Maco is an area in Brunswick County where US 74/76 intersects with NC 87. I know the area well. Growing up, I passed through twice a year, traveling between Wilmington and Canton. The intersection is famous in southeastern North Carolina. Kids have been driving out there for generations to tell ghost stories – and look for the Maco Light.
I was one of those kids. I’d pick up Ebie from Boiling Springs, and we’d burn up Brunswick County’s roads. Ebie was always pretty good at telling ghost stories, and the story about the Maco Light was one of my favorites. I always found it a little spookier because it was rooted in history and truth.
I’m not sure I can tell it as well as Ebie did, but the story of the Maco Light goes something like this:
Joe Baldwin & The Maco Light
The Wilmington and Manchester Railroad served North and South Carolina in the mid-1800s, and the tracks passed right through Maco. W&M railroad workers called that section of rail Rattlesnake Grade for the sudden 3-mile gradient next to Rattlesnake Creek.
On a rainy night in 1856, W&M railroad worker Joe Baldwin lay down in the caboose of a train headed to Manchester as it rolled toward Rattlesnake Grade. Joe was just about to drift off when his car gave a great lurch and began to slow.
The signalman jumped up and ran to the head of the caboose to find it had become detached from the rest of the train. He snatched up his lantern and tried to signal the conductor, but the engine was well past the gradient, and Joe’s light went unseen.
It was then that Joe realized he was in trouble. A cargo train was scheduled shortly behind his that night. He needed to alert it before it smashed into the stalled caboose.
Lantern in hand, Joe ran out onto the caboose porch to search the foggy distance for the oncoming train. He heard the clickety-clack before spotting the headlight glowing in the fog.
Once Joe saw the freight, he realized he had a choice to make: he could jump from the caboose to save his own life or stay to attempt to save the lives of those aboard the upcoming train. Joe decided to stand his ground.
Standing on the caboose porch as the train rolled closer, Joe waved his lantern frantically to attract the engineer’s attention. He breathed a sigh of relief when he heard the brakes engage and saw the sparks flying off the wheels as the engineer tried to make a quick stop.
Unfortunately, it was to be Joe’s last breath. Trains don’t stop on a dime. The freight slammed into the caboose, killing him on impact. Thanks to Joe, the only life lost that night was his own.
They found his mangled, decapitated body the following morning – crushed lantern still clutched in hand. He received a hero’s burial, with people coming from all around to pay respects to the man who had prevented a great tragedy.
Shortly after the wreck, those who lived in Maco near Rattlesnake Grade began seeing a mysterious light near the train tracks. The people who saw it claimed it was the ghost of Old Joe with his lantern, out looking for his missing head.
The Truth About the Maco Light
There really was a train crash at Maco on January 4, 1856. Charles Baldwin died from head injuries resulting from the accident three days later. He was buried at Oakdale Cemetery in Wilmington. The story of Joe Baldwin is probably based on Charles.
Soon after the wreck, people claimed to see a ghostly light in Maco. The story became so popular that it even made its way into the ears of President Grover Cleveland.
In 1889, while on a stop at Maco Station, the President asked why local signalmen used two colored signals rather than a single white light. In response, railroad workers told him the story of the Maco light.
They explained that the phantom light was often confused as a signal, stopping trains near the station. Maco used a green and red light to direct the trains to prevent confusion.
The Maco light was seen by dozens, if not hundreds, over a century. Many of them are still alive today. The light abruptly disappeared in 1977 after the Maco train tracks were removed.
Of course, that hasn’t stopped anyone from hunting for the light – it didn’t stop me. How about you? Did you ever go hunting for the Maco light? Better yet, did you see it?