The town of Silver Cliff is located in a high valley between Colorado’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains, rising more than 4,000 meters and the Wet Mountains, which top out 3,500.
Born as a mining town in the late 1870s, despite regular snow eight months a year, chilly temps, and rugged terrain, a silver boom quickly made it the state’s third-largest town.
By the early 1880s, around 5,000 souls lived there, including three miners who were walking home from a bachelor party one dark night who opted for a shortcut through the town’s cemetery.
Strange enough, while they walked past the graves, ghostly balls of blue and white light began to dance among the tombstones.
Their story spread to town, with several different version throughout days, weeks, months and years.
In some versions, it actually happened, sometimes with a miner, trying to catch the lights with a knife, slices into his own raincoat while, in other stories, the whole town turns off its lights one night to prove the phenomenon isn’t just reflections and it is real.
Of course the truth, like the lights themselves, is elusive.
Fly to our modern day, and Silver Cliff has around 600 residents.
Also the old cemetery shows its age with wildflowers and high-prairie grasses that rustle and bend in the valley’s winds, brushing against its worn and decaying headstones.
There is also a monument to 10 miners who died in a mine explosion in 1885, simply a rock with a plaque on it, as a reminder that Silver Cliff was a dangerous place because mining itself was a dangerous job.
Interestingly enough, during the silver boom era, local papers recorded miner deaths and mishaps, but nothing from that time about the ghostly lights.
Actually the first written mention of them appears in the 1956 Wet Mountain Tribune article “Silver Cliff Cemetery Ghosts Carrying Own Lights at Night.”
According to the article, one evening some of the younger set of the community were taking a nocturnal ride. As they passed the cemetery, screams of terror came from the occupants of the car as they beheld numerous eerie lights dancing among the tombstones. But there’s nothing in the 1956 article about the lights ever being seen before suggesting the midcentury incident may have actually been the first sighting, embellished over the years with stories of drunken miners (and slashed raincoats).
In any case the story reached national prominence in August 1969, when the worldwide popular National Geographic published a feature on Colorado. The article included a trip to the Silver Cliff Cemetery, where literally “dim, round spots of blue-white light glowed ethereally among the graves”, but it’s just a few paragraphs in an article long tens of pages.
And the truth has twisted and changed over time.
So, a possible explanation?
Well, first of all, not underestimate the reflectivity of tombstones, which could be bouncing town’s lights off their stone surfaces.
Or it could be a phenomenon with the disturbing name of the “prisoner’s cinema.”
Basically, when your eyes don’t get stimulated by photons if, for example, you work in a mine, you sometimes hallucinate lights. When you’re in that type of darkness, your eyes literally start messing with you.
And then, of course, the rest come due the power of your mind.
Whatever they are, the Silver Cliff sightings of ghostly lights are not unique.
Similar phenomena, sometimes called will-o-the-wisps, have been spotted elsewhere in North America, as well as Indonesia, Australia, and other places around the world, sometimes associated with cemeteries or geological features.
Depending on who you talk to, these are either apparitions of ghosts or spirits, or some scientific anomaly.
For example, the “otherworldly” lights are sometimes just car headlights, bending or reflecting weirdly, or even trains in the distance.
Or something involving science or gasses, like methane mixing with phosphine, that bubble out of swampy areas as organic matter decays.
Other potential natural explanations include triboluminescence, which makes minerals glow when scraped or crushed.
And sometimes people are just imagining things. To have some hope that loved ones are still part of you and part of the landscape, is a very powerful thing.
And back to our Silver Cliff.
There, as the sun sets, and golden hour descends upon the cemetery, the world appears through a yellow lens that sharpens the edges of everything, including shadows of weeds and headstones, that grow long.
Lights wink on in town, to the north and, as it gets darker, the surrounding mountains disappear with the lights of homes and cars partway up their slopes appear to hover in the thin air.
If Silver Cliff is no longer a boomtown, its past and present come together in its cemetery, the final rest place of miners and others who have tried their luck there over three centuries.
And the ghost lights, real or imagined, help keep their memories alive.
Images from web – Google Research