[Editor’s Note: Andy Shaw’s feature story The Crossett Light was pulled from Seark Today’s archives (September 12, 2011) for Halloween.]
Skeptics have any number of ways to explain it: pranksters, automobile headlights, atmospheric conditions, swamp gas; but, for a century the Crossett Light has mystified observers looking into the gloom down a train railway outside the city of Crossett, Arkansas.
For many residents of Crossett there is a more otherwordly explanation for the phenomena; a doomed headless brakesman tasked with the quest of searching for his head with the use of a ghostly train lantern. For others, instead of a brakesman, it was the lost soul of a black man who unfortunately fell asleep on the rail as a train ran down upon him.
If you grew up in Crossett at some point you would find yourself at one of a number of rural road crossings intersecting the railway, regardless of your belief. Some would take their dates out there to take advantage of its reputation of a lovers’ lane; others would remain ensconced in their vehicles to defend them and offer a means of retreat. Still others, brave or foolhardy, would walk down the rail lines to dare the Light to come forth. And if you were lucky (or unlucky) an orb of light would appear down the track. Sometimes intermittent, sometimes a constant glow. Sometimes a white light, sometimes changing hues of pink, orange and blue. Sometimes a transfixed point, sometimes bouncing and shifting around. Some would report it remained a constant distance away, like a rainbow. Some would report it would appear behind them, or even inside their car. Whatever the experience, you would share with others and compare notes. And the lore of the Crossett Light would grow with each shared tale.
As the lore grew, so did the notoriety. People began driving to Crossett to experience it for themselves. It wasn’t unusual to be stopped by a carload of strangers asking directions. Some would come back disappointed that they did not see the light. It wasn’t like Old Faithful at Yellowstone performing on a set schedule. Others would come back, claiming it was a hoax. Indeed, sometimes people did go out there to scare their friends with a flashlight, but, still there were too many times viewing it at so many crossings at different hours that could be explained away as pranksters. Then it must be automobile headlights from the people driving to and from the mills every night, the skeptics said. But that would mean it should have appeared on a regular basis at predetermined times and it did not. Nor did the mill traffic follow each individual crossing that stretched from the city limits to just beyond the airport, which was a number of miles away, too far for the explanation of automobiles’ headlights being the culprit. Detractors would claim you could only see it in the winter, when the foliage was gone which made it easier for the car headlights. Other detractors would claim it was easier to see on a summer night when swamp gas would naturally rise. So, the question became how many times has anyone seen luminous methane? Could it not be reproduced in a laboratory? Imagine a city lit by a perpetual energy source. So is there a definitive answer to what the Crossett Light is? That would depend on the individual.
Perhaps, it is a Southern thing. After all, we as a subculture are titillated by the unnatural. Whether it is the stories of Edgar Allan Poe, the novels of Anne Rice, haunted graveyards, or, ghostly antebellum mansions, Southerners are drawn like moths to these types of inexplicable things. It is also a shared thing with other Southern towns like Gurdon, Arkansas and Marfa, Texas that have similar ghost lights like the Crossett Light, with similar explanations of headless ghosts on an eternal quest.
For myself, the mystique began as a sophomore in high school. With a group of friends I went out to what was known as “First Light”, the initial intersection of the county gravel road intersecting with the train tracks. It was the closest to the city limits. We got out and with the collective courage of the group began walking about 200 yards down the track. Dark autumn night offset with just enough ambient light from the city that you could follow the tracks and see the parallel tree lines of seventy foot pine trees on both sides of the railroad’s right of way. We waited and talked among ourselves and suddenly it appeared. I admit my pulse sped up as we all began using the expletives that teenagers are wont to use. But the light just remained in sight, about 100 yards from us, not moving. I began to suspect that we had been set up, that a friend had waited there for us to appear and then began to shine a flashlight down our way. I looked at our group to see who was relishing our reaction, our fear, to see who had set us up. But everyone was transfixed on the Light. We continued to watch and it began to move from side to side of the railroad’s right of way. I thought to myself it could still be someone down there, but, then it began to move, not side to side, not closer, not farther, but, up. It rose up the tree line until it was amongst the top of the seventy foot pines treetops, changing colors, swaying across the right of way clearing. Any reasonable explanation was out the window, and I had come across something I couldn’t explain away. At some point, the bravest of the group began to walk toward it and the rest of us followed. After a few yards we all mutually turned away and walked back to our car. The Light had not come closer, it did not appear behind us, and it certainly did not appear in our car; otherwise I would’ve run home.
Eventually, I got my own car and was lucky enough to see it a number of times at different crossings. My favorite was out by the airport. Sometimes I would get up in the still of the night, drive out there and watch. Sometimes it wouldn’t appear, but, other times it would and I would stare at it with the same sense of awe as when I first saw it. Time passed and for the Crossett Light it was evident it would be a victim to progress, Ashley Memorial Hospital was built over “First Light” and the remainder of the railroad was razed. Now, the only place it is reported to be seen is at the airport crossing. You have to know where the railbed was unless you are lucky to go out when other cars are out there.
The last time I was in Crossett I drove out there, like I had countless times before and I waited and eventually it appeared long enough to blink at me a couple of times. As though to tell me it was still there, that it would always be there. That was enough for me. I drove off thinking somewhere the spirit of Edgar Allan Poe was smiling.
Andy Shaw is a Little Rock attorney, born in Warren, raised in Crossett, and educated in Monticello (at the University of Arkansas at Monticello).