The eerie phenomenon that occurs only on dark, overcast nights in the Silver Cliff Cemetery has perplexed generations of people. Ever since a moonless night in May 1882, people have struggled to come up with an explanation for the glowing orbs that, only under precise conditions, float around the cemetery.
On that 1882 night, after a bachelor party, three miners happened upon the cemetery.
They discovered that all around them, white and blue lights were drifting freely and unattainably, and so began years of visits from curious tourists and failed rationalization attempts from paranormal and scientific investigators alike.
The cemetery looks innocent enough in the daytime. It is enclosed in barbed wire and the entrance consists of a cattle guard below and a simple sign overhead. The cacti and prairie grass that adorn the ground are everything one would expect from a rustic mountain cemetery.
An eclectic collection of both rundown and elaborate headstones lines the cemetery and is indicative of previous hardship and prominence, now long gone.
Since the first settlers found their way to the Wet Mountains Valley in Custer County, the cemetery has been the final resting place for those who passed in the nearby towns of Westcliffe, Silver Cliff and the often forgotten town of Rosita.
A few years after the bachelors, in the 1890s, two miners from Rosita came across the cemetery lights during a moonless downpour. They continued on to Silver Cliff for a few drinks and divulged their experience to a bar crowd.
The skeptical crowd just assumed that the miners were drunk. After persistent persuasion, a few members of the crowd followed the miners to the cemetery.
The rain continued as the men tried to capture the lights. One of the men became so alarmed that he reportedly stabbed his own raincoat to the ground with a dagger.
“Usually it’s a cloudy or misty day,” when the lights are visible, according to Dorothy Urban, chairman of the Silver Cliff Cemetery Committee.
However, not every hazy night guarantees the appearance of the lights and not everyone who plans on seeing the lights sees them.
“It depends on the moon and the lights,” said Urban, who acknowledged that she has never seen the lights herself.
The cemetery began to receive national attention in August 1969 when National Geographic featured one writer’s experience there, during an assignment for a larger piece about Colorado. “Dim, round spots of blue-white light glowed ethereally among the graves,” Edward J. Linehan wrote.
“For 15 minutes we walked about the place, pursuing one will-o’-the-wisp, then another. I aimed my flashlight at one eerie glow and switched it on. It revealed only a tombstone,” he wrote.
The lights have thus far been impossible to explain. Some people believe the headstones emit phosphorescence, which is a type of light that appears over time without heat. No studies, however, have been able to verify this premise.
Could the lights have an earthly explanation and merely be reflected lights from Westcliffe and Silver Cliff?
“Those small lights seemed far too faint to reflect way out here,” Linehan said.
For over a century, the most popular idea has been that ghosts of the former Custer County dwellers who are buried there haunt the grounds.
Custer County sits in a valley that, at one time, was the third most populous region in Colorado. Westcliffe, Silver Cliff and Rosita are tucked away into this quiet expanse of the state that quite literally holds onto the remains of the area’s booming mining days.
The county, which today only boasts about five people per square mile, was once home to thousands of miners unearthing gold and silver to find their fortune in perilous conditions.
In the 1880 census, Silver Cliff’s population peaked at 5,040 people toiling for a living in the mining town. Today, the entirety of Custer County only has a population of 4,285.
Silver Cliff is aptly named for the material that supplied the region’s most popular occupation at the time.
The cemetery is filled with the remains of several miners from the time, along with other citizens from a variety of occupations.
In 1885, an explosion at Silver Cliff’s Bull Domingo Mine resulted in the deaths of 10 miners.
The men were entombed in the mine after the shaft house and much of the machinery caught on fire after the explosion.
Several of the men who died there are buried in the Silver Cliff Cemetery.
Rosita was the first of the three towns in the county to become a boomtown, though Silver Cliff and Westcliffe followed with their own heyday. Today, Westcliffe is the county seat but each town has had the designation at one point.
In its boom days, Custer County was home to a range of ethnicities and religions that consisted largely of Germans and English, Lutherans and Catholics.
The Silver Cliff Cemetery is home to the Lutheran faction of the community while the neighboring cemetery, The Assumption, is Catholic.
The Assumption is just down the road from Silver Cliff Cemetery, yet no orb sightings have been reported there.
Now 40 percent full, the Silver Cliff Cemetery is lined with headstones that, with the exception of a few recent ones, date back to the late 1800s. The oldest headstone in the cemetery was placed there in 1880, two years after the cemetery’s opening in 1878.
The cemetery has 849 total people buried there and plots are still available for $100 each, for anyone who wishes to one day become part of the orb enigma.
Any living person who wishes to camp out there must register at town hall in Westcliffe.
In 1969, Linehan wrote, “No doubt someone, someday, will prove there’s nothing at all supernatural in the luminous manifestations of Silver Cliff’s cemetery. And I will feel a tinge of disappointment.”
The lights remain inexplicable, so for now at least, no tinges of disappointment are to be felt. Maybe the mystery in the quiet town will confound another generation, and maybe the orbs floating around the final resting place of a few will continue to prompt the timeless existential questions of many.