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Did Grover Cleveland ever see the Maco Light?

Ben Steelman
StarNews

Grover Cleveland may not have seen the Maco Light, but he knew about it. AP photo.

Some sources claim he did. In “North Carolina Legends,” published in 1980 by the N.C. Division of Archives and History, scholar Richard Walser writes:

“In 1889 President Grover Cleveland, on a political campaign, saw the mysterious light, as have hundreds of people through the years.”

Older sources, however, tell a different story.

In a Sunday feature that ran in the Sunday Star-News on March 28, 1948, for example, the 22nd president was riding on the Wilmington, Manchester & Augusta Railroad on a balmy summer evening when his steam train stopped at Maco Station to fill back up with water. (Cleveland had lost his 1888 re-election bid and, at this point, would have been an ex-president, and probably not on a campaign tour.)

While the train was stopped, Cleveland decided that he would step out of his car for a leisurely stroll. While walking, he noticed that the conductor was waving two lights, one green and one white. This was unusual; back then, most of the time, railroadmen carried only one lantern.

Cleveland asked why two lights were in use. At this point, the president was told the sad story of Joe Baldwin, who according to lore was beheaded in a railway collision near Maco back in 1867. Since then, mysterious lights had been seen hovering over the track — which, locals said, was Baldwin’s ghost, looking for his head.

The two real railway lights, in different colors, were used to distinguish railway signals from Joe Baldwin’s ghostly lamp.

(In Cleveland’s time, two Maco Lights were often seen, one heading toward the other and eventually passing.)

In other words, Cleveland didn’t see the Maco Light; he just heard about them. (He apparently liked the story and repeated it in some of his speeches.)

A 1946 Star-News story, an undated release from the Greater Wilmington Chamber of Commerce and “The Light of Maco Station,” a pamphlet distributed sometime in the 1960s by the old Diam0nd Shamrock Corp., all repeat this version of the story, in virtually the same words: Cleveland heard the Maco Light story. But there’s no evidence he ever saw them.

Local historian James Burke, who wrote two books on the old Wilmington & Weldon Railroad, tried to research this story. He could find no account, however, of Baldwin’s fatal accident in local newspapers of the period. Nor could he find any evidence from city directories or other sources that a Joe or Joseph Baldwin lived in Wilmington after the Civil War.

Burke did find accounts, however, of an accident on the Wilmington, Manchester & Augusta in January 1856, along a curvy stretch outside Wilmington known as the “Rattlesnake Grade” near Hood’s Creek, in which a conductor named Charles Baldwin was fatally injured. Burke thinks the details of the incident were garbled in the oral tradition of the story.

Burke also made the point that the fatal wreck could not have occurred near Maco Station, since Maco, at that point, did not exist. The station was named Farmers Turnout in 1867 and didn’t assume the Maco name until after 1890. (For awhile, according to the North Carolina Gazetteer, it was known as “Maraco,” a reference to a nearby farm colony developed by Hugh MacRae, but apparently it was quickly contracted to its current form.)

The light was unseen after 1977, when the CSX line pulled up the railroad tracks in the Maco vicinity. More recently, paranormal investigations claim to have caught evidence of the Maco Light on camera.

RELATED LINKS:

StarNews: THE MACO LIGHT | BRUNSWICK’S ‘TRUE’ GHOST STORY

What is the Maco Light?

Who are some local ghosts?

User-contributed question by:
Stephen Worrell

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