Haunted Cape Fear: The Maco Light haunts the tracks

Haunted Cape Fear: The Maco Light haunts the tracks
Published: Oct. 21, 2014 at 8:22 PM EDT|Updated: Nov. 3, 2014 at 12:21 AM EST
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BRUNSWICK COUNTY, NC (WECT) - If you weren't looking for it, you'd quickly pass through the community of Maco while heading through Brunswick County. And if you didn't look closely at the walls of the Maco Station rest stop, you also wouldn't notice the murals dedicated to the man who, for decades, was said to haunt the long-gone train tracks just behind it.

The legend of the Maco Light has been studied by the Smithsonian Museum, soldiers from Fort Bragg, and a research team commissioned by President Grover Cleveland. The haunting that has captured attention nationwide allegedly happened in 1867 on the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad.

Sawyer Batten of Roger Bacon Academy says it's one of the first stories new employees at the school are told, as the site of the accident happened on what is now the school's campus. The specifics of the tale vary, but most agree that Joe Baldwin was a conductor on a train passing through Maco Station.

"Joe Baldwin was on the train, in the caboose, and it became detached from the rest of the train," said Batten, who heard the story from fellow employees of the Academy.

As his car slowed to a stop on the track, Joe realized another train was close behind, careening in his direction. Joe grabbed his lantern and ran out onto the back platform to signal the oncoming train to hit the brakes.

As the story goes, witnesses aboard the oncoming train watched the doomed conductor frantically wave his beacon of warning until the very last moment when the two collided.

Rescuers recovered Joe's crushed body, but never found his head.

Days later, reports of a mysterious light on the tracks began. A glow that swayed back and forth about 5 feet off the ground. Whatever it was, it was said to look a lot like a lantern.

"The legend grew to that it was Joe Baldwin looking for his head," said Mark Koenig, the Executive Director of the Wilmington Railroad Museum.

Koenig has done extensive research on the history of railroads in the Cape Fear region and says time has blurred many of the "facts" surrounding the horrific accident but some have persisted through the years.

At one point, the light was creating so much confusion to trains coming down the track that a new red and green light system was installed to differentiate between the actual system and Joe's ghostly light.

When coming through the area on a tour, President Grover Cleveland saw the unusual safety lights and asked for an explanation. When he heard the story of the Maco light he returned to Washington and dispatched a research team to inquire.

Of all the inquiry, no one has ever determined the source of the light. At times it's been attributed to swamp gas or the reflection of highway headlights. Yet there are substantial holes in every theory. For instance, the light appeared well before the automobile was even invented.

"It's one of those things that if we can't explain it, we say it's ghostly," Koenig said.

Records of train accidents in that area show no trace of a "Joe Baldwin" as a casualty or even as a passenger. One accident a decade earlier lists a "Charles Baldwin" who died on impact but did indeed keep his head intact.

While history and record-keeping may lack in proof, one thing is for sure - visitors to the old rail bed today will be disappointed with what they don't see.

"Once the tracks were torn up about 30 years ago, the lights have disappeared," Koenig explained.

A few theories about the disappearing lights exist. Perhaps Joe's spirit was tied to the tracks and when they were removed, he went with them - or whatever was causing the vision was also removed.

Or, as ghost enthusiasts may posit, perhaps Joe finally found his head.

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