History

The Maco Light

  • By Jay Barnes
  • Illustration by Joseph Edwards

For years, a crossroads in Brunswick County was the site of a ghostly spectacle. One day, a man searched for the legendary light — and found it.

At a crossroads in Brunswick County, a legendary light creates a ghostly spectacle.

My youngest daughter once asked me before her nightly bedtime story, “Daddy, do you believe in ghosts?”

“Well, no, I don’t,” I said. “But let me tell you about the night I really did see one for myself.”

Her eyes opened wide as I pulled the covers over us and began the tale of Joe Baldwin and the mysterious Maco Light.

Maco is a crossroads at the intersection of U.S. Highway 74-76 and N.C. Highway 87 in rural, northeastern Brunswick County. More than a century ago, railroad workers knew it as Rattlesnake Grade, a dirt path crossing just down the tracks from the low trestle over Rattlesnake Creek. It was later known as Farmer’s Turnout, one of many whistle-stops along the Wilmington and Manchester Railroad between Wilmington and Augusta, Georgia.

The mystery light is said to be the ghostly lantern carried by Joe Baldwin, a brakeman for the railroad who was killed in a tragic accident near Maco on a summer night in 1867. According to legend, Baldwin was on the last car of his train when it suddenly uncoupled and began coasting down the track. Realizing another fast-approaching train would soon collide with his car, he scrambled to the rear deck and began madly swinging his lantern to warn the approaching engineer. It was too late. The violent collision decapitated Baldwin, and he spent the next century haunting the nearby tracks, swinging his signal lantern before him in search of his severed head.

An eerie phenomenon

When I was a teenager in the early 1970s, the road trip to Maco was an irresistible adventure for my friends and me. On otherwise boring Friday nights, we piled into my best friend’s Chevy Nova and made the 40-minute journey up N.C. Highway 87 from Southport. With the radio blaring rock music, we cruised toward the Maco crossing, then slowed to search the darkened roadside for the unmarked tracks. There, we turned down a narrow, overgrown, dirt path that ran parallel to the rails into the darkness. A quarter-mile or so off the highway, we stopped the car and killed the headlights.

We made the trip many times, usually with the same result — not much happened. No mystery light. But it didn’t matter because we were in the middle of nowhere having fun, just waiting in the dark. We had plenty of time to scare each other with stories we’d heard from people we knew who’d seen the light themselves.

Witnesses who saw the eerie phenomenon described an amber light that suddenly appeared out of the darkness. It hovered waist-high above the train tracks, wavering like a swinging lamp as it advanced closer and closer. Just as it reached the observer, it disappeared, only to reappear farther up the tracks and with greater intensity.

Over the years, attempts to explain the mysterious specter included distant car headlights; swamp gas; and St. Elmo’s Fire, a weather phenomenon that some say causes balls of fiery light to appear in the sky. Ultimately, each of these theories was discounted. The Maco Light predated the automobile by several decades, and anyone who saw it move up and down the tracks rejected the swamp gas theory.

First sightings

According to the Wilmington Railroad Museum, the first sightings date back to 1873; for years afterward, travelers passing through the area reported seeing a mysterious light. It disappeared for a time after a powerful earthquake struck Charleston and the South Carolina Lowcountry in 1886, but sightings resumed shortly thereafter.

President Grover Cleveland’s train stopped in Maco on a trip through the area in 1889. When he asked the conductor why the signalman used two lights instead of one, the conductor told him the story of Joe Baldwin, explaining that two lights were needed to distinguish real trains from Baldwin’s ghost lantern. The president was intrigued, and he later shared the tale with colleagues in Washington, D.C., introducing the legend of the Maco Light to a national audience.

Sightings continued through the years. In 1925, the light apparently chased two farm boys into the woods. In 1946, Wilmington Morning Star photographer Pete Knight staked out the Maco tracks and returned with a blurry photo that ran in the paper with the caption, “There was a chunk of ectoplasm as big as life.” Life magazine ran a feature about it in 1957, prompting visits from famous psychics, university professors, and a team of investigators from the Smithsonian Institution. A “machine gun detachment” from Fort Bragg was deployed to hunt down the light in 1960, with no success.

