Ghost Lights and Other Spirits of Ormond Beach

radio player Listen to Episode 36…There’s Something Up at Ormond Beach

There’s a ghost.  Maybe. Odd things are happening, so people think the place may be haunted.  They don’t know why, and so they find a story that seems to make sense or one that sounds familiar.  There are two people driving down the road and and they get into a car accident. The man is ejected from the car and dies on impact, but the woman survives for a while.  She can spot her husband, his dead body slumped under the tree nearby, and all night, as she waits for help to come and rescue her, she reaches out to him and calls his name.   Now at the spot of the accident you can see two balls of light hover in the area. They seem to be trying to get to each other but never can. Sometimes a voice is heard on the wind

Simple.  Right?

If believing in ghosts is thinking outside of the box, folklore and urban legends are the box we use to try and make sense of them.  In Ormond Beach, Florida, there has been an story playing else out at least a hundred years. Dig a bit deeper and you’ll see they story might go back even further.  Ghost stories about odd lights have been plaguing a stretch of road leading to the Tomoka State Park for as long as there has been a road there. The trouble is they don’t live in isolation.  Instead every time you try to neatly put them in some kind of box, a detail wiggles out and attaches itself to another story. Or a true historical event sheds a different light on things, making it even harder to tell what might be true.  More importantly, it confirms that something else is going on, something bigger than a simple haunting or a wayward ghost.

The story begins with what may very well be a natural occurrence which has taken on the name the Ormond Ghost Lights.    As ghost stories go, they are pretty straight forward. As you travel from Bulow Creek State Park down Old Dixie Highway to Tomoka State Park, there is a part of the road that goes over a bridge.  For decades people had seen orbs flying around the sky there at night and wondered what they might be. The activity seemed to reach its peak in the 1950s where the flight of the lights were so well known as to be part of the town’s collective lore.

IMG_4691People driving along the road were treated to a light show.  At times there would be only one. It might fly through the sky or dance around in a circle and come crashing down.  More of the stories tell about two lights that seem to be connected. They may hover or crash into each other. There are even reports of them combining into one.  Often described as “playful” or “with a mind of their own” the lights have been known to follow drivers giving off a low hum and even cause accidents and death. They were observed playing with each other, and it was well known you could pull up to the bridge, turn your lights off, and enjoy a show.

This is where the stories start to pile up on each other and become connected to a larger picture.  There is a story of a lone motorcycle driver who was killed while following the lights. He is now trapped on that stretch of road himself and appears as a bright orb with loud motorcycle engine that trails drivers and then disappears.  A newlywed couple driving through broke down after seeing the lights. The man left to go get help and never returned. The woman followed soon after and neither were ever seen again. Their spirits remain on the site now, causing other couples to break down.

IMG_2060These stories sound similar to ghost stories told around the country.  They make for some interesting goosebumps, but their similarity to other widely told tales give them the ring of legend and not legitimacy.  Even the idea of soul collecting lights stretches back centuries. For example, the Wampanoag of New England believe in the idea of tei pai wankas, or the spirits of the dead seen in the form of balls of light.  They believed these lights would often kill people or lead to their deaths, and to die in such a way would trap you as a tei pai wanka. They same idea is held by Europeans and European settlers only the lights are call Will O’ the Wisp.

The lights seemed to die down in the early 1960s, and when they disappeared leads to the most logical reasoning behind them existing in the first place.  According to a park ranger at Tomoka State Park, “As far as I know that (the lights) has been disproven because of the fog and the lights way back then. The bridge used to be lower.  The lights would shine across the marsh and the marsh gases would look like ghosts. That’s where it came from.” In fact, the current bridge was installed in 1961 and changed the angle at which cars approached the woods.  This shift caused the lights to disappear, and with them the ghost sightings pretty much ended. They became just a story locals told.

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Simple.  Case closed, haunting solved and retired.

It would be easy to dismiss the ghost lights as having just been a natural phenomena with some creepy stories attached to them, but there are so many tales surrounding their backstory, and too many stories being told about odd things happening in the forest, to just dismiss them off hand.  

