That One Time in Michigan…When Ghost Lights Were Debunked

(Photo via Flivver 99, CC BY 3.0)

By Karel Vega

October 3, 2023

Do you believe the answer?

Have you ever had a strange feeling about a place? Like it doesn’t seem to follow the laws of nature—almost as though it’s…otherworldly?

One such phenomenon in the U.P. is known as the Paulding Light. If you happen to be standing in a specific spot near the small community of Paulding at night, you’re likely to catch a glimpse of this mysterious glow. For decades, legends about the light’s source ran wild—most of them ghost stories.

That is, until a group of Michigan Tech students set out to find the real answer.

The Legend of the Light

The location of the Paulding Light is no mystery. Head south of Paulding, in Ontonagon County, and make your way off US Route 45 to Robbins Pond Road/Old US 45. At the end of the road, there’s a barrier. If you stand close to the barrier, near the telephone poles, you just might see the light.

The light looks like circular spheres dancing on the horizon. Sometimes they’re red, sometimes they’re white, and sometimes they’re green. They’re a little more like floating police car lights than Northern Lights—but really, they’re entirely unique.

That One Time in Michigan…When Ghost Lights Were Debunked

As the story goes, the first recorded instance of the light happened in 1966, when a group of teens witnessed a bright glow and reported it to the sheriff. Since then, the light has been a constant occurrence, appearing and disappearing throughout the night. On some occasions, witnesses report seeing multiple lights in several colors, which may move, flicker, glow, or otherwise change when people walk toward them. Some folks say they feel a different energy there, and that the air around them changes in temperature in response to the lights.

There have been many explanations given for the spectacle, as John Carlisle detailed in a 2016 Detroit Free Press article:

“Legend says the light comes from the swaying lantern held by the ghost of a railroad brakeman who died when he was crushed as he tried to stop an oncoming train from hitting railcars stalled on the tracks. This was logging country more than a century ago, and local residents say there were a number of railroads that ran through the forest and are now buried in the underbrush. Some believe it’s the light of the train, which itself is now a ghost. Some claim it’s the distraught spirit of a grandparent looking for a lost grandchild with a lantern that needs constant relighting, the reason the light seems to come and go.”

Still other legends say it’s the ghost of a Native American, a murdered mail carrier, or a logger who lost his child in the woods. Some say seeing three distinct lights in one sitting is an omen of death.

Supposedly, Ripley’s Believe It Or Not even once offered $100,000 to the person who could solve the phenomenon (we couldn’t confirm that rumor, btw).

Investigating the Glow

That One Time in Michigan…When Ghost Lights Were Debunked

(Source: USDA Farm Service Agency/Jeremy Bos image)

In 2010, the Syfy series “Fact or Faked: Paranormal Files” went to Paulding to try to debunk the myth of the light. The hosts reportedly tried multiple times to recreate the light using lasers and even a light aircraft. (If you’re super into watching it, you can buy the episode on YouTube here, on Amazon here, or watch it on Apple TV here.) Spoiler alert: The TV experts couldn’t figure it out.

That same year, Jeremy Bos, a PhD candidate student in electrical engineering at Michigan Technological University, teamed up with students in the school’s SPIE (an optics and photonics society) chapter to investigate the legend of the Paulding Light.

Equipped with a telescope, the team set out to the viewing site. As the light appeared, the students grabbed their telescope, looked into it…and spotted the unmistakable sight of car headlights on the nearby US 45. They also spotted something else: An Adopt-a-Highway sign near the location of the lights. Tracking down the sign on Google Maps, they sent a team member out to it, where he kept a log of when cars drove past.

Over at the viewing site, the rest of the team logged when they spotted the lights. When the two teams reconvened, they found that their times lined up.

They then sent someone out on the highway with hazard lights on—and over at the viewing site, the team saw them.

Additional testing by the team even accounted for some of the light’s more interesting properties, like visual distortions or lights that stuck around longer than others, due to atmospheric effects.

In a 2010 write-up by Marcia Goodrich, Bos also gave his theory for the more brilliant and colorful lights that sometimes appear:

“I think that the occasional spectacular lights happen when a cop pulls someone over,” he said.

The researchers noted that the timing of the first reports are likely no accident—the viewing site was a popular “make-out spot” for teens, and in the 1960s, the highway there was rerouted. Regular visitors to the site could easily have noticed the change in view.

Shining a Light on the Mystery

That One Time in Michigan…When Ghost Lights Were Debunked

(Source: mtu.edu)

Even after their mythbusting, Bos said that detractors remain.

“We’ve been told we haven’t seen the real Paulding Light. I’ve been out there 15 times, hours at a time, in the heat, the cold, and the rain. It’s always the same. We were there Monday with a man who saw the headlights on our computer, and he refused to believe it.”

That One Time in Michigan…When Ghost Lights Were Debunked

(Review from tripadvisor.com)

Regardless of what you choose to believe, the phenomenon itself is very much real, and the legends remain popular. If you decide to make your way to the viewing site yourself, you probably won’t be alone. The Paulding Light is still a destination for locals and tourists alike—and, perhaps, at least one ghost.

Author

  • Karel Vega

    Coming from a long background in public radio, Karel Vega strives to find stories that inform and inspire local communities. Before joining The ‘Gander, Karel served as managing editor at WKAR, the NPR affiliate in East Lansing, Michigan.

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