QUICK FACTS:

Location: Maco, North Carolina

Appearance: White or yellow light that bobbed along the railroad tracks near Maco Station. The light would disappear when approached and reappear behind the observer.

Folklore:

  1. A train conductor named Joe Baldwin was decapitated after trying to prevent an oncoming train from crashing into his uncoupled car by waving his lantern. The light is Joe’s lantern.

Other explanations: Perhaps car headlights or swamp gas.

Additional notes: In the 1850s, a real person named Charles Baldwin was killed on the tracks near Maco. This may be the basis for the legend, and in fact may be the prototype for all other similar tales of railroad ghost lights. In the 1970s, the road next to the tracks was widened and the tracks were torn up, and the light hasn’t been seen since then.

MORE INFORMATION:

The Maco Light was a ghost light at Maco railway station that existed from roughly the 1920s until the 1970s. Although accounts of the light back to the 1860s have been claimed to exist, as usual with folklore of this nature they are impossible to track down. The first verifiable printed retellings of the legend were published in the 1930s. Specifically, the oldest traceable source I found was an article called “Phantom Lights,” which was published in the April 30, 1932 edition of Railway Age. From the language in the article, which references an already established lore, we can assume that the story existed for at least several years before this, pushing its possible origin into the 1920s. Although a few sources mention a 1910 pamphlet on the light put out by the Diamond Alkali Company, I was unable to confirm the existence of this document.

The legend goes that one night in the 1860s, a train conductor named Joe Baldwin was riding on the last car of his train when he somehow got separated from the engine. Another train was fast approaching Joe’s now-engineless train car. Joe waved his lantern back and forth in an attempt to warn the other train, but his efforts were in vain. The oncoming train crashed into the car in front of it and Joe was decapitated in the accident. After this incident, Joe’s doomed spirit haunted the tracks, carrying his lantern and searching for his head.

In the Railway Age article, Robert Scott, editor of the Atlantic Coast Line News, gives a standard account of the legend, but does not specifically name Joe Baldwin. However, in the mid-2000s, James Burke of the Wilmington Railroad Museum discovered published references to a train accident in the 1850s involving a conductor called Charles Baldwin that closely match the details and location of the Joe Baldwin legend. It thus seems likely this may be the origin of the original story, and in fact may be the prototype for all other similar tales of phantom train track workers that are so prevalent in the American South.

The Maco ghost light generally advanced along the railroad tracks near Maco Station in a swinging or bobbing motion and was most often reported as white or yellow, although some accounts describe other colors. The light also displayed evasive action, disappearing when approached and reappearing behind the interloper. Eyewitnesses at the time the light was active described it as extremely reliable, rarely failing to make an appearance, and like other spooklight locations it became a popular spot to “park” and observe the spookiness. Skeptics chalked up the light to gas from nearby swampland or the refracted headlights of cars passing on nearby roads, while others insisted the movement was too human-like to be explained by natural means.

Supposedly, the light appeared frequently enough that the train engineers passing through Maco had to change the way they signaled lest their locomotives be mistaken for old Joe’s ghost. This involved the use of red and green lights instead of the normal white to signal, or in other versions of the story two lights instead of one. Folklore tells a tale of President Grover Cleveland, traveling by train in the late 1800s, asking why the signal lights were different in Maco than other places, and subsequently being informed of the ghostly goings-on. The tall tales are split on whether Cleveland viewed the lights himself.

In the 1970s, the road near the tracks was widened, reducing the number of sightings, and in 1977 the unused tracks at Maco were finally torn up and the old train trestles removed from service. According to most sources, the light hasn’t been seen since then and the location of the former tracks has grown over. Perhaps the Maco Light was all along the reflections of headlights—or perhaps old Joe Baldwin doesn’t see a need to use his warning lantern anymore now that the trains aren’t running.

READER EXPERIENCES:

(1) Date received: Mon, 29 Mar 1999

I vividly remember my first trip to Maco Station to see the infamous Maco Light. I was three or four at the time and generally believed that there were no ghosts. Apparently, my parents had warned my sister about telling me what the Maco Light was, so I never quite figured out that it was a ghost on this trip.

My sister, being true to form, spent the trip harassing me about the light, and trying to scare me. She was unsuccessful, as I kept picturing this advertising icon from CP&L (Carolina Power and Light) that was a man with lightning bolt arms and legs with a light bulb for a nose. Let’s face it, a cartoon electric guy wasn’t that scary to a post-toddler. So this was what I expected to see when we arrived, and I didn’t expect to be at a railroad track, I expected to go to a power station.

When we arrived, there were at least ten cars lined up at the tracks. I liked trains, so I was not disappointed. Soon the fun began when the light made its appearance. For those of you swamp gas enthusiasts, I can tell you one thing, gases do not behave in specific patterns when unconfined. The light would come up the track dead center at an adult’s eye level, at a slow speed, with an apparent swinging motion, then it would go out, or it would “flip” end over end into the wooded area and go out after apparently hitting the ground.

Shortly, the light would reappear somewhere else and then complete a completely different pattern. For instance, I have seen it fly at high speed along the tree line along the track, much higher than a signal lantern would normally be seen under normal circumstances. The most repeated pattern was the first one I mentioned, but the manner of the track run would vary in distinct ways. One was that it didn’t always flip into the woods. Instead, it would simply go out, then reappear elsewhere.

Another variation was the color. I read a story that said the Maco Light was only white, which is not true. The Maco Light changed from white to green to red, just like any standard railroad signalman’s lantern. Often the variation of the track run would be that while swinging back and forth, it would alternate red and green, meaning danger. The color also varied as it made its passes over and around the crowd gathered to watch the thing.

