This is the second of three entries in a special Halloween-inspired blog series highlighting a collection of ghost stories, legends, folklore, and facts from North Carolina. Like sweet tea and college basketball, folklore is a major part of North Carolina’s cultural heritage. Legends and stories passed down from generations keep the state’s history alive and ultimately help us remember life as it once was.
Legend has it that a “ghost light” was all that remained from a fatal train accident that occurred over a century ago just outside of Wilmington in a small, unincorporated community named Maco. The details have become a bit fuzzy over the years, and after being told and retold thousands of times, the story has taken on a life of its own.
It goes something like this:
One night in 1867, Joe Baldwin, conductor for the Atlantic Coast Line, was riding in the caboose of a passenger train when the car suddenly disconnected from the train. Baldwin quickly realized another train was following close behind and started frantically waving a green lantern in an attempt to alert and stop the approaching train. However, his efforts were futile and the oncoming train plowed into the caboose, decapitating him. It’s said that his head flew into the nearby swamp on one side of the train tracks, and the lantern was sent flying onto the opposite side of the tracks—still burning after impact. Joe’s head couldn’t be found in the wreckage, so his body was buried without it. Soon after the accident, people began reporting a mysterious light that appeared around Maco Station, of which was explained as the ghost of Joe Baldwin. “Headless railroaders” are apparently a fairly common genre of ghost, which will usually appear alongside a set of railroad tracks with a ghost lantern in search of its severed head (Reevy, 1998). Paranormal researcher Hans Holzer (1972) suspected that the light was instead due to Baldwin’s attempts to keep an imaginary train from colliding with the car he thinks he’s riding in.
In historian James C. Burke’s research (2012), there is no record of a “Joe Baldwin” working for the Wilmington & Manchester (the railroad system that later became the Atlantic Coast Line) during the time period alluded to in the story. However, he pointed to evidence of a train accident that occurred near Maco on January 4, 1856, which left conductor Charles Baldwin with a head injury that he died from 3 days later.
Burke (2012) theorizes the following: “the most compelling argument that can be made for the death of Charles Baldwin’s being the source of the Joe Baldwin Legend is that the existence of Charles Baldwin and the accident that took his life can be verified in period documents. The name of Joe Baldwin does not appear in the death records, marriage records, deeds, or tax records for New Hanover County. His name does not appear in the Wilmington Directory for 1860, 1865-66, or 1867. His name does not appear on the town’s church or cemetery records. A report of the accident cannot be found in the town’s newspapers.”
The Wilmington Daily Herald and the Wilmington Journal reported on the accident that occurred on January 4, 1856:
Newspaper articles can be found in the North Carolina newspaper microfilm holdings housed at the State Archives of North Carolina.
Regardless of the true origins of this story, Burke (2012) remarks that “finding Charles Baldwin doesn’t change the cultural significance of the legend, but it does place the legend within a more universal context in which a fitting tribute to Charles Baldwin can be found.”
Reportedly, the Maco Light stopped appearing once the tracks were removed in 1977, and no “artifacts” of the story exist today—no tracks, no museum, no historical marker—but the legend lives on.
Recommended Reading & References
Burke, James. (2004). Charles Baldwin, a likely Joe. Lower Cape Fear Historical Society Bulletin, 48(2). Retrieved from www.lcfhs.org/Images/lcfhs/documents/bulletins/2004/Bulletin_Fall_2004.PDF.
Burke, James. (2012). The Joe Baldwin file. (n.p.). Retrieved from www.archive.org/details/JamesC.BurkePapersvol.1-TheJoeBaldwinFile.
Davis, Will. [MarlonDeanMcQueen]. (2012, May). The Maco Light and the Legend of Joe Baldwin [Video File]. Retrieved from www.youtube.com/watch?v=TBdv15am4ZA.
Harden, John. (1954). Tar heel ghosts. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Holzer, Hans. (1972). The phantoms of dixie. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.
Moore, Louis Toomer. (1956). Stories old and new of the Cape Fear region. Wilmington, NC: (n.p.).
Reevy, Tony. (1998). Ghost train! American railroad ghost legends. Lynchburg, VA: TLC Pub.
Roberts, Nancy. (1977). An illustrated guide to ghosts & mysterious occurrences in the old
north state. Charlotte, NC: McNally and Loftin Publishers.
Steelman, Ben. (2004, October 31). The Maco light, Brunswick’s ‘true’ ghost story. Wilmington Star News. Retrieved from www.starnewsonline.com/news/20081010/the-maco-light–brunswicks-true-ghost-story.
Simpson, Bland. (2006). Maco light. NCPedia. Retrieved from www.ncpedia.org/maco-light.
Walser, Richard. (1980). North Carolina legends. Raleigh: Office of Archives and History/North Carolina Dept. of Cultural Resources.
- The Daily Herald. (Wilmington, N.C.) January 5, 1856, Image 2. Image provided by University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library, Chapel Hill, NC. Retrieved from: www.newspapers.com/image/55317033.
- The Daily Journal. (Wilmington, N.C.) January 7, 1856, Image 2. Image provided by University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library, Chapel Hill, NC. Retrieved from: www.newspapers.com/image/90867221.
- The Daily Herald. (Wilmington, N.C.) January 8, 1856, Image 2. Image provided by University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library, Chapel Hill, NC. Retrieved from: www.newspapers.com/image/55317041.
- The Daily Journal. (Wilmington, N.C.) January 18, 1856, Image 4. Image provided by University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library, Chapel Hill, NC. Retrieved from: www.newspapers.com/image/57514502.