For the Complete Story of the Hornet Spook Light, See the
book So, There I Was by Troy Taylor
& Len Adams -- includes first-hand accounts of the light!
Click on the Book Cover for More Info & To
miles southwest of Joplin, Missouri, an obscure paved
road runs through a open patch of countryside. This nearly forgotten track runs across the
Oklahoma border but is only about four miles long. Nearby is the former border
village of Hornet, and close to that is the site of what once was a spook
light museum. The place is remote and far from civilization, so why do so many
people come here?
They are searching for an unexplained enigma, a puzzle that
most of them actually seem to find. It has been seen along this road since
1866 and has created such a mystery that even the Army Corps of Engineers
officially concluded that it was a "mysterious light of unknown origin". It
has gone by many names as it has made it's appearances here in a place called
the "Devil's Promenade", but it's most commonly known as the Hornet Spook
This light has appeared seemingly as a ball of fire for
almost 140 years, varying in size from a basketball to larger. It spins down
the center of this gravel road at great speed, rises up high, bobs and weaves
to the right and left. It appears to be a large lantern, but there is never
anyone carrying it. The light has appeared inside of vehicles, seems to
retreat when it is pursued and never allows anyone to get to close to it. Does
the light have some sort of intelligence? That remains just one of the many
mysteries connected to this light.
No one has ever been injured by the light but many claim to
have been frightened by it while walking down this road at night. Sometimes it
just seems to come from nowhere and a few witnesses claim they have felt the
heat from it as it passed close by them. Occasionally, some observer will even
take a shot or two at the light, like Franklin Rossman, who lived near the
Devil’s Promenade for years. He twice attempted to shoot the light with a
“30-30” rifle but the shots had no effect whatsoever. He told an investigator
to the site that he was unable to judge the distance to the light as it had
such an odd look to it.
There have been many theories that have attempted to
explain why this mysterious light appears here. Originally, a number of
legends sprung up around the place. One of them claimed the light was
connected to the spirit of two young Quapaw Indians who died in the area many
years ago. Another claimed the light was the spirit of an Osage Indian chief
who had been beheaded on the Devil's Promenade and the light was said to be
his torch as he searched for his missing head. Another legend tells of a miner
whose children were kidnapped by Indians and he set off looking for them with
only a lantern to light his way. The light is said to be his lantern as
continues looking for the children that he will never find.
Locals claim that the stories of the Hornet Light
originated back in the 1800’s but most printed accounts are of a much more
recent vintage. As far as is known, the first account of it appeared in the Kansas City Star
in 1936 and then in the 1947 book Ozark Superstitions
by Vance Randolph, the famed Missouri folklorist. Randolph was the first
to put into print the oral legends of the light’s origins, from beheaded
Indians to lost children.
In 1958, a writer for the Ford Times
the light and described it as a diffused, orange glow that floated and weaved
along the roadway. He also noted that it seemed to change size as he watched
it, varying between the size of apple to that of a bushel basket. While
present, he also saw the light split off into three different lights and then
as a single light, it settled down upon the branch of a tree and changed
colors to blue.
Over the years, the light has been studied, researched,
chased, photographed and shot at - but what is it? While legends give one
reason for the light, its genuine origins seem to present a formidable
problem. Many suggestions have been offered as to what could cause the light
to appear and for many years the most popular was that it was merely
will-o’-the-wisp, the name given to a biological phenomenon that is caused by
the decay of wood and organic materials. The emission of light that comes from
the decay often glows brightly and can be seen on occasion in wooded areas and
damp regions. As fascinating as this is, it really doesn’t explain the Hornet
Light. Instances of will-o’-the-wisp simply do not give off the intensity of
light that has been reported along the Devil’s Promenade.
Another suggestion has been the ever-popular “marsh gas”.
Unfortunately, marsh gas does not ignite itself spontaneously and while an
abundance of such gas in a marsh or swamp would certainly be flammable, it
cannot light itself. Even if it did, wind and rain would soon extinguish any
flame that appeared and in addition, strong winds that have been reported
during sightings of the Hornet Light do not seem to disturb the light or keep
it from moving in whatever direction it pleases.
There have also been theories suggested that the light
might be a glow coming from minerals in the area. This seems doubtful too
though, as the light does not always appear in the same place. One plausible
suggestion theorizes that the light might be formed by electrical fields in
areas where earthquakes and ground shifts take place. This is a possibility
since there are fault lines in the region. Four earthquakes took place here in
the early 1800's that had a devastating effect on this part of the state. It
is possible that the lights starting appearing around the time of the
earthquakes but were not reported until the population in the area grew around
the time of the Civil War.
Other "experts" claim they have the mystery solved however.
They claim the light is caused by automobiles driving on the highway about
five miles east of the Promenade. They say the highway is on a direct line
with the gravel road but at a slightly lower elevation. When it is pointed out
that a high ridge separates the Promenade from the highway the experts explain
how refraction causes light to bend and creates the eerie effect.
