See the Maco Light, Onstage!

The influence of the American South on the artistic world is immense: not only feeding artists into the world but inspiring, influencing and even producing artistic offspring. The American stage has been just as duly influenced by the South, though possibly to a lesser extent than other artistic realms. The South has produced numerous actors and actresses to grace its boards such as Huntsville, Alabama’s Tallulah Bankhead; Harlem, Georgia’s Oliver Hardy and Charleston, South Carolina’s Stephen Colbert. Columbus, Mississippi, a city with an especially interesting history produced one of America’s greatest playwrights, Tennessee Williams, whose work has influenced generations of writers and other artists. Louisville, Kentucky has, in recent decades, gained influence on the American stage with the annual Humana Festival of New American Plays. This festival has brought notice to a whole new legion of American playwrights and promoted new plays such as Donald Margulies’ Dinner with Friends, Jane Martin’s Keeley and Du and Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart.

But the South is not only influential through its artistically bent sons and daughters, its culture is inspiring. The South is an important setting. Beth Henley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Crimes of the Heart, for example, is set in Hazlehurst, Mississippi and involves a trio of sisters from a dysfunctional Southern family. Even more well known is Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias which was adapted into a film of the same name. Taking place solely within the confines of Truvy’s Beauty Shop in Natchitoches, Louisiana, the play revolves around a few months in the lives of the female staff and clientele. Even musicals have sprouted from incidents in Southern history such as Adam Guettel’s Floyd Collins (based on the death of amateur spelunker Floyd Collins who died after getting stuck in a cave near Mammoth Cave, Kentucky), Jason Robert Brown’s Parade (based on the trial and execution of Leo Frank, a northern Jew, who was accused of the murder of 13 year-old Mary Phagan, a young factory worker in Atlanta in 1913) and Kander and Ebb’s The Scottsboro Boys (based on the landmark case of nine African-American men accused of raping two white women in Alabama in 1931).

Of course, the folklore of the South has been incorporated into many plays as well and that brings us (finally!) to a new play that has just opened in Chicago. At its heart, Bekah Brunstetter’s Take Her to See the Maco Lights revolves around the Maco Light, a spectral light seen near Maco, North Carolina. According to the notice on Broadway World.com, the play “follows a pair of young lovers along a dark railroad track where the past and future converge. [… the story] weaves a ghostly love story with characters who are on a crash course to a certain stretch of overgrown railroad tracks in North Carolina.” A special May 17th performance of the play is preceded by a local walking tour hosted by paranormal researcher and writer Ursula Bielski, whose Chicago books I would highly recommend.

Ghost lights are found throughout the world and the American South is not immune from this phenomena. From the Oviedo Lights in Florida to the Hebron Light in Maryland, ghost lights have lit up dark country roads and mountainsides. Perhaps the most famous of these lights are the Brown Mountain lights in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Western North Carolina, but the Maco Light on the coast of the state come in a close second, fame-wise.

The legend of the Maco Light begins in 1867, in the dark days just after the Civil War. A train passing on the Wilmington and Manchester line near Maco Station in Brunswick County somehow had its caboose come uncoupled. The caboose, a car at the end of trains that provided living and office space for train crews, had a lone crewman, Joe Baldwin, asleep inside. When the car slowed down and stopped, Baldwin was awakened. Shortly, he was horrified to hear the sound of an approaching train and fearing calamity; Baldwin grabbed a lantern and stood on the back of the caboose swinging the lantern wildly to alert the oncoming locomotive. The train did not slow down and plowed into the caboose. Baldwin’s body was crushed and legend has it he was decapitated by the accident. While his body was recovered, his head was never located.

