One of Arkansas’s best-known ghost stories originates at a site near Gurdon in Clark County. The phenomenon — commonly known as “The Gurdon Light” — has been the source of much discussion and speculation since the 1930s.
According to witnesses, on some nights a mysterious glow appears along the path of the old railroad track about four miles north of Gurdon, not far from Interstate 30. The light sways back and forth, from 1 to 3 feet above the ground, down the old train track. Sometimes it appears to be a yellow-white, orange-red or blue-white. And, it appears in all kinds of weather.
Local legend says the lights are connected to the 1931 murder of Will McClain, a railroad section foreman. The story drew national attention in 1994, when NBC aired a segment about the light on “Unsolved Mysteries.”
For decades, people visited Gurdon to see the lights. Since the 1950s, area young people have made witnessing the light a tradition. Particularly around Halloween, students make the dark trip down the railroad tracks in hopes of seeing the mysterious light. Young people sometimes crouch behind tombstones in the old cemetery nearby and jump out to frighten others.
Still other people are scared by the light itself. They say the light appeared behind them and chased them down the track. Other residents say they have seen more than a simple light — they saw what appeared to be a ghost.
Many people have researched the phenomenon without coming to any conclusions. Several plausible explanations exist, but none have been proven. One of the most common explanations is that the Gurdon Light emanates from automobile headlights on Interstate 30, but residents saw the lights first in the 1930s, long before the interstate highway system was constructed. Swamp gas is another possibility, but the light appears in all kinds of weather and retains its shape, which makes the phenomenon somewhat inconsistent with the swamp-gas theory.
Local legend continues to focus on one event — McClain’s murder — to explain the Gurdon Light. He was killed near the railroad tracks in December 1931.
A Dec. 10, 1931 article in the Southern Standard reported McClain was killed by Louis McBride, 38, who was working under McClain. No one witnessed the murder, but McBride acted “so suspiciously that he was arrested” and eventually confessed, according to the article. He then told investigators where the body and a spike maul, the murder weapon, were located.
Investigators found a grisly scene. “There was a trail of blood nearly a quarter mile long, indicating that the section foreman was near the railroad when attacked and had run from his assailant. Near the point where McClain is believed to have died were other signs of a struggle. It was also indicated that after he was left for dead, he rallied and tried to leave the woods. The back of his head had been struck four severe blows.”
Throughout the struggle, McClain never let the lantern slip from his grasp. Legend has it the Gurdon Light is the railroad lantern swinging from the hand of McClain’s ghost as he walks through the area.