The Paulding Light

Cue eerie wind and rustling leaves. Though science may stake its claim, Michigan’s legendary “unexplained phenomena” are still intriguing. Illustrations by Gary W. Odmark
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The following excerpts from “Weird Michigan” by Linda Godfrey — part of the “Weird U.S.” book series (2006, Sterling Publishing) — are presented by permission of Weird New Jersey LLC. All rights reserved.

Healthy debates on everything from politics to the Pistons’ chances for the playoffs are a time-honored Yooper tradition. But if there’s any one topic in the Upper Peninsula that is the focus of a raging, ongoing argument between skeptics and believers, it’s the strange phenomenon of the glowing orb between Watersmeet and Paulding off Highway 45, known as the Paulding, Watersmeet or Dog Meadow Light.

Paulding Light illustration leftIt’s a bright light that appears over the tree line nearly every clear night that some say changes colors, causes electrical disturbances and even chases or plays games with people.

Ghost legends about the light’s origin abound, but the most popular is that the light is the ghostly lantern of an old railroad worker killed on the job who still shows up faithfully to light the way. The swinging of the lantern as the ghost walks along is supposed to cause the light’s pendulum motion that is sometimes observed. But is the light a genuine mystery caused by supernatural forces or mere illusion formed by distant car headlights?

“Weird Michigan” decided to enter the thick of the fray to find out.

We arrived there one chilly evening in July, at the height of the light-watching season. We pulled off the highway onto Robins Wood Road and drove up the gravel drive toward the guardrail that blocks an old bridge that washed out about eight years ago. The road used to lead straight to Paulding, but now its first quarter mile or so serves mainly as a mecca for people of all stripes wanting to see the oddly reliable lights. The road was lined with assorted vehicles.

We joined about 40 other hopefuls of every age. People chatted among themselves, sometimes glancing furtively into the woods on either side while keeping a watchful eye on the hilly area where the lights appear. Small children in pajamas dashed among the crowd. Someone yelled, “Hey, there’s a bear crossing the road,” and parents grabbed their kids to keep them from running closer to see.

The bear disappeared into the woods and was soon forgotten.

The crowd’s mood of nervous expectancy deepened as the sun inched out of sight and the first light appeared. Even the children quieted, and for a moment, everyone just stared.

It could have been headlights. But then it flared brighter, and turned bright red. Would headlights do that? Could headlights do that?

A Chance Dance with the Ghost Light

The story below, included in “Weird Michigan,” is shared by William Kingsley, a writer and researcher in Mt. Pleasant.

My first encounter with a “ghost light” was by chance. While my wife and I were vacationing in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, we stopped in the small town of Watersmeet. The placemat in a local restaurant had a map of the county with local attractions. One of the attractions listed was a “mysterious light.” The waitress explained it was a strange light that would appear on the crest of a hill near some power lines at night.

We stayed at a motel until dusk; then, following directions, we found ourselves parked on a hill on a U.S. Forest Road. Approximately 100 to 150 yards in front of us was another hill. A power line corridor ran to our right over the hills and through the valley below.

As it grew dark, a small amber light appeared on the hill in front of us. Suddenly, it went out as if it switched off. After a few minutes it reappeared. This time it glowed to a bright white light. It seemed very similar to a gas lantern seen at a distance. We observed this same display several times before leaving. We were determined to return with a camera.

Our next visit was in May of 1980. This time I had my 35mm camera loaded with ASA 400 film. I set my camera on a tripod with a shutter release and we waited. There were other cars parked waiting for the light, too. Once again the light appeared. It was amber, glowing to a white light. The light disappeared for several minutes before returning. It remained “on” each time for about one minute, approximately 150 yards from us.

Paulding Light illustration rightThe light appeared to move. It flickered and swayed; its light reflected off the power lines and my jacket. It also appeared to be suspended in the air. Once it appeared to split in two. This was the case, as the negative of the film showed two dark spots, one above another. The most startling display happened after the light “winked” out.

Above some pine trees to the left of where the light appeared, I noticed a small, red light. It began to drift upward in a zig-zagging motion. It winked out. Another light appeared that made arcs above the trees. Then two red lights appeared. One followed the other in undulating movements. I was impressed by the animation of these lights.

Local people informed me that the lights go “out” when approached. They said it would also appear suddenly alongside cars or individuals. I was also told the light appeared in the area before the power lines were installed.

There are supposed to be over 100 known “ghost” lights in the United States.

There has been much folklore offered to explain ghost lights. Several involve the theme of a railroad worker killed on the job. Others include tales of lovers committing suicide because they were unable to wed. Some people believe they are beings from other worlds. Still others think the lights are a window into another dimension.

Some of the conventional explanations vary also. Will-O-Wisps are caused by spontaneous combustion of gas from decomposing organic material. Usually gas expands and does not remain in a small, compact mass. Air currents often dissipate the gas, so it is not likely to explain ghost lights in desert areas. Gas from decaying human bodies in cemeteries may, theoretically, be the cause of the unusual lights seen there.

Bioluminescence, or “cold light,” is created by bacteria, fungi and fireflies. “Fox Fire,” which is a fungi which grows on rotting wood, is an example. This fungus wouldn’t be aerial and mobile as ghost lights are.

St. Elmo’s Fire is a flame-like electrical display usually seen in stormy weather or strong electrical fields. It is observed at sea on the mast tips of yardarms, on land at the tops of trees, steeples and elevated objects… It can also appear on the wings and around the propellers of aircraft in flight. St. Elmo’s Fire has been observed not only during thunderstorms, but also during snowstorms. But, St. Elmo’s Fire does not explain many lights which are mobile and independent, and appear in clear as well as damp weather.

The automobile headlight is a popular explanation for these lights. However, many ghost lights were seen in areas prior to the invention of the automobile, and it does not explain how these lights suddenly appear next to or overhead of observers. If these lights are due to refracted light, then why are they not seen in many more areas?

The piezoelectric effect is created when crystalline materials in the earth’s crust are suddenly stressed. This may result in a plasma-like, luminous display. … It is probably the most logical “explanation” of many ghost lights. …

Spoiler alert: An Oct. 28, 2010, media link by Michigan Technological University unveils the shroud of mystery. To learn more, visit mtu.edu/news/stories/2010/october/just-time-for-halloween-michigan-tech-students-solve-mystery-paulding-light.html.


Linda Godfrey is the author of “Weird Michigan.”

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