Ghost Stories: The Maco Light

A few miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean and a few short miles from the city of Wilmington lies the tiny unincorporated community of Maco, North Carolina. Many tall tales, outrageous legends, and ghost stories have emanated from the coastal area of eastern North Carolina, but none as mysterious or compelling as the story of the Maco Light, and the ghost of a man named Baldwin.

Back in the second half of the 19th century, the area was a busy one for the railroads, and many freight and passenger lines passed over the tracks of coastal Carolina, including the Wilmington-Florence-Augusta freight line, that in part traversed the rails between Wilmington and Maco.

The original legend of the Maco Light revolved around a man identified as Joe Baldwin, who was a conductor on that very same Wilmington-Florence-Augusta line, and that he was hard at work on a typical rainy evening, sometime in 1867. Heading towards the end of the line in Wilmington, Civil War vet Joe was happy that his day's work would soon be over, and as the train approached Maco, it had no more scheduled stops until Wilmington, and all he really had to do was wait out the rest of the run. The stories vary at this point, some say that he was walking the train, and entered the caboose just moments before fate was to strike, other accounts say he had been lounging in
Ghost Stories: The Maco Light
the caboose, maybe even taking a short nap, when he awoke to impending horror.

What Joe heard or felt or saw, or all three, was that that last car of the Wilmington-Florence-Augusta freight line had become uncoupled from the rest of the train, and as the engine continued to pull the rest of the cars eastbound towards Wilmington, the car he was in was slowing to a stop on the railroad tracks that in a few short minutes were to be the route of a fast-moving passenger train.

Joe knew he had a choice - he could jump from the car and save his own life, or he could take his
lantern and step out onto the caboose's rear platform, and furiously and frantically wave the light back and forth, hoping the engineer of the oncoming passenger train would see the warning, and begin slowing his train to minimize the impending deadly crash. He chose valor, and while his warning was heeded by the engineer, the train could only be slowed down and not fully stopped in time, and while the damage and injuries on the train were minimal, Joe was not so lucky, and he was, as the legend goes, decapitated in the collision. After the collision, his body was found along the tracks, but his head was never found.

Not too many days later, the few inhabitants of the tiny hamlet began seeing a mysterious light above the railroad tracks near Maco Station, and as news of the strange occurrence spread, visitors began streaming into Maco, and the story began spreading far and wide: The ghost of Joe Baldwin was searching the area with his lantern, searching for his missing head.

The light has been described in various ways, but most often as beginning with a small flicker, and then growing brighter and brighter moving faster and faster, as it seemingly comes closer and closer to the the observer, all the while remaining three to four feet above the track, and swinging back and forth as would the warning lantern in the hand of a railroad conductor. But then, it would retreat, speeding back to where it started, as if scared away by some terror, and then it would vanish. The appearance of the light was on no regular
schedule, appearing several nights in a row, and then among the missing for a period of time. It was most frequently visible, however, when the evening was dampened by a light rain.

As the legend has it, some time around 1873, a second light began appearing, this one traveling in the opposite direction, east to west, rather than west to east, and more than one horrified engineer thought, upon seeing the light, that his train was about to crash into another oncoming train. Eventually, conductors and signalmen on the line began utilizing instead of a single lantern, two, one red to indicate the need to stop, and one green, indicating safe passage to proceed.
Intrigue, and fright, developed in the area, and at one point a machine gun detachment from Ft. Bragg was dispatched to end the eerie occurrences once and for all. They were ordered to fire their weapons at the light, but the light's movements evaded all the soldier's bullets, and the assault failed to put an end to its continued appearances.

Sightings of the Maco Light continued until 1977, when the tracks in and around the former Maco Station were removed.

Several variations of the legend popped up over the years, including these two:
  • One variation developed when observers saw the Maco Light shinning on a nearby swamp, and it was said that Joe Baldwin's body had been thrown not onto the railroad tracks, but rather into the swamp, and that is where his ghost was searching for his missing head; and
  • The other was actually a more proper fit for the most common scenario of the sightings, that of the Maco Light moving across the railroad tracks, in that Baldwin was not searching for his head, but rather was each night swinging his lantern at oncoming trains in order to warn the engineers to stop, as there was a stranded rail car on the tracks ahead.
Over the years, many astute people, both believers and deniers, investigated the Maco Light, with some interesting results. A common explanation for the light was related to a nearby highway, with disbelievers alleging that the light was merely the occasional headlight shinning on the tracks. This theory, of course, fails to consider the fact that the Maco Light was seen for decades prior to the advent of the automobile. Another explanation from disbelievers is based on the fact of there being a nearby geologic fault, sprouting the theory that the light was produced by static electricity from the fault area along the tracks.

Believers have researched the history of the story, and uncovered these interesting facts: Investigations have revealed no record of a 1873 train wreck or of a railroad employee named Joe Baldwin, but they have uncovered a conductor named Charles Baldwin who had been killed in a train collision in 1856. The facts of that collision were that a speeding engine was returning to the train from which it had been detached, and unable to stop in time, ran into the train. A coroner's inquiry was held, with the engineer being exonerated, but with Charles Baldwin himself being faulted for the event, and ultimately for his own death, by not hanging a lantern from the outside of the stationary train to warn the engineer.

Noted parapsychologist Hans Holzer, then a best-selling author and an assistant professor at the New York Institute of Technology, visited Maco in 1964, and concluded that he believed the legend, and the version of the story that Baldwin was swinging the light to warn oncoming engineers of the stationary, uncoupled rail car on the track.

Finally, it was widely reported that among those people seeing the Maco Light was President Grover Cleveland, who passed through the area in 1889, and who was said to have inquired of railroad personnel as to what was that light that he had seen along the track.

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