According to some sources, strange lights were first seen in the area just days after the accident. The mysterious lights were a popular attraction for locals and gained some fame from a presidential sighting in 1889. Grover Cleveland told his story in Washington after seeing the lights from his presidential Pullman car. Tony Reevy recounts in his Ghost Train! American Railroad Ghost Legends what most viewers witnessed:

Viewers who saw the light always reported the same thing: the light flared up way down the track, crept towards the observer, then speeded up and began swinging side-to-side. Finally, the light stopped abruptly, hovered for a minute, retreated back to where it started from and vanished. The light always appeared three feet above the left rail, facing east. It was sometimes so distinct that you could see the metal guards of a railroad hand lantern. The light didn’t appear every night. It seemed to appear randomly according to old Joe’s whims.

The tracks were a part of the Wilmington and Manchester Railroad which was acquired not long after the accident by the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad. The line later became the Seaboard Coast Line. Later mergers added the line to the thousands of miles of rail owned by CSX which took up these tracks in 1977. Sightings of the light are reported to have ceased around that time.

But have they? North Carolina paranormal investigation group, NC HAGS (North Carolina Haints, Apparitions, Ghosts and Spirits) investigated the area in 2007. Following up on recent reports of people seeing the Maco Light, the group investigated and captured an odd image. Most photographs taken that evening turned out quite dark with little to be seen but one photograph taken just after an investigator asked Joe Baldwin to appear, shows a series of lights that seem to resemble the silhouette of a man. Is Joe Baldwin still stalking the site of the old Maco tracks? At least for now you may have to either venture out to the bug-ridden coastal piney woods of North Carolina or you may sit in an air-conditioned theatre in Chicago to answer that question.

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“Lord willing and the creek don’t rise!”—Lake Washington, Mississippi

The marvelous phrase, “Lord willing and the creek don’t rise,” occurs frequently in Southern dialogue with some changes (i.e. “God” or “Good Lord” instead of just “Lord” and sometimes plural creeks or “Creek” capitalized). Initially, this phrase did not refer to “creek” as in a body of water, but to the Creek People (now known as the “Muscogee”). According to Google Knol, this phrase originated with the great Indian Agent, Benjamin Hawkins, in the 18th century when he responded to a presidential request to travel to Washington with, “God willing and the Creek don’t rise.”

In a recent news piece from WLBT News, the NBC station in Jackson, Mississippi, a mistake in the spelling of a word made me think of this wonderful turn of phrase. A reporter from the station spent an evening investigating one of the historic showplaces on Lake Washington. He described the group as hearing “a few knocks and creaks downstairs,” though the article reads “a few knocks and creeks downstairs.” It certainly made me chuckle.

The group was investigating the exceedingly atmospheric Susie B. Law House. Neglected for quite some time, this house now hides under a shroud of vines. Underneath this organic, house-shaped shroud is a two-story, white Greek revival house with a columned portico extending from the front. Barbara Sillery in her magisterial The Haunting of Mississippi (which I reviewed here), mentions that a smaller version of the house exists as a playhouse not far from the main house and crushed by a tangle of vines. The house’s appearance has led to its use as a filming location twice, though I cannot find the identities of either film.

Vines cover the portico of the Susie B. Law House. Photo 2010 by Tinkerbrad. Released under a Creative Commons License.

The reporter, Walt Grayson, and the paranormal team, Delta Paranormal, investigating the house recently encountered more than groans and creaks from downstairs. An upstairs door closed itself and was moments later caught on tape opening and closing. The proprietor of a local bait shop, Bait n’ Thangs, who is interviewed in the video also appears in Sillery’s book. He had an odd experience while passing by the Law House a few years ago before the house became so covered in vines. He saw a light in the empty house and as he got closer witnessed a little old lady in a white nightgown ascending the staircase with an oil lamp in her hand. He considered calling the sheriff, but he knew the house was empty and something just wasn’t right. After reporting the woman to descendants of the Law family, he discovered that he’d seen the apparition of Susie B. Law.

