• Jennifer Billock

Paulding Light: Debunked

This is an excerpt from Jennifer Billock's book "Ghosts of Michigan's Upper Peninsula," published by The History Press.

Photo by Steve Baxter.

On a dark night more than 50 years ago, a railway brakeman faced a problem. Several railcars were stalled on the railroad tracks—and another train was heading right to the spot. He knew the engineer of the oncoming train needed to be warned in order to avoid a major accident. So the brakeman hopped off the train and waved a lit lantern back and forth along the tracks, hoping to catch the engineer’s attention.

The poor brakeman never stood a chance. The engineer never saw him, and as the train slammed into the stalled cars, the brakeman was caught in between and crushed to death.

In 1966, a group of students gathered in the night at dead-end Robbins Pond Road in Paulding, Michigan. What they saw pushed them to go right to the sheriff: a ghostly light floating over the exact spot our poor brakeman was killed. The light has appeared nearly every night since with such regularity that it’s now officially named the Paulding Light and hundreds make regular pilgrimages to the spot to catch a glimpse. Sometimes it’s one light, sometimes two, sometimes the color changes to red, white, or green. But every time, the light mimics the path of the brakeman walking up and down the tracks, getting brighter as it comes closer and then fading into darkness as he meets his untimely end. And then it starts over again as he continues his ghostly walk, reliving his death in perpetuity.

It’s a fantastic story, right? Except it’s not exactly true. In 2010, a group of students from Michigan Tech University trekked out to the light’s location and attempted to solve the mystery. They set up camp at the viewing spot and waited for the light to appear, which it did—because it always does. Step one complete, they left and returned another day with a telescope. When the light appeared again, they peered through the scope and found the lights coming from an everyday source: cars driving down a highway. A highway that was coincidentally built in 1966. They didn’t stop their investigation there, though. The group wanted the mystery truly and thoroughly debunked. So they sent team member Bill Norkus out to the specific spot on the highway they saw through the telescope (which was easy enough to find thanks to an Adopt-A-Highway sign). Norkus logged every car that went by, and the rest of the team logged every instance of seeing the Paulding Light. The reports matched perfectly. Every time a car drove by, the light appeared. To further test the theory, Norkus drove down the highway himself with his hazards on, and sure enough, the team saw a flashing yellow Paulding Light. Unfortunately, the light is far more terrestrial than everyone wanted to believe.

But that doesn’t stop people from visiting the spot on a regular basis. Paranormal purists think the Michigan Tech report is bunk, and the ghostly hopeful continue to sit and wait at the edge of the woods to see the soft glow of a lost railroader’s lantern. Or the spark of a local Native American ghost’s dance atop the power lines. Or a grandparent with a faulty lantern looking for a missing grandchild. Or something even spookier. On a Paulding pilgrimage, the possibilities are endless.

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