The dirt road beside the Maco tracks also became a popular destination for weekend dates. Some remember first seeing the light’s eerie glow during hayrides sponsored by Cape Fear Presbyterian Church in Wilmington. In Haunted Wilmington and the Cape Fear Coast, Southport native Brooks Newton Preik writes about seeing the Maco Light while dating in the 1960s: “It was the eeriest thing I ever saw in my life.”

When the Seaboard Coast Line Railroad removed the tracks through Maco in 1977, the mysterious light disappeared for good. After a hundred years of unexplained encounters, the brakeman’s lantern was snuffed out, no longer casting its glow through the swamp forests by the old rail bed. Joe Baldwin moved on.

Or was it Baldwin, after all? While researching the antebellum railroads of the region, Wilmington native James C. Burke may have uncovered the true origin of the Maco legend. Burke found no record of a Joe Baldwin working for the railroad at any time during the 1860s. He did, however, find well-documented accounts of a Charles Baldwin, who was injured in a train accident near Maco on January 4, 1856 — a full decade before Joe Baldwin’s reported demise. Charles was not decapitated, but he did die from head injuries on January 7. For a brief time, he was buried in St. James Cemetery in Wilmington. His remains were later moved to an unknown location, and his headstone was lost.

Seeing and believing

My friends and I made our last trip to Maco on a cool autumn night in 1974, six of us crammed into that two-door Chevy. Like so many times before, we edged down the narrow, dirt path and stopped the car under a pitch-black sky. We sat inside, talking and joking, until we were interrupted by a shrill scream from the front seat: “Look! What is that?”

There, straight ahead in the distance, was the unmistakable, yellow glow we’d heard about all our lives. Amid earsplitting screams from my friends in the backseat, my heart pounding, I tried to focus on what I saw. The light moved slowly down the tracks toward our car.

“We couldn’t believe our eyes at first,” remembers Keith Caroon, the driver. “We watched it come toward us; then it went out. When it reappeared, it was even brighter and closer. Everybody kind of freaked.”

I still recall the amazing exit Caroon managed with that Nova. With high brush on one side and tracks on the other, there was no place to turn the car around. “I’ll never know how I was able to back out of there in a straight line at full speed,” Caroon says.

Today, a trip to Maco reveals very little of its ghostly past. The highways have been widened, new homes and businesses have moved in, and the path of the old railway lies hidden in the brush. A few submerged stumps are all that remain of the old trestle over Rattlesnake Creek, and the site is now privately owned — trespassing is prohibited. Maco has no museum, no historical marker, no visible remembrance of the mysterious light. None except a nearby neighborhood street named for the famous Tar Heel spirit: Joe Baldwin Drive.

To learn more about the railroads of North Carolina, visit the Wilmington Railroad Museum.

Wilmington Railroad Museum
505 Nutt Street
Wilmington, N.C. 28401
(910) 763-2634
wilmingtonrailroadmuseum.org

Jay Barnes, former director of the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores, is the author of Hurricane Hazel in the Carolinas. His most recent story for Our State was “The Rise and Fall of a Moonshine Capital” (March 2011).

This entry was posted in Coast, Eastern N.C., October 2012 and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to The Maco Light

  1. Leslie Morris says:

    I saw the Maco light in the mid sixties. My parents were members of a camping club and the club would meet several times a year for a camp out. There were several kids within the club and we would look for local things to do for entertainment. Someone had read about the Maco light so we went out one night while camping near Wilmington, found the tracks, parked and waited. We weren’t there long when we saw it swinging back and forth. It got about 25 feet from us and we screamed and tore out of there…scared me half to death, I could feel the hairs stand up on the back of my neck !!

