ROAN MOUNTAIN, Tenn. (WJHL) – Roan Mountain is a location of unparalleled natural beauty, and the site plays host to century-old stories of strange noises in the wind. Described by some as an angelic choir or wails of the damned, the Ghost Choir of Roan Mountain sticks with all visitors who hear it.
“Folk tales are such a huge part of Appalachian heritage and history,” said Dr. Ron Roach, chair of East Tennessee State University’s Appalachian Studies department. “And mysterious happenings and ghost stories are, of course, some of the most fun kinds of folk tales that we encounter.”
Roan Mountain’s Ghost Choir was documented well into the 19th century, with historian Jennifer Bauer tracing some of the story’s origins to herders that wandered the balds. In her book ‘Roan Mountain: A Passage of Time,’ she gathered the versions she had heard and presented them for readers to interpret:
- The sounds were caused by the natural amplification of the wind’s noise, like a satellite dish of soil and stone.
- The noise was the mountain itself speaking, though she’d never been told what it might be trying to say.
- The devil was to blame for the phenomena, as he had set his winds to the clouds around the mountain.
- Angels were actually the cause, and the sounds heard along the mountaintops were actually singers practicing for Judgement Day.
The noise, whatever the cause, is said to only arise when the conditions are just right. According to Bauer’s work, the prime time is during a clear blue day at the mountain’s peak while thunderstorms shake the valleys below.
The actual form of the noise seems to vary as well; some older sources liken the sound to a great swarm of bees swarming over the mountain. Bauer tracked down Knoxville naturalist Henry Colton’s account from 1878:
“The sound was very plain to the ear, and was not at all as described — like the humming of thousands of bees — but like the incessant, continuous and combined snap of two Leyden jars [devices for storing electrical charges] positively and negatively charged. I tried to account for it on the theory of bees or flies but the mountain people said it frequently occurred after the bees or flies had gone to their winter homes or before they came out… I used every argument I could to persuade myself that it was simply a result of some common cause and to shake the faith of the country people in its mysterious origin but only convinced myself…”Henry Colton, 1878
Colton went on to guess that the sound was caused by two winds meeting each other and causing a massive amount of static electricity. The sound of the mountain was an electrical discharge, Colton said, and was entirely natural.
“If you think about it, mountains are the most dramatic landscapes that most humans ever encounter,” Roach said. “And Roan Mountain, in particular, is one of the most spectacular mountains anywhere in the world. So an environment like that is very natural throughout human history to inspire myths and legends and accounts. I think we certainly see that in our region, and we see it with Roan Mountain.”
Anyone who visits the mountain is sure to learn that the site is breathtaking with or without supernatural winds tearing at them. With a combination of some of the highest altitudes in the region and the most spectacular views in Appalachia, memories will be made regardless.
“It’s such an intriguing place, partly just because of the natural beauty and the incredible ecosystem that’s there. That in itself is worthy of wonder,” Dr. Roach said. “And when you put that together with our natural human propensity to tell scary stories, it’s a perfect environment to inspire legends.”
One legend that Bauer confirmed herself was one of the circular rainbow — a massive halo of color in the sky near Roan Mountain that only appears after rain in rare conditions. Some call it the sign of a blessing, while some say it’s simply a factor of elevation. Bauer saw it herself during a hike after a thunderstorm along the ridgeline.
No matter one’s personal opinion on the many stories that surround the mountain, Roach was adamant that you need to make it up there.
“You need to visit Roan Mountain,” Roach said. “It’s an incredible experience, it’s a beautiful place, and to go there to experience it is something all of us should do.”