For a long time swamp gases, and just about any other gas you can think of, has been the rational explanation for why some ghosts appear.  The logic is sound. Think of the number of cemeteries with their decomposing bodies and all of the orbs seen by the living. However, the questions have never really been answered as to why it exists in some places and not others or why different kinds of gases cause different kind of lights.  In fact, the explosions of these gases have never really accounted for the movement of the lights either. Why do some seem to dance or follow people or spin around and combine. Why do some seem to have a personality or even a consciousness. In cemeteries, a body is said to take several decades at most to decompose and release these gases.  How then can stories of ghost lights persist over an even longer time or in cemeteries where the bodies are hundreds of years old? To say the convenient, if misunderstood, explanation dispels all of the ghost stories is less logical than to admit some might be spirits.

To say nothing of the physics of how a shift in an angle can cause these light to immediately go away.  The headlights reflecting off the gas caused the ghosts. It makes sense on one level, but the argument falls apart when looked at closely.  For example, many of the people who observed the orbs said they would turn off their lights to enjoy the show. How then are their headlights causing them?  How do headlights turned on account for the ones that were higher in the sky?

Then there are the deeper questions, the ones that establish a pattern of the supernatural and unexplained in the area.  The Ormond Ghost Lights are just the most popular of the legends. Other date back further and point to the land being rotten somehow, perhaps cursed for some reason.

To start with, Old Dixie Highway, which was originally conceived as a path between Chicago and Miami back in 1925 over what used to be known as King’s Road.  In that part of Ormond Beach it connects Bulow Creek State Park to Tomoka State Park. Bulow Creek has its own share of paranormal activity, including the infamous Fairchild Oak, otherwise known as the Suicide Tree.  There have been reports of lights and dark figures in the woods and several reports leading to the theory that a Bigfoot or skunk ape makes the grounds its home.

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The entire area, not just one section near the bridge, has a dark history and modern occurrences.

Take the mysterious fog that may have killed dozens of people in the 1950s and 1960s.  Around the same time the Ormond Ghost Lights were rising in popularity a mysterious pink fog was known to come in off the Tomoka River.  An unusual amount of people died in relation to it, and even more went missing to never been seen again. The locals, and legends, tell that this odd natural happening was given supernatural significance and directly held responsible for a rise of missing person cases at that time, and explained why there have been reports of people dying there in group for hundreds of years, including the disappearance of local Native American tribe, the Timucua, who had lived there previous to European settlement.

There is nothing to back up the specific claims of the pink fog.  Research finds that there are no reports of mass disappearances, although bones have been found in the forest sections of Tomoka State Park.  No one has been able to date them, and different stories attribute them to Timucua, slaves, or even modern residents who were said to have disappeared.  The bones, in fact, are continuing to be found. The same ranger said discovering them has been a constant at the location for years, even as recently as this century.  “We had slave bones washing out to the grounds here about 6 years ago. Slaves girls from the 1700s. There bodies were washing up on the grounds.”

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While done of this offers any kind of proof, the odd history of the area has to be taken into account.  There are shell mounds, which often point at burials and sacred lands. The largest mound is said to house 150-200 Timucua.  While the Timucua were described by the European settlers who landed in East Florida as giants, they were wiped out quickly by their new neighbors even though other tribes, and even Timucua in other areas of Florida, survived.  

The Europeans who settled that area didn’t fare much better.  They suffered rises and falls while people in other parts of the country flourished.  Richard Oswald was given 20,000 acres in what is now the state park to grow rice and indigo.  Although those crops were high demand, the plantation fell apart in less than 20 years. Bulow was once a striving was the crowning jewel of the area but was decimated by “strife.” until it was left in ruins.  That area then became the scene of murders, accidents, and suicide, leading to the notoriety of the Fairchild Oak.

IMG_4987Nothing seems to be able last there for long.  Plantations failed, settlements went up in smoke, and business ventures like hotels and attractions never got the momentum they did in other places.  Even the notorious Fountain of Youth springs in Tomoka State Park disappeared, until what was once a reflecting pond that brought in from people all around dried up and now has nothing to show for its once pristine past.  

