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The Mysterious Missing Maco Lights

Updated on September 12, 2015

The sight of any ghost would be a strange event. But what would be stranger still is one who has been making appearances in a specific location for over a century and then suddenly stop. That’s the case of Joe Baldwin, a heroic train signalman and the legendary Maco Lights.

According to the story, Joe worked on the old Wilmington-Manchester-Augusta line which traveled to and from Wilmington before it became part of the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad. There are several different accounts of this legend, but the basic premises are the same.

The tale begins one rainy night in 1867 at the Maco Train Station a few miles west of Wilmington, NC. Joe Baldwin was in the caboose on a routine run when for reasons unknown it became uncoupled. As the caboose slowed, Joe saw the lights of a passenger train rapidly approaching from the rear. Joe took his lantern and began frantically waving it to warn the oncoming train but to no avail. Eyewitnesses later recounted Joe never stopped swinging his lantern, even as the passenger train slammed into Joe’s caboose.

The impact which occurred at a train trestle decapitated him. His mangled body was eventually retrieved but his head was never found. Days later when the wreckage had been cleared, Joe’s headless body was buried.

Shortly after the collision, the first sightings of the lights began. They would materialize a few feet above the tracks where Joe was killed. Witnesses reported the lights would swing back and forth as they approached and quickly and then disappear. The lights always appeared at night traveling east, along the same stretch of track as the accident. Eventually it was seen by so many they were dubbed the Maco Lights. Sometimes only one light was seen, sometimes two.

The mysterious lights have been observed by countless witnesses and even photographed. It's even said President Grover Cleveland once saw the light from his Pullman car in 1889. The president supposedly called the conductor and asked about the light. Reportedly, the conductor replied “What you have seen sir is the Maco Station Light.'' He then proceeded to tell the sad tale of poor Joe Baldwin and the train accident in 1867.

Many believe it was the ghost of Joe Baldwin still searching for his missing head. Skeptics, however, have dismissed it as pure bunk. But, the Maco Lights were seen too often by reliable witnesses to be explained away as a simple ghost story. Besides, it’s a moot point now as the apparition no longer appears. Joe hasn’t been seen since 1977 when the tracks were pulled up.

Some observers say the Maco Light was white. Others say they have seen it change from White to Green to Red, like a standard signalman's lantern. And yet others say it would alternate between Red and Green, the danger signal, while swinging back and forth.

It’s quite an engaging tale in any event. There was a train wreck in 1867, but was there a Joe Baldwin killed? Recent research has revealed there was no Joe Baldwin working for the railroad killed in 1867 and the scene of the accident was called Rattlesnake Grade at the time. The name change to Maco was not made until much later.

It’s now thought the man was Charles Baldwin, a New Yorker who was killed in an accident near Rattlesnake Grade on January 3, 1856. And it’s not known if he even died in a train wreck. Church records show he was interred at Saint James Churchyard in Wilmington, but later moved to Oakdale Cemetery. Since then his grave site has been lost.

In 1964 Hans Holzer, the noted author and ghost hunter, was asked to investigate the matter. With Holzer conducting the investigation the event made national headlines. But even the famed ghost hunter failed to find a rational explanation.


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    • Alastar Packer profile image

      Alastar Packer 6 years ago from North Carolina

      Great info on the Maco lights John! You found some new facts on it which are intriguing. I thought they were still being seen in Brunswick co. but what you know they disappeared when the tracks were taken up. Your spot on right about this one not being a simple ghost story. Far too many saw the the lights including like you wrote a president! Good info on the real deal on Baldwin too bro. Thank ya John.

    • JY3502 profile image

      John Young 6 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      You bring the marshmallows!

    • profile image

      Lynn S. Murphy 6 years ago

      Very interesting tale and one that would be really cool to tell around a campfire on a dark and eerie night.

    • JY3502 profile image

      John Young 6 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      For Alistar who requested I write this.