The Maco Light is one of North Carolina’s most famous ghost stories and paranormal phenomena along the local railroad tracks.
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The Maco Light – Audio Ghost Story
In the years immediately following the Civil War, the railroad was king. And if the railroad was king, its prince was the conductor. The engineer might have gotten to sit up front, blow the whistle and drive the train. But he couldn’t move that train one inch until the conductor told him to.
Joe Baldwin had always wanted to be a conductor. One day, he finally realized his lifelong dream when he was hired to be a conductor on the Wilmington & Manchester line. The W&M stretched from the coastal town of Wilmington, North Carolina westward to Columbia, South Carolina, then down to Charleston – a town that Joe loved never tired of visiting. The beautiful homes, the water, and huge helpings of fried chicken and sweet potato pie that his friends cooked for him – it made his mouth water just thinking about it.
Joe would appear at work every morning, smartly turned out in his clean, pressed black pants, starched white shirt, black leather vest and expertly-tied bow tie. On top of his head was the conductor’s hat, with a medallion on the front that glistened like gold in the sunlight and read “Conductor.” He always carried his lantern with him, along with a ticket punch and, of course, his railroad watch. For it was with that watch that Joe made his train run on time.
Joe took very good care of his trains. Several times during a run, Joe would walk from one end of the train to the other checking everything he could think of – like the wheels to see if foreign objects from the tracks were stuck up in them. Or the boxcars to make sure they were properly locked. He would make sure that the passengers had everything then needed, and that there was always enough oil for the lamps so they wouldn’t burn out at night.
One stormy night, as they were traveling through the swampy woods near Maco, North Carolina (a few miles west of Wilmington), Joe was back in the caboose resting. He had just completed his rounds, and wanted to take a short break before they reached South Carolina. Dreams of Charleston danced in his head as the clickety-clack of the train wheels lulled him to sleep.
Suddenly, the train started slowing down, and Joe instinctively woke up in a flash. Joe immediately got worried, for he knew it wasn’t time for a stop yet. He jumped up, ran to the front of the caboose, opened up the door and stepped out for the next coach.
But there was no next coach!
Joe was horrified to see that the caboose he was riding in had somehow become uncoupled from the rest of the train. Somewhere in the distant darkness, the rest of his beloved train had left him behind.
Joe knew he was in trouble, because right behind his train, he knew that a fast freight would soon be approaching. Joe ran out onto the rear landing and peered through the rain and fog, trying desperately to spot the train. Before long, way off in the distance, he saw a pinpoint of light, and he knew it had to be the freight train behind him. As the light got bigger, he could almost hear the wheels of the freight chugging toward him, louder and louder.
Joe grabbed his lantern and started waving it frantically from side to side, hollering, “Hey! Stop! Hey!” He knew the freight engineer couldn’t hear him, but he screamed anyway, waving his lantern wilder and wilder.
The freight light grew bigger and bigger, and Joe heard the whooshing sound of the air brakes, then the sound of the freight locomotive going into reverse, its wheels spinning on the track. He saw the sparks flying off either side of the track like some surreal fireworks display.
That was the last thing Joe Baldwin ever saw. For the freight smashed into his caboose with a deafening crash, splintering it into a million pieces.
Then there was silence on the tracks, save for the steam hissing from the freight train. The only light was from Joe Baldwin’s lantern, which had been thrown deep into the dark swamp and continued to burn through the night.
The next morning, the people that came to search the wreckage finally found Joe’s mangled body near the caboose. To their horror, they found that he had been decapitated in the crash. They searched throughout the woods, but never could find his head – only his lantern, still warm to the touch. They carried Joe home and buried him without his head.
A few weeks later, the station master at Maco stepped out onto the platform on another dark and foggy night. As he looked down the tracks, he thought he saw a little pinpoint of light coming toward him. He checked his watch – there wasn’t supposed to be any train arriving then. The light kept moving down the tracks, as if it were someone carrying a lantern. Then it started to swing back and forth, slowly at first, but as it got closer to the station, it started to swing wilder and wilder. And then, it suddenly turned and went back down the tracks, until it disappeared into the darkness.
The station master didn’t know what to make of it at first, and eventually dismissed it from his mind. But then the light started coming back more and more, mainly on nights when there was stormy weather. Again, it would start as a tiny point, growing larger as it approached, swinging back and forth like a lantern, wilder and wilder. Then, as it neared the station, it would turn around and go back into the woods.
