The Mystery Of The Gurdon Ghost Light

CULTURE | October 31, 2019

The Gurdon Ghost Light. Source: (youtube.com)

About the only thing people can agree on regarding the Gurdon Ghost Light is that it actually exists. Not only has it been seen and photographed by numerous tourists, but it also appeared on an episode of Unsolved Mysteries in 1994. Anyone still questioning its existence need only visit Gurdon, Arkansas, and see it for themselves. The mystery of the Gurdon Light isn’t whether exists but rather why it exists. Despite the fact that the light was first reported almost ninety years ago, researchers have yet to determine what is causing it.

The light has been spotted along a four-mile stretch of Missouri-Pacific railroad track, about two and a half miles east of Highway 67. Accessing it requires hiking through a swamp, past two trestles, and an old cemetery. The light is a white-blue color, though it has sometimes appeared to be more orange, about eighteen inches wide and a foot tall, and shaped like a rugby ball. It sways back and forth as it moves along the horizon, about one to three feet above the tracks. It has occasionally been known to turn around at one end of the tracks and reappear at the other.

Robert Stack, host of Unsolved Mysteries. Source: (mentalfloss.com)

The mysterious light spawned a local legend which was included in the Unsolved Mysteries episode. According to the legend, the light comes from a lantern carried by the ghost of a railway worker. This is consistent with the way the light moves as well as the fact that the area in question is used by railways. The legend is based on the historically accurate account of a murder committed by a railroad worker named Louis McBride.  

Railway worker’s lantern.Source: (flickr.com)

In 1931, a Missouri-Pacific railroad foreman named William McClain was beaten to death with a railroad spike maul after he fired McBride. Details vary, with some sources saying McBride killed McClain because he refused to give him more hours while others say McBride was fired for sabotaging a section of track and causing a derailment. According to a 1932 article in the Southern Standard paper, McBride himself claimed to have killed McClain because McClain had accused him of causing a train accident a few days earlier. McBride received the death penalty and was executed by electrocution on July 8, 1932. The first documented sighting of the Gurdon light occurred shortly after the murder. According to the legend, McClain continues to haunt the railroad tracks and the light is caused by his lantern which he would have carried for work.

Man standing by tracks before an oncoming train. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

Another local legend claims that while the light is the lantern carried by a ghostly railway worker, it is not McClain. Instead, it is the ghost of a railroad worker who accidentally fell into the path of an oncoming train and was decapitated. The legend claims that the head was never found and that the Gurdon light comes from the deceased worker’s lantern as he is doomed to continually wonder the tracks in search of his missing head. There is no historical data to back up this legend; however, it was not uncommon for railroad workers to be killed, possibly even decapitated, in the line of duty.

Headlights distorted by fog. Source: (Merchants Insurance Group)

Unsolved Mysteries failed to uncover the source of the light, but they weren’t the only ones to try. A popular theory is that the light is merely the headlights from highway traffic reflecting through the trees, but the highway did not exist in the 1930s and 1940s when the light first began appearing. Still, researchers attempted to prove it was highway lights and failed. A graduate physics student determined that the length of time that the Gurdon light was visible did not match up with the amount of time a car’s headlights would be visible, assuming they managed to be refracted up and over the hill from the interstate four miles away. He also noted that highway sounds did not coordinate with the appearance of the light.  

Gurdon light. Source: (toptenz.net)

Dr. Charles Leming of Henderson State University observed that the light did not polarize, as it would if it were a mirage. He also noted that the light appeared consistently regardless of atmospheric conditions, which rules out the possibility of the light being caused by swamp gas. The prevailing theory is that the light is caused by the piezoelectric effect. According to this theory, the New Madrid fault puts pressure on underground quartz crystals, causing them to release charged particles which are held together by the metal railroad tracks. However, this theory has never been scientifically proven, and many locals insist they have also heard eerie noises along those same tracks.

Tags: Gurdon Ghost Light | Gurdon, Arkansas

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