MARFA LIGHTS. The Marfa lights are often visible on clear nights between Marfa and Paisano Pass in northeastern Presidio County as one faces the Chinati Mountains. At times they appear colored as they twinkle in the distance. They move about, split apart, melt together, disappear, and reappear. Presidio County residents have watched the lights for over a hundred years. The first historical record of them recalls that in 1883 a young cowhand, Robert Reed Ellison, saw a flickering light while he was driving cattle through Paisano Pass and wondered if it was the campfire of Apache Indians. He was told by other settlers that they often saw the lights, but when they investigated they found no ashes or other evidence of a campsite. Joe and Sally Humphreys, also early settlers, reported their first sighting of the lights in 1885. Cowboys herding cattle on the prairies noticed the lights and in the summer of 1919 rode over the mountains looking for the source, but found nothing. World War I observers feared that the lights were intended to guide an invasion. During World War II pilots training at the nearby Midland Army Air Field outside Marfa looked for the source of the elusive lights from the air, again with no success.
Those who have viewed the lights over a long period personify them and insist that they are not only harmless but friendly. Mrs. W. T. Giddings, who grew up watching the lights and whose father claimed he was saved from a blizzard when the lights led him to the shelter of a cave, considers the lights to be curious observers, investigating things around them. Over the years many explanations for the lights have been offered, ranging from an electrostatic discharge, swamp gas, or moonlight shining on veins of mica, to ghosts of conquistadors looking for gold. The most plausible explanation is that the lights are an unusual phenomenon similar to a mirage, caused by an atmospheric condition produced by the interaction of cold and warm layers of air that bend light so that it is seen from a distance but not up close. In recent years the lights have become a tourist attraction. The Texas State Highway Department has constructed a roadside parking area nine miles east of Marfa on U.S. Highway 90 for motorists to view the curious phenomenon.
Dallas Morning News, July 4, 1982. Fort Worth Star-Telegram, August 3, 1980. Elton Miles, Tales of the Big Bend (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1976). William Edward Syers, Ghost Stories of Texas (Waco: Texian Press, 1981). Wall Street Journal, March 24, 1984. Micheal Hall, "The Truth is Out There," Texas Monthly (June 2006).
Image Use Disclaimer
All copyrighted materials included within the Handbook of Texas Online are in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107 related to Copyright and “Fair Use” for Non-Profit educational institutions, which permits the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA), to utilize copyrighted materials to further scholarship, education, and inform the public. The TSHA makes every effort to conform to the principles of fair use and to comply with copyright law.
For more information go to: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.shtml
If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.Julia Cauble Smith, "MARFA LIGHTS," Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/lxm01), accessed February 11, 2016. Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Modified on December 10, 2015. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
Get Texas history everyday,
with day by day
Each day's email tells a little bit more of the story of Texas and links to our collection of more than 27,000 articles