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The Living Legend of the Jacksonboro Light in South Carolina’s Lowcountry

Reported sightings of ghost lights are known the world over, and they have been noted in historical accounts and folklore for centuries. Scientific explanations have been developed to rationalize the causes of ghost lights, but these hypotheses have done nothing to diminish the potency of local lore and legends that are attributed to specific lights, nor have they deterred people from traveling sometimes great distances to obscure, rural places to catch a glimpse of these so-called ghost lights. You may have heard of the Marfa lights in Texas, the St. Louis light in Saskatchewan, or the Hessdalen lights in Norway, but you are less likely to have heard about the Jacksonboro light in South Carolina’s Lowcountry.

Jacksonboro is a very small, rural community in coastal South Carolina. It is a census-designated place with only around 500 residents, but like most places on the east coast, it is very old, having been founded in the 1730s. Most people now know Jacksonboro as a pit stop between Charleston and Beaufort along U.S. Highway 17, and it is perhaps most famous in the surrounding communities for its greatest attraction: the Jacksonboro light.

The oft-repeated legend associated with the Jacksonboro light goes like this: Sometime in the late 19th century, a preacher’s daughter went missing in Jacksonboro. The preacher frantically searched for his daughter into the night, and he used a lantern to light his way as he looked for her in the heavily wooded area. Tragically, the preacher was struck by a passing train and killed instantly, and his daughter was never found. The ghostly Jacksonboro light, which locals have observed and sought out for decades and generations, is said to be the light from the preacher’s swinging lantern as he continues his unceasing search for his missing daughter.

Black and white photo of the locomotive engine of a train called the Carolina Special from the 1960s
“Carolina Special at Columbia (1965)” by Hunter-Desportes is licensed under CC BY 2.0

In hand with this legend that is associated with the Jacksonboro light, people tell each other about a sort of ritual that you can undergo to invoke the light to see it for yourself. The light is only known to appear on Parkers Ferry Road, which intersects with Highway 17, and it is only visible at night. First, you head northbound on Parkers Ferry for a straight three-mile stretch that has no turns or hills to speak of until you reach a church on your left. You turn around at the church, head back about a quarter-mile down the road, and park on the side of the road. Once you are parked and see that no other cars are around, you flash your high beams a few times, turn off your vehicle, and wait in the dark stillness.

Eventually, the light will appear at a great distance down the road and will slowly approach you. A key part of the legend is that if you let the light get close enough to touch your car, then your car will not start again for at least a few minutes. Many folks will see the light and then turn their cars back on and try to drive toward it, but if you try to catch it, the light will either disappear or will continue to stay the same distance from you as you approach it, as though it retreats while you advance.

A stretch of Highway 17 in rural Jacksonboro, South Carolina
“Jacksonboro, South Carolina” by LittleT889 is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Some people have reported that the light has appeared and approached them from behind, although it is said to usually approach from the direction you are facing. Still, others have reported more extreme personal phenomena while waiting and watching for the light, such as handprints appearing on the outside of the car windows or mysterious bodily scratches that seem to come from nowhere. Often, trips to see the Jacksonboro light are concluded by a comforting trip to a nearby, well-lit Waffle House. Another aspect of the legend is that you can hear a ghostly train whistle while you wait for the light to appear, but this element of the story must be tempered with the knowledge that there is indeed an active CSX rail along Highway 17, perpendicular to Parkers Ferry Road.

Going to see the Jacksonboro light has been and continues to be a common pastime for folks who live in the communities surrounding Jacksonboro, most usually for teenagers looking for a cheap thrill or just for something to do, as is common for teenagers who live in rural areas. Although most people who live in this part of South Carolina’s Lowcountry are familiar with the story of the Jacksonboro light and have heard the tale since they were very young, it is a matter of great debate as to whether the light exists and, if it does exist, whether it is produced by natural or supernatural means. The enlivening debates in a comment thread on a 2017 Facebook post by Palmetto Paranormal about the Jacksonboro light reflect both the legend’s ubiquity in the local area as well as the firm divide between those among the locals who believe and those who do not.

Skeptics frequently attribute the Jacksonboro light phenomenon to what is known colloquially as swamp gas, as in, “Aw, that ain’t nothin’ but swamp gas!” Scientists have also offered swamp gas or marsh gas as an explanation for ghost lights or ignus fatuus, in general. The hypothesis is that gases like phosphine and methane which are produced by the decay of organic materials can spontaneously ignite, or otherwise become bioluminescent. Few would deny that this is a reasonable explanation, but many still are not satisfied. They argue, if it is swamp gas, then why don’t we see it on any other roads? Why does it seem to interact intelligently with you when you try to drive toward it?