The house is one of the showplaces built near Lake Washington, considered the “most beautiful lake in the world.” In the early 19th century many families were attracted to the oxbow lake and built magnificent mansions on its shores along East Lake Washington Road in the hamlet of Glen Allan. Among the most important homes was the Italianate red-brick house, MOUNT HOLLY. It was important enough that the 1938 WPA guide to the state devotes a paragraph to describing the home’s “walls […] 2 feet thick and the ceilings 14 feet high.” It goes on to note the “rosewood staircase, rounded niches for statuary, frescoes, walnut woodwork and great oven.” The circa 1856 home was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973, but more recently, it has become known for its ghosts.

Mount Holly, 2010, by Tinkerbrad. Released under a Creative Commons License.

Like the nearby Law House, Mount Holly sits derelict. It is here that the bait shop owner also had a bizarre experience. Whilst showing a couple historians through the house, the local fishing guide had a door slammed in his face. Moments later, he witnessed a figure running away from the door. Evidently, spirits in both houses enjoy their door closing abilities.

Neglect shows on both of these magnificent homes. Neither is currently open to the public so I have not added addresses to this entry. In the video, the bait shop owner mentions that he hopes paranormal investigations could provide the money to at least stabilize the Law House. Mount Holly needs just as much work and could also benefit from paranormal investigations. It’s also noted in the video that the area has received a great deal of rain recently; rain that can cause damage to both edifices. Lord willing and the creeks don’t rise these houses can be saved.

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Weekend Pics from North Carolina

Last weekend was spectacular, thanks for asking!

My family rented a cabin just outside of Lake Lure, NC. My mother had actually gotten the idea of going there from me after I talked about the area while writing my two articles about the area (the one on Chimney Rock that I just reposted and one on the two haunted hotels there). Lake Lure and Chimney Rock are almost adjoining. Judging from the signs, they are really only feet apart. Both hamlets spread out on either side of U.S. Route 64 as it winds (and I do mean it’s a very winding road) through the Hickory Nut Gorge. Both Lake Lure and the town of Chimney Rock sit under the sentinel of the actual Chimney Rock.

Chimney Rock extends, thumb-like, from Chimney Mountain. Taken from just off of US 64. Photo 2012, by Lewis Powell IV, all rights reserved.
Hickory Nut Falls appears above the trees. Photo 2012, by Lewis Powell IV, all rights reserved.

 

Chimney Rock rises on the left and Hickory Nut Falls appears on the right. This is the view from “downtown” Chimney Rock. Photo 2012, by Lewis Powell IV, all rights reserved.

Chimney Rock (the rock) juts out from Chimney Mountain and has served as a landmark for centuries. It was here in early years of the nineteenth century that some locals witnessed a host of being ascending into the air from this rock. Just west of Chimney Rock, Hickory Nut Falls descends towards the Rocky Broad River which runs along the floor of the gorge. Chimney Rock Park (which encompasses the falls) was owned by a single family for most of the 20th century and was just recently acquired by the state of North Carolina as a state park in 2007. At the moment, there is still construction going on to rehabilitate the access to the rock itself, so it was closed. But we did get to the parking lot below it and had some spectacular views of the gorge from that point. In addition, the trail to Hickory Nut Falls was open and we hiked to see it. It’s amazing!

Chimney Rock from the visitors’ center parking lot, the closest I could get, unfortunately. Photo 2012, by Lewis Powell IV, all rights reserved.
The view of the Hickory Nut Gorge and Lake Lure from the base of Chimney Rock with the intrepid Southern Spirit Guide. Photo 2012, by Lewis Powell IV, all rights reserved.
Hickory Nut Falls from the base of the falls. Photo 2012, by Lewis Powell IV, all rights reserved.

I was excited to see the Lake Lure Inn as well! When Dr. Lucius Morse dreamed of a lakeside mountain resort in the early days of the 20th century, he envisioned something that was European in style. The Inn’s architecture is vaguely European and the whole scene of the Inn and the mountains and the lake creates a view that is definitely European in feel. I had to remind myself that I was in North Carolina and not somewhere in the Alps. The area is just absolutely lovely. I’m excited to return very soon!

The 1927 Lake Lure Inn. Photo 2012, by Lewis Powell IV, all rights reserved.