.

 

            Because so many factors are relevant to the appearance of a “mysterious” light, we will look at topography, meteorology, and the phenomena of lights that span the gamut from fires, matches, and stagecoach lights all the way out to moonbeams.  

 

            Diverse facts about the Marfa plain and the special conditions that led to its famous mysterious lights will be presented.  Our findings will be illustrated with examples from the Marfa area of both distorted daytime images – mirages, and a representative collection of explanations for mysterious nighttime lights that have been reported by eye witnesses in recent years." .....  

 

Chapter 2 — The Marfa Plain

 

Chapter 2 sets the stage for discussing the Marfa lights by introducing the Marfa plain.  Located southeast of Marfa, the plain is about 20 miles across and surrounded by hills and mountains.  The first sighting of mysterious lights occurred there in 1883 (see History), and the most commonly seen Marfa lights are still visible there every night from a viewing center built by the Texas Department of Transportation (see History and Map #6).

 

In the middle of the Big Bend region of Texas, Marfa is the county seat of Presidio County — a role it obtained in 1885 after the Galveston, Harrisburg, and San Antonio Railroad was extended through what would become Marfa, bypassing Fort Davis. It is also the town that gave the Marfa plain its name.

            … One of the first things you’ll notice as you travel through the region around Marfa is the vast expanse of wide, flat plains interrupted at their edges by mountains that rise a thousand feet or more above the floor of the plains. No where is this more evident than driving into Marfa from the north on US90. ... [The highway steadily rises to reach nearly 5,000 feet above sea level just outside of Marfa. Along this path a picturesque panorama unfolds to the north as the Davis Mountains come closer to the highway.]  With the elevation, the flatness of the plains, and the expansiveness of the plains as the backdrop, this region of the Big Bend is ideal for sightings of strange lights.

            It is also the ideal setting for those interested in geology.  The area around Marfa … was shaped by volcanism tens of millions of years ago. Today, evidence of volcanism abounds throughout the region. …

            All this geologic activity millions of years ago ultimately created the plains and uplifted them a mile above sea level. The result is an ideal stage for the display of unusual — and some might say mysterious — light phenomena. …

 

            Railroads played a dominant role in opening up the Marfa plain to settlement and commerce. …....

            Railroads of the late 19th and early 20th centuries needed water for their steam engines. When the forerunner of the Southern Pacific Railroad … was extended through the region, watering stations were established at frequent locations. Aragon, Marfa, Nopal, Paisano, and Alpine (then called Murphysville) were all stops. Marfa and Alpine went on to become county seats for Presidio and Brewster counties, respectively. The other locations no longer exist, and are designated as historic places, marked by red stars on [the map of the Marfa plain in] Figure 2–1 [of the book].

The highest peaks adjacent to the Marfa plain exist on its east side. Cathedral Mountain rises to 6,868 feet, and Goat Mountain reaches 6,608 feet at its summit. Further south on the east side of the plain are OT Mesa (5,633 feet) and Mitchell Mesa (5,281 feet). The two mesas are separated by Walnut Draw. That passage is also called Rustlers’ Gap — perhaps indicative of its frontier traffic.

Rustlers’ Gap is one of a series of readily visible markers of fractures in the earth’s crust at the southeast corner of the Marfa plain. They were created millions of years ago. The largest of these faults [is] the Walnut Draw Fault. …

When it comes to mysterious lights, perhaps the most important feature is the Marfa Lights Viewing Center (MLVC) shown as a red rectangle just below US90 near the top-center of [the map in] Figure 2–1. It is 8.5 miles east of Marfa (15.6 miles from Alpine). The concept for the center was developed by the students of Marfa High School. Land for the center was donated by Clayton and Modesta Williams, and the Texas Department of Transportation built the center which opened in 2001. [See also #6 on Map.]

Every evening people gather there to view the lights that appear to the southwest just after sunset. From the MLVC, a flashing red tower light is quite distinct, even though it is 12.5 miles away. Its position marks the left-hand side of where a particular group of “mysterious” lights appear.  ……

 

Chapter 3 — Sightings of Mysterious Lights

 

Chapter 3 reviews mysterious light sightings and explains why we selected certain sightings for analysis in subsequent chapters.  The clips below describe the phenomena observed and the chapter(s) where they are analyzed.