The station master wasn’t the only one who saw the light. Engineers approaching Maco would see it along the tracks, and would stop their trains thinking it was a signal. They finally had to make a special rule at Maco where any signals to any train had to be done with two lights instead of one, and any single light signals were to be ignored.
Folks began coming into Maco from all over to see what became known as the “Maco Light.” Scientists even tried studying it to come up with a plausible theory, but never could figure it out. Some folks said it was a ball of lightning, or swamp gas. In later years, some believed it was automobile headlights reflecting off the tracks.
But all the locals knew what it was – they knew it was Joe Baldwin coming back to look for his head!
In 1977, the railroad shut down the line and tore up the tracks. When the tracks left, so did the light, and it hasn’t reappeared since. Whether Joe Baldwin found his head, or found some other measure of peace, that was the last anyone ever saw of the Maco Light.
True Story of The Maco Light
According to historical records, a horrible train accident took place in Maco, North Carolina, located about 15 miles west of the historic port town of Wilmington, in 1867. A wood burning freight train and a passenger train collided on the old Wilmington and Manchester Railroad one night, killing train conductor Joe Baldwin. Some say Joe was decapitated in the accident, his head rolling deep into the swampy woods surrounding the tracks.
Shortly after the accident, local residents began sighting what became known as the “Maco Light” near the accident site. On dark and misty nights, they saw what appeared to be an electric light moving slowly down the tracks. Sometimes it weaved back and forth like a swinging lantern. This mysterious light would grow brighter as it approached, then gradually faded away. Some locals claimed the light came from Joe Baldwin’s lantern as he searched the woods for his head!
The Maco Light reportedly caused problems for train engineers passing through Maco. Some would spot the Maco Light and mistakenly believe that someone was trying to wave them down. So Maco trainmen started using green and red lanterns to keep engineers from being fooled by the ghostly light.
A Ghostly Attraction
News of the Maco Light ghost story spread throughout the country. Soon it became one of the South’s best known hauntings. Locals and tourists alike flocked to the bend in the track where the accident took place, hoping to catch a glimpse of the light. Teenage boys especially liked driving down to the tracks at night, hoping to put a fright into their dates.
The 1950s and 1960s brought even more intense interest in the Maco Light ghost story. Life magazine featured a doctored picture of the track with a mysterious green lantern swinging in ghostly hands. In 1960, the National Guard stationed at Maco to try and capture the light, but failed. Smithsonian Institute research teams, electronic engineers and university parapsychologists all tried to examine the light, but were also unsuccessful.
In 1964, famed New York parapsychologist Hans Holzer, author of the book Dixie Ghosts, flew into the area with great fanfare to investigate. After a lengthy investigation and many eyewitness interviews, he theorized the light was real. But Joe wasn’t searching for his head. Instead, according to Holzer, Joe was still living in 1867, trying to warn an approaching train that his uncoupled car was on the tracks.
Where Is The Maco Light Located?
Tiny Maco, North Carolina sits at the crossroads U.S. Highway 74-76 and N.C. Highway 87 in rural Brunswick County, near Wilmington. In the 1970s, the railroad pulled up the train tracks at Maco. Soon afterwards, the Maco Light disappeared as well. It hasn’t been seen since, though a nearby subdivision has a street named “Joe Baldwin Drive.”
Latter day researchers theorized Joe Baldwin might actually be Charles Baldwin, a conductor killed along nearby Rattlesnake Grade in 1856. Before Maco’s founding, Rattlesnake Grade was an area known to railroad workers as a sudden, 3 mile track gradient just past Hood Creek. According to newspaper accounts, a pump malfunction at Rattlesnake Grade forced the engineer of a westbound train to detach the locomotive from the mail car. When the locomotive returned to pick up the mail car, they collided with such force that the conductor, Charles Baldwin, was violently thrown off. Baldwin died of a brain concussion – perhaps exaggerated as a full blown decapitation in the Maco Light ghost story!
Hear another version of this story in a live Moonlit Road Radio Show.
The Maco Light – Story Credits
Written by Craig Dominey and Jim McAmis
Told by Jim McAmis
Photography by Jon Kownacki
Sound Design by Henry Howard