An antique lantern hangs from a hook in a cabin
“Lantern” by Juhana Leinonen is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Another very reasonable explanation for the phenomenon is, well…other cars’ headlights. Often, the light is seen as a stack of multi-colored lights that flash white, yellow, red, and/or green, or it will otherwise move erratically. Skeptics say that these unexpected light formations can be attributed to headlights being refracted through layers of moisture and gas, and yet, others still insist that the Jacksonboro light cannot be car headlights—light refraction or no light refraction. For one thing, written and verbal accounts of ghost lights, in general, preexist automobiles and electric lights. For another thing, again, if it is only other cars’ headlights refracted at a distance, then why is the peculiar ghost light phenomenon not known to happen on any other long, straight rural Lowcountry highway? I will say, though, that hardly anything makes you feel more foolish than sitting on the side of the road in the dark with your friends, exclaiming over the appearance of the ghostly light, and then finding out that it is indeed nothing more than an oncoming car.

I can follow this overview of the South Carolina Lowcountry’s Jacksonboro light with a few personal anecdotes of my own. I cannot count the number of times that I have gone to see the Jacksonboro light myself over the years. I grew up in an area twenty minutes away from Jacksonboro, and I also lived nearby in Charleston for many years. I grew up hearing the story of the Jacksonboro light from my father and grandfather, who both took the ritualistic night trips to Parkers Ferry Road with their friends when they were young. When my sisters and I were older, our parents took us out to Parkers Ferry on several occasions. My parents are skeptical and don’t believe that the light is necessarily a ghost light. Their taking us out might make it seem like they are ghost hunters, but they aren’t. It is more an indication of how prevalent the activity is in that area—it’s just seen as a fun, silly thing to do by most. I also recall being taken out by friends’ parents when we had sleepovers, on occasion.

As teenagers, my sisters and our friends and I started taking independent trips to the Jacksonboro light, and this is when I went most frequently. (As I said before, it is a rather common activity for teenagers in the area.) I even hauled some of my out-of-state friends out to see the Jacksonboro light a few times when I was a college student in Charleston. The most memorable of those occasions ended with one member of the group being brought to tears, clutching rosary beads, and being rather inconsolable for hours after the light did appear to do its creepy, swinging lantern-like dance.

Many people say that they go and do not see anything, but I saw the peculiar light most of the times that I went when I was older. I have seen it as an obscure, glowing haze that fades in and out at a distance. I have seen it appear in multiple colors—usually white or yellow, but sometimes also red and green. I have seen it appear as a single orb, and I have also seen it appear as multiple lights stacked vertically or horizontally. I and my fellow travelers have never usually been brave enough to wait for it to get very close to our car, but I have seen it as close as what seemed to be about 100 yards. In these cases, I was shocked to see an orb in a glowing haze that did seem to swing back and forth subtly, like the proverbial lantern in the old tale. As mentioned before, there are cases where you see a light at a distance, think that it is the light, and then are dismayed to find that it turns out to be a car. However, many times, my friends and I have waited and watched the peculiar light at a distance for a much longer period than the five minutes it takes to drive the three-mile straight stretch of road.

An old, fenced in cemetery in the woods of South Carolina's Lowcountry
“Zion Chapel of Ease and Cemetary, Hilton Head Island, South Carolina” by Ken Lund is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

One of the most standout experiences occurred when I and one close friend drove out to check out the ole Jacksonboro light. At the time, we were about 17 or 18, and by this time, seeing the ghostly light had been reduced to a rather mundane experience. After we turned around at the church, we pulled over on the side of the highway and turned off our headlights, as one does. We noticed that what we assumed was a car was approaching us at a standard traveling speed of about 60 miles per hour. The light was bright, close, and quickly moving. She and I waited for this car to pass so we could flash our high beams and wait for the Jacksonboro light, when suddenly, to our shock and dismay, the supposed headlights veered abruptly off the road and into the trees! We decided not to stick around for more Jacksonboro light action after that rather unprecedented encounter.

Again, these are my personal memories and being that they are anecdotes, you will have to take them at face value. I am willing to concede that the peculiar Jacksonboro light phenomena may be attributed to conventional explanations like swamp gas or refracted headlights…but I also do not really think that is all there is to it. Over time, my experiences with the light became more intense, and I began to feel uncomfortable to the extent that I stopped wanting to go altogether. Now, I haven’t been in years, but my curiosity has been reignited. Next time I am in the area, I might just gather up a group of pals to take the trip down Parkers Ferry Road so that we can see what there is to see.

If you are ever in the area and decide to track down the Jacksonboro light for yourself, please remember to be respectful of the people who live in the area. Try not to make excessive noise near people’s houses in the dead of night, and it probably goes without saying, but be mindful enough not to litter and not to trespass on private property. Also, be sure to remain aware of your surroundings and park your car safely out of the lane of traffic before turning off all your lights!

What about you? Are there any fabled ghost lights in your local area? Do you think that the Jacksonboro light and other light phenomena like it are paranormal, or are they just swamp gas? Let us know in the comments below!

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Rebecca Saunders

Written by Rebecca Saunders

Rebecca is the Executive Editor of Horror Obsessive at 25YL Media. She is an academic librarian with a background in literary studies, comparative literature, and film studies.

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