 

First-hand sightings of strange lights in the Marfa region have been reported for close to a century. Second-hand reports go back even further. As you might imagine, these reports vary widely in their quality, character, and level of detail. With the availability of the Internet, the volume of material about the mysterious lights on the Marfa plain has exploded. ...

         

            In our review of the literature and Internet searches, we’ve sought descriptions that have the potential for explanation. In this chapter, we’ll review the stories that comprise a significant part of the literature about the Marfa lights and analyze their credibility. We will set aside those that are too lacking in detail to warrant further pursuit and review some of the most intriguing ones in greater detail. At the end of this chapter, we’ll tabulate the reports that we’ll be examining in subsequent chapters.

             The more detailed the description of a sighting is, the better. Ideal reports would include the following elements — (1) Photographs or a video of the light; (2) documentation of what was seen, written soon after the sighting; (3) precise statements about the location of the observer, the direction of the view, and the date and time of the observation; and (4) details about recent weather events and current weather conditions such as temperature, pressure, humidity, wind direction and speed, as well as whether atmospheric particulates (smoke and haze) were present. It should come as no surprise that none of the reported sightings includes all of these elements, and most don’t even come close to providing useful information.

            … [From the collection of mysterious light stories discussed in Chapter 3], we’ve selected intriguing examples of light phenomena for more detailed examination in this book. The subjects are listed in the table below.

  

 

 

Chapter 4 — Bringing Lights to Marfa

 

In 1840, the region of the Republic of Texas that was west of the Rio Pecos and east of the Rio Grande was a primitive land occupied by Indians.  Chapter 4 examines the transition of this area, commonly referred to as the Big Bend, into the western extreme of the State of Texas. 
 
The chapter reviews the development of roads, railroads, and towns and the significance of rivers and springs to the settlement of the region.  With people came lights.  Not only was the use of lights driven by exploration and settlement, but the sightings of lights could only be made by those who traveled to the area — without inhabitants, there are no mysterious light sightings.

 

All possible lights, known to man, up through the early 20th century are considered.  Use of these lights by the early arrivers to the Big Bend is examined.

 

This review develops two exceptional maps of the region showing how the roads, trails, and knowledge of springs changed over the time from 1840 to 1880.  Major arteries of travel and commerce included are the Salt Trail, Comanche Trail, and Chihuahua Trail.

 

Life in the Big Bend region during the middle of the 1840s continued at much the same pace as it had for hundreds of years.  Most activities took place during daylight hours when there was ample sunlight.  If nighttime actions were required, people would try to plan them around the presence of moonlight.  ……

          The Salt Trail was … pressed into major commercial use by the early freighters that operated between San Antonio and Chihuahua [Mexico] during 1850–1883, especially following the end of the Civil War (1865). …   … a trail came into existence from Indianola, on the Gulf Coast of Texas, up to San Antonio, northwest for 300 miles over to the Salt Trail, down to Presidio, and south to Chihuahua.  This became known as the Chihuahua Trail. 
 

            [Lieutenant William Whiting] … recommended that the Army build a road through the region and on westward.  Figure 4‑2 [of the book] shows where Fort Davis was ultimately built.

            Today, the Fort Davis National Historic Site has markers in place showing the route the road followed as it passed by the fort.  The basic trail discovered by these hardy explorers would go on to become the San Antonio – El Paso Road. 

            [The Galveston, Harrisburg, and San Antonio] … railroad would vastly accelerate the development of the Big Bend.  Tracks reached the Marfa-Murphysville (now Alpine) region in early 1882, and both places became watering stops on the route.  Other stops in the region included: Valentine, Ryan, Aragon, Nopal, Paisano, Strobel, and Marathon. 

 

            All this travel into, and through, the Big Bend brought lights!  They came in people’s pockets, on stage coaches and trains, and in freight wagons.  People needed light for nighttime activities and where people went, lights followed.  Lights were used in places we wouldn’t expect in that time. 

