See the Maco Light, Onstage!

Maco Light
Seen near the old Atlantic Coast Line Railroad Tracks
Maco, North Carolina

N. B. This entry was revised 6 January 2024.

A Haunted Southern Book of Days–4 January

This article is a part of an occasional blog series highlighting Southern hauntings or high strangeness associated with specific days. For a complete listing, see “A Haunted Southern Book of Days.”

 

The influence of the Southern folklore extends tremendously beyond the South as evidenced by Bekah Brunstetter’s play Take Her to See the Maco Lights that premiered in Chicago in 2012. According to the notice on Broadwayworld.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.” Indeed, a special May 17th performance was preceded by a local walking tour hosted by paranormal researcher and writer Ursula Bielski, whose haunted Chicago books I would highly recommend.

The play’s climax occurs on at a legendary spot just outside the small community of Maco in Brunswick County, North Carolina. For more than a century and a half, the railroad tracks attracted the curious to see the famous Maco Light. Legend holds that on the evening of 4 January 1867 a train passing on the then Wilmington and Manchester line near Maco Station had its caboose come uncoupled. The caboose had a lone crewman, Joe Baldwin, asleep inside. When the car slowed down and stopped, he was awakened. Shortly, he was horrified to hear an approaching train and fearing calamity, he grabbed a lantern and stood on the back of the caboose swinging it wildly to alert the oncoming locomotive. That train did not slow down and plowed into the caboose crushing and decapitating the unfortunate crewman. His body was recovered, though his head was not found.

Train brakeman
An 1890 engraving of a brakeman at work. Joe Baldwin was likely a brakeman.

According to some sources, strange lights were first seen in the area just days after the accident. They 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 reportedly ceased around that time.

But have they? A 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 light, the group investigated and captured an odd image. While most photographs taken that evening turned out quite dark with little to be seen, 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.

Sources

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One Reply to “See the Maco Light, Onstage!”

  1. Hope you can check out the show Take Her to See the Maco Lights before it closes! It's great!

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