The plantations in this area also have seen more slave uprising than other parts of the country.  Captain James Ormond for whom the area is named, was killed by a slaves in 1819. An overseer named Tom Addison was killed by slaves in 1825.  The most notorious of these murders is that of Samuel Huey, one of Oswald’s first overseers. He was known to be a harsh man and a drunk, as well as the kind of man who was rumored to be stealing from the boss.  According to several sources, Huey died at the hands of the slaves under his charge. Some accounts say they killed him directly while others say he had an accident, falling into the river and, probably drunk, unable to swim back to the boat or to the shore.  The slaves stood by and watched him drown.

There are historical records to back up that Huey did in fact die off the coast of what is now Tomoka State Park.  The records don’t report what has happened since then. Huey’s coast is said to haunt the banks of the river in the back of the park.  The ranger spoke of the ghost without being asked the question and says people have reported being watched while fishing or walking the area.  He says it is widely known to be haunted. “At the end of the peninsula there was an overseer who showed up with 70 slaves to clear it. He was so mean to the slaves they revolted against him.  They took him down to the end of the peninsula and drowned him. They replaced him with a mulatto overseer and things went on. You can feel the vibe down here at the end.”

In fact, the same ranger says, the whole place is said to be haunted and people report an eerie feeling in different spots throughout.  This Ormond Ghost Lights, while no longer seen on the bridge, are still seen in other places in the woods. Bones and bodies have been found on the grounds, making it hard to determine who the spirits might be there.  Some people feel the ghosts might all come down to Tomokie, whose large statue looms in one corner of park near where many of the mysterious lights and figures are seen.

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The Great Spirit came to earth every night to drink of the Water of Life from a special cup.  It often overflowed or spilled from the cup, creating the spring which was said to have healing powers.  Tomokie, a Timacuan chief and giant even among his people, stole the cup and drank directly from the Waters of Life himself, defiling it and causing war among the people.  It is unclear whether this was a civil war or with another tribe, but the stories tell how he became like a Superman, able to fight off large numbers of men himself. A great battle raged between the two sides.  From the opposition rose Oleeta, a woman known as a great warrior. She shot Tomkie in the heart with a poison arrow, killing him before she was overtaken by his followers and killed herself. The two sides continued to fight, eventually killing each other off.  Oleeta is buried near the spring somewhere while the location of Tomokie’s body is unknown. The cup was said to be taken from the spring and is in the possession of a tribe in Florida and held scared and safe but unknown to the outside.

People contribute the bones and ghosts to this battle.  They say the lights are the souls who died in that fighting, the pink fog is a revenge on people somehow, and that the land is cursed because of Tomokie’s offense.  This story is spread as part of the origin of so much of the darkness and unexplained the area is victim to. For centuries, Ormond Beach was lived in the shadow of the chief’s sins.

Only it hasn’t.

Tomokie is not real and never has been.  Well, maybe sort of. Although his broken down and vandalised statue stands tall against the setting sun, his story only dates back to 1955 when a statue was created by artist Fred Dana Marsh and a false legend was concreted to commemorate the dedication of the statue and symbolize what many felt was an idealized version of the people that had lived there.  Although now a popular folktale, the story seems to just be repeated, almost word for word, by different sources, and no original source dating back before the 1950s exists. The name itself appears to be a corruption of the word Timucua and the participants act more like early 20th century ideas of Native Americans than what they actually thought, believed, or practiced.   

That’s the way it has always been in Ormond Beach.  There is something in the woods that can’t be explained.  There is something in the moon that makes the odd fogs that float in take the form of monsters and ghosts.  The fact that the stories exist, not whether they are true or not, tells us that there is a need to explain the shadows moving through the trees and the unexplained movements of the water.  Since we have been able to record history there the place has been cursed and the people have had to shelter themselves against a supernatural battery, one which can’t be explained but has to be experienced.  There is no need to worry about that though. There is always a new story to make sense of it all.

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