 

            …. fires were probably the only manmade lights in the Big Bend prior to the middle 1840s.  All other lights — except astronomical ones — were transported to the area.  By 1883, the list of manmade light sources had grown from just campfires to include matches, candles, and …  …Table 4‑1 [of the book] lists many light sources capable of producing illumination after dark.  The table also shows when these sources were likely to have been introduced to the Marfa plain.

 

            At what distance is a manmade light still visible?   As calculations in the next chapter — Illuminating the Mystery — will demonstrate, the distances can be surprisingly large.

            For example, a surveyor’s electric light, prepared for the United States Coast and Geological Survey (USCGS) in the mid-1920s, was seen at a distance of 152.9 miles with the unaided eye!  

 

            With so many lights to choose from, it is small wonder that tales of mysterious lights emerged.  But it’s one thing to have a light source; it’s quite another to identify a light as being mysterious.  … So how close do you have to be to identify a common source of light?  Or put another way, how far away do you have to be before you can’t tell what you’re seeing?  We’ll examine these questions in [Chapter 5] Illuminating the Mystery. ……

 

 

Chapter 5 — Illuminating the Mystery 

 

It couldn’t be a campfire. You can’t see a campfire that far away.

 

A version of this statement is often repeated to explain why a particular light couldn’t possible be the source for a mysterious light observation. And so the debate begins and continues.  

 

But how does anyone know that a distant campfire can’t be the source for a particular mysterious light?

 

We mentioned above that a USCGS light was seen 152.9 miles away. And, you’ve seen lights that are even further away. Take the sun, for instance. It’s 93,000,000 miles away. The moon is 235,000 miles away, and stars are many, many light years away.

 

Why can you see these astronomical lights that are much more distant than the USGCS light? The answer is that they produce vastly more light. The solution is simple. If you want to see lights at great distances, just turn up the power of the light source.

 

In Chapter 5, we examine the relation between the power output of light and the distance at which the light can be seen. We tabulate the light output from a variety of sources, ranging from a wooden match to a locomotive’s headlamp and calculate the distances at which these lights can be seen. This may seem like an academic/pedantic subject. But it is absolutely essential in identifying possible candidates to explain the source for mysterious light sightings.

 

With the material in Illuminating the Mystery, you will be able to calculate the distance at which any known light source can be seen. Moreover, if you know how far away a light source is, you’ll be able to calculate the minimum output that light had to emit to be visible. You’re now ready to reveal the mystery of the Marfa lights. 

 

Chapter 6 — “Classic” Marfa Lights
 

Long before the MLVC opened, or US67 and US90
became part of the United States highway system, people reported seeing mysterious lights in the south-southwest direction of the Marfa plain toward the Chinati Mountains [see Map]. 

The lights were visible every night that the skies were clear. In Mysteries of the Marfa Lights Revealed, we refer to these lights as the “classic” Marfa lights.

 

Today, it is well known that the lights seen to the south-southwest from the MLVC are the headlights of vehicles on US67. But has that always been the case?

 

The MLVC didn’t open until 2001, and US67 hasn’t been around all that long. In fact, it was built after 1932. Yet, we have first-hand accounts of lights to the south-southwest. Consider what Ruth Bownds wrote in her memoir —

 

“We drove out the [Marfa–Alpine] highway about 15 miles east of town, ….  We pulled to the side of the road and looked down into a low place in front of a certain ridge. We could see them there parallel to the highway. The lights didn’t move but looked like long streaks. … I had seen them in 1928-1932.” 

 

That was more than 80 years ago. And, Ruth Bownds wrote in first person about what she saw with her own two eyes. So, what did she see?

 

After a lot of detective work, we’ve uncovered the facts. Not only were the road locations different in the 1920s and 1930s, so were the vehicles and their headlamps. In the “Classic” Marfa Lights, we apply the visibility distance calculations of Chapter 5 to vehicles on US67 and environs over the decades. A map and terrain plot illustrate the routes of the old roads and reveal how lights, road, terrain, and viewer location interplay.

 

Ruth Bownds saw streaks of light. Today, viewers at the MLVC report observing strange light behaviors, and ask — “How can headlights divide, merge, disappear, and reappear? Those lights can’t be headlights?”  Or, can they? The answer is in Chapter 6.