Believe it or not, several investigations that have been
conducted at the site have shown that some of the sightings here may be
attributed to this. Dr. George W. Ward, formerly of the Bureau of Standards in
Washington and later with the Midwest Research Institute, investigated the
light in 1945. He said that shortly after arriving at the Devil’s Promenade,
he saw a diffused glow appear over some low hills. A few moments later, a
sphere of light appeared that looked to be four to six feet in diameter. Ward
humorously added that the Publicity Director of the Midwest Institute remarked
to the others assembled that he had seen all that he cared to and as the light
approached the group, he quickly locked himself inside of their automobile.
But Ward was critical about the source of the light. During
his study, he decided that the light must originate to the west of the viewing
site and over the range of hills in the distance. He surmised that the
refraction of auto headlights from a road that was in line with the country
lane could create an illusion of a traveling light. Dr. Ward checked his maps
and found that such a road did exist, a section of highway that ran east and
west between Commerce and Quapaw, Oklahoma. He suggested that an airplane
might be used to spot cars on the highway and relay the information to
observers at the Spook Light site. If the lights could be shown to correspond
with the Hornet light, the mystery would be solved.
Captain Bob E. Loftin followed these speculations with his
own experiments a few years later. He discovered that colored test lights that
were placed on the suspected areas of Route 66 could be seen from the Devil’s
Promenade. He further reasoned that the presence of moving cars along the
highway would appear as spheres of light, closely grouped together. He also
added that changing humidity and temperature would cause the created lights to
behave strangely and this would explain the number of unusual stories told
about the way the light acted.
And while this would admittedly explain some of the
sightings of the Hornet Light, it is impossible that it could explain them
all. The most important point to remember is that the light was being seen
before the arrival of automobiles!
As mentioned already, there have been a number of
investigations into the site. Author Raymond Bayless embarked on an extensive
study of the Devil’s Promenade in October 1963. Around dusk on the evening of
the 17th, they spotted the light for the first time, appearing as a bright
light at the end of the roadway. He reported that the light fluctuated in
intensity and at times became two separate lights, hovering one above the
other. The light returned again about an hour later and according to Bayless,
was so bright that it caused a reflection on the dirt surface of the road. A
few minutes after the light appeared, the investigation group began moving
westward along the road in pursuit of it. The light receded backward (or
appeared to) as they got closer to it. The group began navigating the hills
and ravines of the road and the light vanished. It did not reappear until they
reached a point near the old spook light museum, which was still in operation
at that time.
The “Spooksville Museum”,
operated then by Leslie W. Robertson, offered not only photographs and a
collection of accounts about the light but also a viewing platform for
people to observe the light with the naked eye or through telescopes and
cameras. A member of Bayless’ group set up a small refracting telescope on
the platform and they were able to learn that what appeared to be a single
light was actually composed of a number of smaller lights. Bayless
stated that they moved very close together, weaving slighting, expanding
and contracting back and forth. It was goldish-amber in color and
sometimes gained a reddish tint for moments at a time. Through the
telescope, the edges of the light were observed to be like a “flame” in
that they were not uniform and constantly changed.
Garland "Spooky" Middleton, who operated the Spooksville Museum in
later years. (Courtesy of Crystal Lovell)
Bayless was fascinated with the many explanations of the
light and was able to rule out almost all of the ones that had been proposed,
including the theory that all of the sightings could be explained away as the
refraction of auto headlights. In fact, Mr. Arthur Holbrook, a resident of the
area and a man who had investigated the light many times, told Bayless that he
had first seen the light in 1905. At that time, Holbrook explained, there were
only about a dozen automobiles in Joplin, the closest large town. He also
added that there had been no highways at that period and because of this,
headlights could not have explained his sightings of the light. The few cars
that were in existence in the area at that time did not travel about on
remote, dirt lanes that were best suited for horses and any autos that would
have (by some slim chance) were only fitted with oil and carbide lamps, which
would not have been capable of creating the long, intense beams of modern
headlights. To add even more credibility to his account, Holbrook was in the
automotive profession and would have been very aware of the number of autos in
the region in those days and the state of the roads and highways.
But did the light actually exist before automobiles came to
southwest Missouri or was this merely a part of the local legend?
After conducting a number of interviews in the area,
Bayless began to believe that it did exist in the 1800’s. He did not feel that
his own sighting of the light was comparable to auto headlights but as it had
been shown that some lights would appear on the road as refraction from the
highway, he needed to gather as much evidence as possible to show the light
pre-dated automobiles. Mr. Holbrook had experienced his first sighting of the
light in 1905 and had heard of the light for several years before that. After
that first sighting, he rode out in a buggy to see the light many times and
told Bayless that the light was the same in the 1960’s as it had been in 1905!
Bayless also interviewed Leslie Robertson, the curator of
the Spooksville Museum, who first saw the light in 1916, when he was just 14
years-old. As a boy, he had seen it “thousands of times”.
Mr. John Muening of Joplin first saw the light around 1928
and had heard of it for a number of years before that. He also wrote and said
that “We have watched it all night... Highway 66 has nothing to do with the
light. It couldn’t have, as it didn’t exist when the light was first seen, of
that I am sure.”