On one visit to Maco, a man was standing in the middle of the track as the light made its track run. Instead of hitting the man or stopping, at a distance of about five feet from the man, it went out for about two seconds, then reappeared about five feet behind the man . On another visit, there were a couple of guys chasing the light with nets. Two grown men chasing a giant lightning bug. The light was obviously having a wonderful time as it would do its routine, but would disappear or fly away when the two guys got close to it. Swamp gas?

Over the next few years, my family made many visits to the tracks to see this phenomenon without being disappointed. We usually made the trip when relatives were visiting from out of town. After what seemed like an eternity without going, I asked my mother if we could go see it. She then informed me that since the state had widened Highway 74/76 that the light was now rarely seen (74/76 ran parallel to the tracks and was widened so that cars were now very close to the tracks).

I made a least five trips there between 1975 and 1980 hoping to see it at least one more time, without satisfaction. Finally, on my last visit, I saw that the tracks were gone forever. I don’t know if the trestle was gone, but the tracks were long gone. All that could be seen was the empty railroad bed with weeds growing where the once celebrated tracks had been.

Noteworthy Information on the Maco Light:

The light, according to legend, first appeared shortly following a train wreck in which a signalman, Joe Baldwin, was decapitated after unsuccessfully attempting to stop an overtaking train coming up from behind very quickly. The legend goes on to say that Joe was looking for his head, which was the explanation for the “off track” excursions of the light. Joe’s head was supposedly not buried with Joe and was also said to have never been found.

The light rarely if ever appeared following the construction on 74/76 in the late 1960s. At one time, it was not a question of whether you were going to see the light, the question was how good was the show going to be.

Hans Holzer came to Wilmington, conducted a public lecture and investigated the tracks. He took a medium with him and his report only partially supported the legend. Yes, it was Joe, but Joe was still signaling the train, not searching for his head.

There were some infrared photographs taken of the light that showed a body holding the light. I do not know who the photographer was, or who the photos were for. If these photographs still exist, it would be fascinating to see them published again.

(2) Date received: Sat, 03 Apr 1999

My parents also saw the light when they were dating. I’ve gotten the same story from both of them independently. It had been the thing to do for young couples. Go down to Maco, just down the highway from Wilmington, North Carolina. You would park your car off the little side road towards the station, then proceed to walk down the tracks till you get to the trestle. Then you would sit and wait. If the conditions were right the show would begin.

My mother tells me that her, my father, and another couple sat out there one night to watch on a summer’s evening. It then appeared at a distance down the track, flickering as if a match was just struck, then began to methodically swing back and forth about five feet above the track. It then started to speed up as it swung wilder and wilder, as if they could almost sense the doomed conductor getting more and more frantic. Finally after repeating this silent bobbing, weaving dance for a few hundred yards, it seemed to be flung violently off to the side. There it sat flickering in the swamp off to the side of the old Atlantic coast line till moments later it faded away.

If you got to close to it the lantern would disappear, but if it performed once, it was known to repeat at least a couple of times in one night. My mother got close enough to see the fastenings on the lantern, but also as an extra twist she experienced the cold spot phenomenon even though it was a hot muggy night. I was always told the best nights were before or after rain, some form of high humidity. After seeing the show (this would have been the late ’60s) they were walking alongside the tracks when my mother came across an icy cold spot about a foot wide. The rest of the area around it was warm. Hell, it was summer. She stayed quiet a minute then brought it up to my father and the other couple with them. They then proceeded to tell her they had felt it too but had been too scared to mention it. They all then ran back to car, without a further word.

Unfortunately, the locality around the scene changing so much seems to affect the haunting. The road widening seems to have affected it and the deserting by the railway line. Well, that and it’s just been a long time. The tracks have been ripped up, but there is a stretch remaining that DuPont rents to ship to their warehouse; the remains of the trestle are a few miles further down. Pretty much all that is left is stumps jutting from the water.

As most people who live next to railways know, even after the tracks are gone there is still a visible path where it was and lots of loose gravel to mark it. I went out once with friends. They stayed in the car and I hacked my way through till I stood among the weeds by the riverside at 3:00 AM with a full moon out. I waited, and felt strange as I challenged him to show himself. No such luck. Someday I will go back, though. There was a feeling.

If there is anybody who has seen it in more modern times please post a response. I know there have got to be few people in my old hometown Wilmington, or Maco, or Lake Waccamaw that have a computer. If you need more reference materials look up “Tar Heel Ghosts” by John Harding.

(3) Date received: Unknown

A personal account—in the early 1970s, my family vacationed in Wrightsville Beach, which is the beach resort outside Wilmington, North Carolina. Although we didn’t visit Maco at night—Wilmington was going through a period of racial unrest, and at the time it was not advisable to drive through the city at night—we did stop by on the morning we left Wilmington.

To get to Maco today you have to watch for a lone sign on the main highway directing drivers to a side road. We turned on the side road and soon came to the Maco railroad crossing. A state highway crew was working near the crossing, and the foreman volunteered that he was aware of the Joe Baldwin legend, although he had personally never seen the light. He also said that there was a woman living in Maco at the time who was a psychic and who claimed to have conversed with Baldwin while in a trance in her living room.

The thing that struck me about that visit to Maco almost two decades ago was the close proximity of middle class homes to the railroad. There was one house in particular that was closer to the tracks than the others, and its kitchen window appeared to look out on the section of track where the light is said to be most apt to appear. I remember thinking that that would be one way to relieve the monotony of dishwashing—watching a spectral light weave and bob outside the window.

By the way, there was an old cemetery by the tracks in Maco, on the opposite side of the crossing from where the light is said to appear, but I don’t think anyone has ascertained whether Baldwin was buried there after the accident. If someone has found records that indicate that Baldwin was definitely buried in that cemetery, I don’t know if they have determined whether his head was interred with the rest of his body.

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