  2. Missy Stanley Rorrer says:

    Very interesting account of the infamous Maco light. My grandfather took a carload of his grandchildren. Since we couldn’t be quiet enough for Joe Baldwin to appear, granddaddy slipped down the tracks and quietly lit his pipe. When we saw the light, it was a mad dash back to the Buick before the headless Mr.Baldwin got us.
    Btw, Jay and I went to Sunday school together as toddlers.

  3. Pam McNeil says:

    A group of college students (of which I was one!) had a similar experience in the early ’70s; we waited for several hours and finally did see the light – several times! When it came up over our heads we decided that cowardice was the better part of valor and vamoosed, but I’ve never forgotten it!

  4. Virginia Baysden says:

    Mr. Barnes captures the essence of the Maco Light. My first English Class at UNCW was not my initial introduction as I had previously heard about it. What that class did was push me to write about it–in prose and verse form. Since then I revisited and researched anew–several times. All of this predates the article and posts.

  5. Ken Yount says:

    When I was growing up, I had family in the Southport area that we visited often. My Dad took my brothers and I to see the light for the first time in 1954. Saw it several more times later. He also took us to see the Brown Mountain Lights several times, but I guess that’s another (Ghost) story!

  6. Alice Edwards says:

    I was raised in the small town of Bladenboro, and occasionally we would drive to Maco and sit and wait until we could see the light on the tracks, saw them several times,,,was SO much fun trying to believe…

  7. Stephanie Jackson says:

    Heard this story growing up here in Wilmington. My dad use to tell me how him and his buddies would go down there to see the Maco Light. I eventually passed the Maco Light story onto my own children.

  8. Ann J. McNeill says:

    It was always fun to take new folks to see the Maco light. This was in the late 1940s to 1951. I grew up in Wilmington and took college friends on a Friday or Sat. night. We often saw the “Maco light” and tried to reason out what the truth was behind it.

  9. Barbara W. Benton says:

    I live in Pamlico County. In the 1950-60′, while in high school, we heard of the Maco light.

  10. sheila clark says:

    I grew up in leland and my parents all all their friends used to drive us there all the time. My dad stood acrross the tracks when we saw the light and there was no car on the other side as some claim it was oncoming car lights. I have only seen it 2 times in all the times we were there. then we used to fish there in the daylight.
    We were allways told that if we didn’t behave Joe Baldwin would come looking for us. It didn’t help that we lived on Baldwin Dr

  11. tanya says:

    I have heard this story my whole life, my mom was raised in Maco NC

  12. Kenneth Wells says:

    There is now a store at the stop light, corner of 74/76 and 87 hwy. The story is wrote on the wall there. I live down behind the store, have heard the story for years. My aunt told me her and some of the family seen the light. For me I saw the light but it was not the Maco light.

  13. Norma says:

    Lived in Maco when I was a kid and loved to scare the pants off our cousins when they would come to visit with this story….

  14. Diana Bryant Nash says:

    From the time I was a small child until I was 14, we lived in Maco. The dirt path ran behind our house. On Friday and Saturday nights when the weather permitted having our windows open, you could hear the screams and giggles of the people who had come to see the light. I cannot tell you how many times they sat the woods behind our house on fire. It was great entertainment for my bother and I. On the other side of the railroad track, way back in the woods was an ancient Indian graveyard and an amazing field of Venus flytraps. It was a really awesome place to grow up.

  15. Bob Burns says:

    I wrote a song about Joe Baldwin back in 2001. After reading this article, I though you might like to hear it. It’s on Sound Cloud. http://soundcloud.com/bob-burns-4/joe-baldwins-head-big-in-iowa Enjoy!

    Thanks!
    Bob Burns

  16. Larry Nixon says:

    I entered a song in the NC songwriters contest about the Maco Light. I’ll email a copy.

  17. Linda Stewart Wells says:

    Born and reared in Roanoke Rapids, NC. Still visit family in NC. Heard this story repeatedly over the years among others…especially at Halloween when we tended to tell more “ghost stories.”

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