Dimming the Paulding Light
September 28, 2016
Having investigated on site in North Carolina the famous Brown Mountain Lights mystery (Nickell 2016), I have learned more about another example of the ghost lights phenomenon (of which there are several): The Paulding Light of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
I first heard of the Paulding mystery many years ago, from skeptics who discussed with me how it might be solved, but as far as I know they never followed up. And although my wife Diana and I traveled through the Upper Peninsula in 2005, we were intent on quite different lights: “haunted” lighthouses, like that at Big Bay Point, perched on a cliff overlooking Lake Superior, where we were “assistant keepers” for a few days, and at Seul Choix Point on Lake Michigan (Nickell 2012, 107–114).
As it happens, a September 8, 2016, newspaper feature (sent me by Michigan skeptic Bob Batten) renewed my interest in the Paulding case. John Carlisle of the Detroit Free Press reported at length on the phenomenon, which is usually a bright white light seen deep in the Ottawa National Forest near Paulding, in the western Upper Peninsula.
Its sightings, according to Carlisle (2016), date back only “half a century,” making it much more recent than the Brown Mountain Lights, reported since 1913. Also I note curious parallels between the Paulding and Brown Mountain Lights, suggesting the Paulding claims are possibly imitative. In both cases, for example, raconteurs tell a legend of a ghost with a lantern endlessly looking for someone who is lost. And both, it is claimed, trace far back into history—before there were roads—and cite alleged (but apparently nonexistent) confirming Native American legends. Again at both sites, attempts to demonstrate that the lights have prosaic explanations are met with assertions that those are not the “real” mystery lights.
In fact (as at Brown Mountain) the predominant lights seen are manmade—being an assortment of types at Brown Mountain, nearly half of which are from automobiles, while those at Paulding are almost exclusively from vehicles. At that site, writes Carlisle: “All along doubters noted that the light looks rather similar to automobile headlights at a distance, and their location just happened to coincide where there’s a sight line to a highway.” The light was first recorded in 1966 when teenagers, reported it to an area sheriff [“Paulding Light” 2016], and interest has continued ever since.
Corroboratively, in 2010, Engineering students at Michigan Tech in Houghton conducted an experiment that had some driving along that highway—which is approximately five miles away—and signaling with their lights in an identifiable pattern. The result was that each time “mystery lights” appeared, the students’ telescope revealed oncoming cars. A reported effect, the light dimming and brightening, was found to be caused by cars going over a hill.
However, the students were met with local hostility. Some told them they did not appreciate them spoiling people’s fun. One long-time fisherman told reporter Carlisle (2016): “Maybe you just gotta be a believer in the light, I think. You either believe it or not.” That attitude speaks volumes about paranormal claims.
Carlisle, John. 2016. Mysterious glow draws thrill-seekers to UP forest. Livingston, MI, Daily Press & Argus, September 8, 1–2. (Reprinted from Detroit Free Press.)
Nickell, Joe. 2012. The Science of Ghosts: Searching for Spirits of the Dead. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
———. 2016. The Brown Mountain Lights: Solved! (Again!), Skeptical Inquirer, 40:1 (January/February), 24–27,
Paulding Light. 2016. Online at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paulding_Light; accessed September 23, 2016.