An Annotated

History of the Marfa Lights

Part II

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In 1976, the mythology of the Marfa lights was treated by Elton Miles in one chapter of his excellent book, Tales of the Big Bend.[14]  By the time of his book, the story of mysterious lights at Marfa had grown to truly mythical proportions, but it had not developed similarly on a factual basis.

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The Marfa lights were featured as an episode, titled “Ghost Lights”, on the American TV series Unsolved Mysteries.[3]  Airing in 1989, the show presented several eye-witness accounts including those of Julia Plumley and Hallie Stillwell discussed above. Then a group of scientists from the McDonald Observatory, north of Fort Davis (map #1), and Sul Ross State University in Alpine (map #4) examined the lights.  The chemist, astronomer, and geologist saw and photographed a light but were unable to identify it, or to explain its origin. 

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In 1989, Judith Brueske began to move the written literature of the Marfa lights in a more fact-based direction, away from the primarily mythological form it had enjoyed since the first writings of O.W. Williams.  Her book [15] contained reports of sightings of mysterious lights that had been seen personally by people she interviewed.  No second-hand reports were included.  In contrast to the many other accounts that are clearly of automobile lights, the stories in Brueske’s book truly were strange and mysterious.  Her small book is essential reading for anyone interested in credible stories of mysterious light sightings, instead of mythology and hear-say.

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The observation of mysterious lights was facilitated by the construction of the Marfa Lights Viewing Center (MLVC) by the Texas Department of Transportation. (See map #6.)  Opening in 2001, the Center provides visitors with a safe place to view the Marfa lights. The viewing deck is built well above the Chihuahuan desert floor.  It is angled toward the direction of the most commonly seen lights — that is, between southwest and ten degrees west of southwest.  The unattended center has restrooms, information about the lights, binoculars for observing them, and subdued lighting for safety in the darkness.

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Around the time the MLVC opened and about a decade after Brueske’s book, James Bunnell sought to understand the famous lights by photographing those visible on the Marfa plain and adjoining mountainsides.  He used cameras that he personally operated as well as automated cameras placed on the Marfa plain.  His photographic activities continued for almost ten years, yielding a book in 2003[16] and another in 2009 [17] as well as a video[18].  In addition to photographing the lights, he teamed with Karl D. Stephan et al.[19] in an examination of the spectra of various light sources to see if any uniqueness would identify the light as belonging to the “mysterious” category.  No such spectral signature was found.

 

Bunnell exhibited incredible tenacity in collecting and examining an array of photographs of lights on the Marfa plain.  But there is no consensus that the lights he photographed were mysterious.  Certainly they could be unexplained, but that doesn’t make them mysterious.  In the region of the Marfa plain where he collected photographs, there are many ranches, airplane landing strips, and roads.  Transiently appearing lights are to be expected there.

 

Ultimately, Bunnell concluded that mysterious Marfa light appearances are rare. According to Bunnell, the odds of what he called a true Marfa light being seen on a randomly chosen night are about three percent.[20]

 

But, if you visit the MLVC on any evening that isn’t fogged in or experiencing a torrential downpour, you will see lights moving about, dividing and merging, etc.  These are vehicle lights, the classic Marfa lights, and Bunnell has simply defined them not to be part of the family of Marfa lights.

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The vehicle lights that Bunnell is excluding are the very ones for which the MLVC was built in 2001.  And, those lights were thoroughly investigated in May 2004,[21] by a group of physics students from the University of Texas at Dallas (UTD).

 

The students took video recordings of the “mysterious” lights visible to the southwest of the MLVC on nights between May 10 and May 14, 2004.  Then, they digitized the videos and transferred them to a computer for analysis.  Upon high-speed playback of the images, it was clear that the lights all followed the same path from left to right, and that they all “went out” at the same places along the path.

 

The UTD students also parked one of their vehicles alongside US67, at a location where lights had been seen.  They established radio communication with the video crew at the MLVC, and then blinked their headlights on and off.  The video crew confirmed that they saw the blinking headlights.  Through their radio link, the students established that when other vehicles passed their parked car on US67, the passing vehicles' headlights were observed simultaneously at the MLVC.

 

The unequivocal conclusion of the UTD students was that the “mysterious” lights were the headlights of vehicles traveling on US67 toward Marfa.

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The most recent contribution to the history and technology of the Marfa lights appeared in the early part of 2013, with the publication of our book, Mysteries of the Marfa Lights Revealed.[9]  We conducted an extensive review of the history of mysterious light sightings in the greater Marfa region from the earliest myths up to modern times. From this, we culled out first-hand reports (some from Brueske’s book) for scientific investigation.

 

Our analyses examined the luminous properties of a light source, the transmission properties of air, and the physics of light propagation to determine from what distance a light could be seen.  These facts were combined with spectral information (in some cases), geographical information, and meteorological facts at the times the sightings occurred, to produce likely explanations for the bizarre light sightings.  In addition to explaining the full details of the classic Marfa lights on US67, our book [9] presents —

 

  • A detailed explanation of the mysterious lights seen by Ruth Bownds Kirschner from the town of Marfa in 1928–1932.  Directions are included so you can see these lights today.
  • A complete explanation of an extreme mirage that twists road stripes sideways.  The mirage is shown on the front cover of our book, and directions are given that will enable you to see this mirage east of Marfa on any warm, dry, clear day.
  • How it’s possible that the mountains Robert Reed Ellison described seeing on his 1883 trip across the Marfa plain “looked like they had just moved up a little closer”.  Results of complete calculations for a mountain 13 miles distant from an observer on the Marfa plain are presented.  This distance is about the same as from Antelope Springs to Rustlers’ Gap, or between Goat Mountain and a location just outside Paisano Pass on the Marfa plain.  (See the gallery photos and the map and Figure 2-1 of our book.[22])
  • Details of how lights seen by an observer can change color.
  • Analyses and calculations showing how lights could have appeared to move upward at Aragon, Texas, and on the One O One Flat east of Marfa as reported by witnesses.
  • How a blue-green ball of light on top of a red ball of light was perceived to chase two women right down US90 and into Marfa.

Look Inside Preview of Mysteries of the Marfa Lights Revealed

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