Folklore is, and always has been, a part of life not only in southwest Arkansas, but across America. For time out of mind, people have passed down stories and legends both real and imaginary about the places they live and the things they’ve seen.
Some of these tales are told as gospel, believed as stringently as scripture on a Sunday. “Hanging a dead snake belly-up over a fence will bring rain.” “Never walk under a ladder, it brings bad luck.” “A black cat crossing your path is a sign of misfortune.” While these may be couched in figurative language, some do carry important lessons. Never walk under a ladder, say, because it could collapse on you. It probably won’t, but it could, and that’s really the lesson being imparted.
Others are meant to entertain, growing in the telling from generation to generation as older friends, siblings, or relatives pass them on to wide-eyed youths whose imaginations are piqued by the presence of the impossible (that surely must be true, because Uncle Ned or Big Sis said it was so). “The old school building is haunted by a girl who died in there in the 1800s!” Never mind that the school in question wasn’t built until the 1940s, or that there’s never been another structure on the property, or that no student has ever died in the school building. It’s the possibility that the school might be haunted that captures the listener’s attention.
Some are even meant to carry over as cautionary tales, warning the listener of some potential danger or perceived threat. “Have you heard about the hook-handed killer at Lover’s Lane? Well, there’s this young couple who have gone parking, and they hear about this guy with a hook for a hand that escaped from a local mental asylum…” The warning isn’t necessarily about some violent amputee, but about the dangers of teenage promiscuity.
One of the best-known local legends is the mysterious light that appears near the railroad tracks at Gurdon, Arkansas. Gurdon is only 35 minutes away from Hope, and there have undoubtedly been many people from Hope, Prescott, and all over the surrounding area who tried to get a glimpse of the Gurdon Light as a rite of passage while growing up.
The light appears, many say, near the old Missouri-Pacific railroad tracks that go through Gurdon. Sometimes described as being white, blue, green, or even orange in color, the light apparently floats around the tracks in a wooded section of Gurdon, and can be seen both during the day and at night.
The Gurdon Light is nowhere near the only phenomenon of its type in the United States. A similar light appears near the town of Crossett in southeast Arkansas. A little over 100 miles separates the two, and similar stories tell of their origins and possible causes. Joplin, Missouri, has a similar spook light story. In Silver Cliff, Colorado, the ghost lights are typically seen near a cemetery instead of a railroad, but the appearance of the phenomenon is the same. Georgia boasts the Ray City Light, as well as the Surrency Light. Michigan has the Paulding Light, North Carolina has Brown Mountain, and Texas has the nationally famous Marfa Lights. And that is by no means an exhaustive list.
Some have ascribed the lights to swamp gas reflecting light strangely, though considering that only around 2% of the land that Gurdon sits on is wetland in any sense of the word, that seems unlikely. A more likely natural explanation for the light may be the appearance of piezoelectricity in the air due to pressure being exerted on the quartz deposits that rest under the area. Piezoelectricity is a term for electricity that is produced when certain minerals or elements have pressure applied to them. This may even be responsible for the phenomenon known as “ball lightning.”
Others have suggested that the lights may be the headlights of traffic from Interstate 30. This theory is similar to one surrounding the Marfa Lights in Texas. Back in 2004, a group of university students actually performed a series of experiments on the phantom lights, coming to the conclusion that they could reliably be attributed to traffic on Highway 67. However, as the Marfa Lights were first recorded in 1883, it’s hard to imagine what traffic could have been producing them. Similarly, traffic coming off of Interstate 30 near Gurdon would not have existed in the 1930s, as the interstate didn’t come along until the 1970s. Likewise, the Brown Mountain Lights in North Carolina have been spoken of by the indigenous tribes who lived in the area as far back as the 1200s, and were even written about by Civil War soldiers stationed in the area.
Many of these lights from across the country share a similar tale. There’s always a conductor, a railway worker, someone (whether it be a thief or a stranded motorist) trying to wave the train down. The train either fails to see them, they trip and fall onto the tracks, or they’re pushed into the path of the train. Killed (most often decapitated), the spirit now haunts that section of track, swinging a ghostly lantern that is seen by passersby.
The Gurdon Light’s origin in the 1930s does coincide with the murder of a Section Foreman with the Missouri-Pacific in December of 1931. While the reason for the murder differs depending on public suspicion and the killer’s confession, what is known is that Section Foreman William McClain was killed by worker Louis McBride. McBride claimed the killing was motivated by layoffs due to the Depression, while others claim that the murder was motivated by McClain finding evidence that McBride intended to cause the derailment of the Sunshine Special, a popular passenger train on the Missouri-Pacific at that time.
Whatever the reason, McClain never returned home from work and his wife went to the authorities. McBride acted suspicious, according to the city marshal who went to investigate, and was brought to the jail for questioning. Almost immediately, McBride confessed to the murder of McClain, taking the marshal out to where the killing had occurred. According to the marshal, he could tell that something violent had taken place, as a trail of blood led from the tracks to the nearby woods. McClain had been hit four times in the head by McBride, once with a shovel and three times with a spike maul. McClain had tried to crawl away after McBride fled the scene, making it almost a quarter of a mile before succumbing to his injuries. Whether or not McClain was still clutching his lantern (as the local legend says) is unverifiable. McClain was buried in Bryant Cemetery in Saline County, while McBride was sent to the electric chair. Shortly thereafter, the first sighting of the Gurdon Light was recorded on the same stretch of track.
So, what exactly is the Gurdon Light? Is it swamp gas? Piezoelectricity? Car headlights? The ghost of an unfortunate victim of murder forever doomed to roam a rural stretch of railroad track? If nothing else, it’s a curiosity that has captured the imagination of generations of area residents, and has even burst onto the national scene. In the 1990s, the television series Unsolved Mysteries aired an episode about the Gurdon Light, bringing more attention to the phenomenon. And, like many unsolved mysteries, this one may not be easily explained. It is likely that the mystery of the Gurdon Light may go on to fascinate many generations to come.