The Mystery of the Marfa Lights

The Mystery of the Marfa Lights

By Shannon Gillette

Local Historian

A stroll under the night sky, sprinkled with twinkling stars, has historically been one of the most romantic date night suggestions.  While romantic, it can also be just a walk in the dark while you try not to stump your toe.  Take this age old idea and kick it up a notch, traveling to the Big Bend area of west Texas for an enchanted evening under the famed Marfa Lights.

Marfa, Texas, the county seat of Presidio County is nestled between the Davis Mountains and Big Bend National Park.  The town’s population may be small, with just under 2,000 people, but it remains a tourist mecca.  People from all over the world, with varying degrees of skepticism, make the trek to Marfa with one common goal.  Some come to find an explanation, some come to debunk the mystery but most come for the experience.

The Marfa Lights have been described as bright orbs that appear out of nowhere, often moving up and down at a rapid rate of speed. They zip closer and then out again, disappearing as abruptly as they appeared.  Some sightings report the lights change colors, while merging and separating.  For over one hundred years, people have been reporting encounters with these fascinating and unfathomable lights.

A report from Robert Reed Ellison in 1883 is the most commonly accepted record of the lights.  At the age of 16, Ellison was herding cattle a few miles east of Marfa and spotted some unusual flickering in the night sky.  His first concern was it might be the reflection of fires from an Apache campground.  Upon arriving safely with the cattle, he recorded what he had seen.  Others claimed they had seen the lights on occasion and assumed the same as Ellison.  Upon investigation, evidence was never found of a camp or campfire.  In the mid 1880s, Judge O.W. Williams also recorded seeing the strange, moving lights.  In 1919, another group of cowboys reported seeing the lights and tried to track the source, with no success.   One of the most common tales of the lights is recited by Mrs. W.T. Giddings.  After growing up in the area, she claims the lights once saved her father’s life.  Caught in a blinding blizzard, he reportedly followed the lights which led him to the safe shelter of a nearby cave.

During World War II, two pilots, Fritz Kahl and Kirby Warnock from Midland Army Air Field, decided to locate and identify the source of the lights from the sky. Kirby described the attempt later, “We got a fix on the lights and tried to fly to their location, but never saw them. I kept getting lower and lower, until finally the fellow in the back seat started shouting at me because we were so low he could see the yucca plants.”   Several more attempts were made but they returned unsuccessful each time.

Over the years several plausible, and perhaps not so plausible, explanations have been given for the sightings of these mysterious orbs of light. As mentioned, the earliest theories were reflections from campfires. Later, they were guessed to be reflections from the car lights traveling down US Highway 67.  This, of course, disregards the numerous recorded sightings before car lights existed.  Many claim the lights are not of this world, possibly UFO’s investigating the area.  Other possibilities include swamp gas, the moon’s reflection or some sort of electronic charge.

Whatever the cause might be, experiencing the mysterious Marfa Lights is just that, an experience. One, in my opinion, that should not be missed.

With the influx of visitors, the city of Marfa, with help from the federal government and the Texas Department of Transportation, spent over $700,000 on the Marfa Lights Viewing Center.  Located nine miles east of Marfa, on US Highway 90, it provides a safe place to park vehicles, has information about the lights and binoculars to enhance the viewing experience.