Bayless also collected testimony from a Mrs. Rene Waller of
Joplin, who also said that she had seen the Hornet Light before Route 66 was
put in through Quapaw, Oklahoma. She stated that the original highway was a
dirt road and was traveled infrequently. She had first seen the light in the
late 1920’s, when auto headlights would have been too seldom on the road to
have created the effect of the light.
Mr. and Mrs. L.C. Ferguson of Joplin also stated that they
had been familiar with the Hornet Light since 1910 and at the time they first
saw it, they were told that the light had been seen along the Devil’s
Promenade for many years already.
Their claims of the light’s longevity were substantiated by
a Mr. J. Leonard, who in the early 1960’s was a member of the Miami Indian
tribe. He told Bayless that his parents had spoke of the light many times when
he was a boy. He could personally remember seeing it for as long as he had
been alive (he had been born in 1896) and according to stories, the light had
been in existence for several generations or at least 100 years. And another
Native American from the area, Guy Jennison, recalled hearing about the light
when he was a boy attending the Quapaw Mission School in 1892. By that time,
it was a local topic of conversation, implying that reports of the light had
been around for at least a few years. Jennison believed that, like Mr.
Leonard, the light might have appeared several generations before, based on
the Indian legends that had been suggested to explain its origin.
Unfortunately, there were few Native Americans left who had knowledge of the
dates when the stories originated.
Even without the earliest dates though, Bayless was able to
show that the Hornet Light existed prior to the use of automobiles in the
area. He did not dispute the idea that some sightings could be caused by
headlights, but he did debunk the idea that headlights could be the only
cause. Others have suggested that perhaps lights from Quapaw, Oklahoma or from
mining camps in the area could have caused a refraction of light, thus
creating the Spook Light, but there is little evidence to suggest this or to
suggest that these stationary lights could manage to create a light that moves
about and comes and goes as the Hornet Light does.
With that in mind, Raymond Bayless’ investigations of the
light should be considered groundbreaking, although he certainly did not solve
the mystery of the Hornet Light and in fact, made it even more of an enigma
than it already was!
The Hornet Spook
Light, captured in motion by news photographer Marta Churchwell
Bayless was not the first, nor
would he be the last, to investigate the Hornet Spook Light. Literally
thousands of curiosity-seekers visit the Devil’s Promenade each year and
many of those are serious researchers of the unknown. The old “Spook Light
Museum” is gone now but long after Leslie Robertson, came Garland “Spooky”
Middleton, who also operated the place for a time. Along with the
photographs and newspaper articles, Middleton sold soda to tourists and
entertained them with his own encounters with the mysterious light, like
the time he saw it in a field near the museum. He said that the light
appeared on night on the road just after sunset and began to roll like a
ball, giving off sparks as it traveled along the gravel road. It entered a
field where several cattle grazed and managed to move among the animals,
not disturbing them at all.
|On three different occasions, starting in the late 1990’s, I
visited Spook Light Road, each time hoping to get a glimpse of the elusive
light. My diligence was never rewarded but I didn’t give up on the idea that I
might be at the right place at the right time at some point. Eventually, my
persistence paid off!
In December 2005, I took a group of
guests in search of the light and in addition to a near case of frostbite,
several of us also got a look at this mysterious wonder as well. The light
put in its brief appearance some time around 2:30 a.m. (This trip is detailed
in the book
I Was -- 2006). The sighting lasted no longer than
10 seconds but it’s not something that I will soon forget.
What is the Hornet Spook Light? No one knows but I think that
it’s still described best in the words of the Army Corps of Engineers as a
"mysterious light of unknown origin". Regardless of what it may be, one thing is
certain ---- it’s something that has to be seen if possible. There are those who
believe that the Hornet Light is slowly burning itself out, that sightings of
the light are going to become more and more infrequent in the years to come. I
hope that this is not the case, and not only for my own selfish desire to see
the light again, but also for all of those who have not had the chance to
experience this wonder first hand.
The Hornet Spook Light
is one of America’s greatest unsolved mysteries and since no one has managed to
puzzle out the answers to this enigma just yet, we need the spook light to be
around for future generations to ponder for themselves.
Directions to the Hornet Spook
After working on this for
some time, we have gathered what we feel are the best directions
available for a trip to the Hornet Spook Light. These were the
directions used by the Bump in the Night Tours when we have
visited the light. Here are the directions:
- Take Interstate 44 west
of Joplin, Missouri and then take the Route 43 Exit and go south
- Turn onto Coyote Road (Right) off Route 43 and pass through
- Take another right onto Gum Road
- Take Left onto State Line Road
- Take the first Right to what is called "Spook Light Road"
- You'll likely see markings on the road where people park and
watch for the light
This is only a four-mile
stretch of road that extends into Oklahoma. At a dip in the
road, park your vehicle. There will be a field on your right
side, facing left. This is the best location and you should see
a slight rise ahead of you to the west and a much steeper hill
behind you. Be sure to park your vehicle as far to the side of
the road as you can (we suggest turning around with your car
facing back toward Missouri) and watch out for any oncoming
cars. Be careful and stay on the road so that you are not
Copyright 2002 - 2008 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.
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