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, 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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