The Gurdon ghost light is not like other ghost stories in Arkansas. It's not just a tale from the past; it's happening now. People have seen it on TV, tourists have taken pictures of it, and most folks agree it's real. Even the show Unsolved Mysteries came to Gurdon in 1994 to film it. So, the question isn't whether it exists or not. The real mystery is what exactly this light is.
The story goes like this: There are two legends, one from the locals and one from Unsolved Mysteries. Both stories agree that the ghostly light belongs to a railroad worker. The place where this happens is still used by trains, and the way the light moves looks like a railway worker carrying a lantern.
One of these legends is backed by history. In 1931, a guy named William McClain, who was a boss on the Missouri-Pacific railroad, fired a guy named Louis McBride (or Louie McBryde). Then, McBride killed McClain. Now, why he did it isn't crystal clear. Some say they fought because McBride messed with the tracks and caused a train wreck. Others say McBride wanted more hours at work, and McClain said no. In 1932, a newspaper called the Southern Standard in Arkadelphia reported that McBride told the sheriff he killed McClain because McClain blamed him for a train accident a few days earlier. So, this legend is probably the real one.
Anyway, McClain got beaten to death with a tool called a railroad spike maul. Later on, McBride got the electric chair and was executed on July 8, 1932. The Gurdon light was first spotted not long after that, in the 1930s. Some folks think the light is McClain's spirit, haunting the tracks and carrying the same lantern he used to work with.
Now, there's another theory. The locals tell this one, and it's not as well-backed by history, but it's still interesting. They say that a railroad worker was out working one night outside of town. He accidentally ended up in front of a train, and his head got chopped off. They never found his head. People around here say the light we see is actually the light from his lantern as he walks the tracks, searching for his missing head. Railroad work could be pretty dangerous, so it's possible that one of them lost their head, literally.
You can't see this light from the highway; you've got to go to it. It's about a two and a half mile hike to the spot where you can see the mysterious lantern. Along the way, you'll pass two trestles before you get there. You'll know you're close when you see a little hill on the tracks. The light is strange—it's white-blue but sometimes looks orange. It swings back and forth and moves around on the horizon. People usually see it on really dark nights, especially when the sky is cloudy. Before you head out, check the Roadside America map to find the spot.
Unsolved Mysteries couldn't figure out what this light is, and neither have any scientists who've looked into it. But there are a few ideas floating around. One popular theory is that it's just lights from the highway reflecting through the trees. But historians disagree because stories and talk about the light go way back, even before the highway existed. Scientists have tried to explain it, but they've ruled out highway lights as the cause.
In an article from the 1980s in the Arkansas Gazette, a former graduate student from Henderson State University named Clingan did some research on the mysterious light. Here's what he found:
The closest major road to the railroad tracks is about four miles away, and there's a big hill between the tracks and the road. If the light was caused by passing car headlights, it would have to bend upwards and over the hill to be seen on the other side.
Clingan tried to calculate how long it would take for a car traveling at 55 miles an hour to cross the horizon at a 45-degree angle (the angle between the road and the tracks). He explained that at 80 feet per second, the car's lights would be visible for much longer than the brief second it takes for the Gurdon light to appear and disappear. He also walked close to the highway to listen for specific truck sounds, but he found that the sounds didn't match up with when the light appeared.
Dr. Charles Leming, a physics professor at Henderson State University, was an expert on the light before he passed away. He and his students observed the light many times. One fascinating discovery was that when they looked at the light through special filters, it didn't polarize as it should if it were a mirage. They also couldn't detect any electromagnetic current using a galvanometer, and the light consistently appeared, regardless of the weather conditions.
There's another theory that suggests stress on the quartz crystals beneath Gurdon may generate electricity and create the light. This phenomenon is known as the piezoelectric effect. The idea is that the nearby New Madrid fault, which passes through this area, puts intense pressure on the crystals, causing them to build up an electrical charge and produce a spark.
If you want to see the light for yourself, you'll need to head to Gurdon, Arkansas. It's about 75 miles south of Little Rock, just off Interstate 30, along Highway 67. The light is located outside of town, along a stretch of railroad tracks. It takes a couple of hours to get there. You can ask for directions at any gas station in Gurdon; they all know about it, and they call it "ghost light bluffs." There's a similar light with a similar story in Crossett, which also has a lot of quartz. This place is popular with kids on Halloween.