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 Light.
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 investigated 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.
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!
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 American Hauntings tour 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 So, There 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.