While doing a whistle-stop tour of Eastern North Carolina in 1889, President Grover Cleveland asked the conductor why there were two signal lights instead of one when they stopped a few miles outside of Wilmington at the Maco Station. President Cleveland went back to Washington with the ghostly story of a railroad worker; who in 1867 died on the very tracks he rode.
With only minutes to spare, Joe Baldwin’s detached car sat idle in the path of an oncoming train. To prevent a cataclysmic train wreck, he knew he had to signal the engineer to slow the speeding train. Joe heroically stood on the back of the train car, waving his lantern frantically. Through the fog and the rain, the engineer saw the light Joe swung wildly from side to side; and slowed the train. As the train approached, Joe could hear the screech of the brakes and see the sparks cascading from the side of the train. The fast-moving train collided with the train car because it had been moving too fast. Found amongst the wreckage the next morning was Joe’s headless body. Joe’s decapitated head, forcibly thrown into the swamp that surrounded the tracks, was not found. Only Joe’s lantern was found in the bushes near the crash; still warm to the touch. Joe’s headless body was laid to rest after his sacrifice was honored in a ceremony days later.
The ghostly legend began a few weeks later when a conductor saw a mysterious light after a dense fog fell over the tracks. On the tracks near Maco, witnesses saw the glow (whether looking for his head or warning others of the dangers on the track) from Joe Baldwin’s lantern for almost a century.
In 1977, when the Seaboard Coast Line Railroad removed the tracks at the Maco Station; the lights disappeared. Some people speculated that the light was no ghost at all. After a blurry photo of the light ran with the caption, “There was a chunk of ectoplasm as big as life,” in the Wilmington Morning Star paper in 1946, it received national attention. Life magazine ran a feature about the Maco Light in 1957. This national attention brought a slew of university professors, scientists, psychics, investigators from the Smithsonian Institute, and even a detachment from Fort Bragg (a United States Army installation and the largest military installation in the world housing more than 50,000 active duty personnel) to investigate the mysterious light.
No one could find a cause for Maco Light; though some scientists propose that Maco stands atop a geological fault line and the light was static electricity building on the tracks (hence why it stopped when the tracks were pulled up). That explanation helps some people sleep at night, but another mysterious light still appears further down the railroad tracks in the Van Eden community near Watha, NC. My mother (and others) would lead you to think that its the ghost of Joe Baldwin looking for his head even further down the track; but I have watched too many episodes of Ghost Adventures to believe that that is the answer.
As a teenager, peer pressure can cause you to do crazy things; like tracking down all of the ghostly legends within a reasonable driving distance from your home. One crazy night occurred at my cousin’s house after the lights of the Friday night football game had grown dim, we decided to go see the Van Eden Light. My parents had spoken about going to see the light many times in their youth, so I called my mom to find out exactly where to go. We piled into my aunt’s Buick and drove down Railroad Street. As the car paralleled the path of the railroad track, we soon found the spot. We parked on the edge of the soybean field and walked into a wooded area. When we turned the corner, you could look down the path, and even in the dark, could make out the path. Hauntingly absent of overgrowth and trees, you could see down the path for at least a mile. We stood, waiting to see this light. Half of your mind yearning to see it, while the other hoped it never showed. I was scared. I was scared before we got there. Through the frightening quiet, I could hear my heart beating in my ears. Blood running cold? Mine was already frozen! I remember holding my eyes closed for a couple of seconds and taking a deep breath; when I opened them, terror sucked the breath from my lungs. A shrill ‘bah’ flew from someone’s mouth. (Okay pretty sure it was me. Don’t judge.) In the distance, there was a light floating at waist level above the path. Fear washed over like a cold shower. The little hairs on the back of my neck stood straight up while goosebumps covered my body. I don’t remember when we started to run. I remember slamming the door to the Buick and being out of breath as the echoing engine’s roar covered the deafening yells coming from inside the car. The tires slung dirt as the soybeans slapped the undercarriage of the car.
I can’t explain the yellowish glow that I saw on that night and one other occasion. Is there another headless railroad worker haunting the tracks near Watha? Had the ghost of Joe Baldwin walked 42 miles down those tracks to Watha? Was Joe Baldwin even a real person? Wilmington native James C. Burke could find no record of a Joe Baldwin working for the railroad company at any time during the 1860s. There is a well-documented account of a man named Charles Baldwin who after being injured in a train accident on January 4th, 1956 died three days later. He wasn’t decapitated but did sustain head trauma. So was Charles merely an inspiration or explanation for the story of Joe Baldwin? Joe, Charles, whatever his/her name was; I saw something in those woods outside of Watha. Something I can’t explain. The only thing I do know is that I will NOT be going back there.
Featured Image – Antique train and Conductor aboard antique train in the railway of the Virginia Museum of Transportation in Roanoke, Virginia by Donnie Nunley – Imported from 500px (archived version) by the Archive Team. (detail page), CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=71352660Antique train and Conductor aboard antique train in the railway of the Virginia Museum of Transportation in Roanoke, Virginia
Presidential Train of Grover Cleveland, Miscellaneous Items in High Demand, PPOC, Library of Congress – Library of Congress Catalog: https://lccn.loc.gov/2005675968Image download: https://cdn.loc.gov/service/pnp/cph/3b00000/3b05000/3b05000/3b05063r.jpgOriginal url: https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2005675968/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=67514300
Train Caboose on display in O’Fallon, Illinois credited to Source BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=850776
Train Lantern by Frank Weber from Kaiserslautern, Deutschland – Dampflok Scheinwerfer, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48147569
The Quebec to Boston Express train wreck of September 15, 1907 at Canaan, NH; from a 1907 postcard by Unknown – Scanned postcard from eBay auction: Wrecked Engines and Telescoped Coach Canaan NH 1907, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8134763
Disused train tracks at Takarazuka 23/04/2008 accredited to User: (WT-shared) Ash rex at wts wikivoyage – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23325771