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What is the Maco Light?

Ben Steelman

Probably the most famous ghost legend of Southeastern North Carolina, the story of the Maco Light was widely circulated as early as the 1880s.

Maco is a small crossroads community in northeastern Brunswick County, near the intersection of U.S. 74/76 and N.C. 87. Originally a stop on the Wilmington & Manchester Railroad, it was named Farmers Turnout in 1867.

That was the same year, according to legend, that a brakeman named Joe Baldwin died while frantically waving his lantern, trying to avert a rear-end collision between his stranded caboose and a fast-moving freight train behind him. The trains crashed, and Baldwin’s body was found near the tracks, beheaded in the accident. Ever since (the story goes), Baldwin’s headless ghost walked the tracks, bearing a ghostly lantern, either looking for his head or still trying to head off the crash. (A good retelling of the Maco Light story is in “North Carolina Legends” by Richard Walser, published by the N.C. Division of Archives and History.)

Farmers Turnout was renamed “Maraco” around 1890 for the MacRae Co., a major development company which owned land in the vicinity. Locals gradually shortened the name to Maco, according to historian William S. Powell.

Sightings of the Maco Light were reported as early as 1873, although earliest reports claimed to see two lights moving in tandem. The lights disappeared for some time after the Charleston, S.C., earthquake of 1886; after that time, only one light was seen.

In 1889, President Grover Cleveland, passing through the area, supposedly asked why signalmen used two lights on that stretch of track. The answer was, to distinguish real trains from the Maco Light. (Later retellings claim that Cleveland saw the lights himself, a possible garbling of the details.)

By the 1950s and early ’60s, Maco became a mecca for hundreds of local teenagers who used “watching for the Light” as an excuse to go parking in the dark with their dates. In 1957, Look magazine included a photo illustration of the light and a brief caption in a feature on “true” American ghost stories.

In May 1964, Hans Holzer, the best-selling author and parapsychologist, visited the Maco site. He was unable to see the light himself (possibly because of the large crowd of locals who followed him there), but he later told an audience at New Hanover High School’s Brogden Hall that he was convinced the Light was a genuine psychic phenomenon. Holzer included material on the Maco Light in his later books “Ghosts I’ve Met” and “Phantoms of Dixie.”

Descriptions of the light varied. John Harden, in his book “Tar Heel Ghosts” said it was about as bright as a 25-watt bulb. Others, however, claimed it was bright enough to read by, and to cast a shadow on the rails. Some said it bobbed along the tracks, as if being swung; others, that it moved steadily. Harden said it seemed to hover about 3 feet above the left rail of the tracks; others, that it flew 4 or even 10 feet high. It seemed to appear and disappear at 15-minute intervals.

Skeptics explained the Light as the product of marsh gas, or possibly the odd reflection of headlights from passing cars — not a particularly convincing hypothesis, since sightings predated the coming of the automobile.

In 1997, the Seaboard Coast Line, corporate successor to the Wilmington & Manchester and the Atlantic Coast Line, tore up the tracks in the Maco vicinity. Almost immediately, locals began to report that the Maco Light had vanished, and no further sightings were reported for decades.

Early in 2009, however, members of Port City Paranormal, a Wilmington-based ghost-hunting group, posted claims on the Internet that members had captured photographic images of three floating, reddish globes above the old gravel bed of the railroad track about 150 yards south of U.S. 74/76 at Maco, moving “ever so slightly.” The globes were not visible to the naked eye and could only be detected in the photo frame.

In 2004, James C. Burke, then a graduate student in geography at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, tried to research the truth behind the Light as part of his work on early railroad history in the region. A search of city directories, tax lists, death and marriage records and other public records for the 1860s failed to turn up any trace of a Joe or Joseph Baldwin, nor did regular schedules of the Wilmington & Manchester match up with the late-night timing of Baldwin’s supposed accident. One “Joe Baldwin” of the 26th N.C. Regiment was wounded in the hip on the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg, but no evidence exists that this individual ever lived in Wilmington or worked for a railroad there.

Burke did, however, turn up newspaper reports for a railroad accident in January 1856, very close to the Maco site, in which a railroad employee named Charles Baldwin was fatally injured. Records show that Charles Baldwin was buried at Wilmington’s Oakdale Cemetery. Burke theorized that the legend gradually transposed the time of the crash to reflect the hardships of the post-Civil War era, and to make Baldwin’s story more poignant. (How Charles Baldwin became Joe Baldwin is as yet unexplained.)

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One Response to “ What is the Maco Light?”

  1. On December 18, 2009 at 2:41 pm Joseph Jones wrote:

    My dad, B.M. Jones was born and raised in Brunswick County in close location to the Maco Station. Back in either late thirties or early forties, my dad wrote a comprehensive letter in the Star News concerning the Maco Light. When I was growing up in Wilmington, I personally saw the light many times. My recollection is the light swayed back and forth at about waist hight and crossed back and forth across the tracks. It scared the daylights out of me but I was paid with a big hug from my girl friend. There was always a big crowd there on the week ends. It was a great place to be, if you know what I mean!!

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