By Al Bates

On the evening of March 13, 1997, widely scattered reports came in from across Arizona—including Prescott, Prescott Valley and Dewey-Humboldt—of mysterious lights crossing the sky.  This phenomenon, now popularly called “The Phoenix Lights,” is still a topic of controversy.

Official explanations—including military flares and Air Force night exercises—leave too many questions for the many who prefer to classify the sightings as Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs).  And there were numerous eyewitness accounts that tracked the lights from the Prescott Basin rapidly travelling south toward Phoenix and beyond to Tucson.  One eyewitness report from the Phoenix area was made by Arizona’s then-Governor Fife Symington.

But this was not the Prescott area’s only experience with unexplained aerial phenomena.  Prescott’s Granite Mountain had a previous brush with another mysterious event on a warm evening over a century earlier.  That event was recorded by Daniel Ellis Conner, who was noteworthy as a member of the famed Walker Party and as an early member of the Territorial Legislature and member of the surveying team that laid out the Prescott town site.

Connor’s tale (lightly edited for punctuation) follows:

“On a warm night in 1865, whilst in company of three or four others, in the town of Prescott at or about midnight, my attention was called by someone present, to an unusual appearance northwest toward Granite Mountain . . . It was an exceedingly large transient, luminous body and it was slowly and steadily moving toward the west.  It was light and brilliant and seemed to have been suspended in the atmosphere at an equal height of Granite Mountain, the summit of which the meteoric phenomenon appeared to be slowly approaching. 

“Like a full moon suspended in the heavens amongst the passing clouds, it gave us ample time to observe its steady course.  As it appeared to approach the summit of this mountain eight miles distant, it began to color into an increasing shade of pink, thence to a deep burning passionate red and then burst into a thousand fragments like a bomb-shell against the summit of the mountain and went out.  Presently there came upon the night air the deep tone of an explosion, like the low tone of a distant cannon once exploded and then silent . . .

“I should have thought that we might have been mistaken as to distance in the night, as it was, had not other parties four miles below Prescott and four miles nearer, described it just as we saw and heard it. Its reality thus became the strangest part of it.  It may have arisen from the bed of the lake, which has been described previously [by Conner] as lying at the eastern foot of Granite Mountain and subsequently drained.  This single instance of any meteoric discovery in Arizona was the only one I ever saw of or heard of in that country and the largest I ever heard of existing in any country.”

Born in Kentucky and trained as a civil engineer at Hanover College, Indiana, before seeking his fortune in the western mine fields, Conner probably rates well as a reliable observer of natural phenomena, although he was lacking in knowledge of extensive impacts on the Earth from outer space such as Arizona’s then-unknown Meteor Crater.

What did Conner and others see that night?  It certainly was not “military flares” or Air Force exercises.  And this was a long time before UFOs and Extraterrestrials came into the popular lexicon.  If the explosion he observed was a meteorite, there may be traces left behind for some adventurous soul to find near Granite Mountain.  Until then Conner’s sighting will remain an intriguing but unexplained episode from Arizona’s territorial past.

Conner’s account of the Granite Mountain sighting is contained in his posthumously published book called Joseph Reddeford [sic] Walker and the Arizona Adventure.

“Days Past” is a collaborative project of the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral of Westerners International (www.prescottcorral.org). This and other Days Past articles are also available at www.sharlot.org/library-archives/days-past. The public is encouraged to submit proposed articles to dayspastshmcourier@gmail.com. Please contact SHM Library & Archives reference desk at 928-445-3122 Ext. 14, or via email at dayspastshmcourier@gmail.com for information.