Wilmington Railroad Museum
James C. Burke
The most enduring railroad legend of this region is that of Joe Baldwin. Supposedly, Joe Baldwin, a conductor, was decapitated in a train wreck. It was said that his body was retrieved but his head was never found. The Maco Lights, a strange electrical phenomenon associated with the stretch of track where Baldwin was supposed to have been killed, was said to be the light from an otherworldly lantern held by the ghost of Baldwin as he searched for his missing head. The tale is very old. For generations, people would go out to the small community of Maco and wait in the dark to see the lights. After the tracks were taken up, the lights were no longer seen.
While doing research on the Wilmington & Manchester Railroad, I came across several articles concerning an accident that had occurred near Hood's Creek (the Maco area) in January 1856. The only person to be killed in this accident was the train's conductor, Charles Baldwin. On the night of Friday 4 January 1856, the locomotive on the Wilmington & Manchester Road was having difficulty with its pumps eight to ten miles outside Wilmington. Engineer Nicholas Walker uncoupled the engine from the rest of the train and ran it ahead along the line to work out the mechanical problem. On backing up to retrieve the cars, the engine collided with the rest of the train. The mail car was smashed, slightly injuring mail agent E. L. Sherwood. However, conductor Charles Baldwin was thrown from the train with such force as to inflict fatal head injury (The Wilmington Journal, 7 January 1856). Coroner J. C. Wood summoned a jury that determined the accident had occurred because conductor Baldwin had failed to hang a lantern at the end of the train which would have alerted the engineer to slow down. (The Wilmington Journal, 14 January 1856). Charles Baldwin's obituary, found in the same issue of the Journal as the coroner's report, indicates that he lingered till Monday, 7 January 1856. He had moved to Wilmington from New York, and appeared to be well liked in the community.
So, is this the origin of the Joe Baldwin Legend? It seems likely. It certainly happened in the right place. However, the accident occurred a decade earlier than the legends say it happened. Could there have been a second conductor named Baldwin killed at Maco? I?ve yet to rule out that possibility.
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Mark W. Koenig
[from Carolana website, citation in article about Wilmington & Manchester RR]
"The passengers of the Northwestern Railway yesterday confirmed the report of the accident on the Wilmington and Manchester Railroad, and bring further particulars. We learn that the accident occurred at Soldier's Creek, about thirty miles from Wilmington, at 5 a.m. Sunday morning. The heavy rains had caused the creek to rise, and the trestle was undermined, the embankment being washed away. This was not known to the engineer, and as the down train struck the trestle it gave way, and the engine and baggage and mail cars were precipitated into the creek. The engineer leaped from the engine and saved himself, but Mr. Jackson Harral, a trestle builder, and Mr. C. J. Bird, a section master, were caught in the wreck and instantly killed. The engine went headforemost into the creek, but gained the opposite side, and stopped ina perpendicular position, with the smoke-stack and cow-catcher out of the water. The fall of the engine carried with it the baggage and mail cars; these were broken into fragments, and the mail agent was saved only by a miracle. Most of the mail matter was lost, and that saved from the wreck was too wet for distribution, and was carried back to Wilmington. Fortunately, the passenger cars were stopped when they were almost on the verge of the chasm, and the passengers escaped with a rough jolting and a few petty bruises. In consequence of this accident, we have been without a Northern mail since Saturday, but understand that repairs have already commenced, and it is anticipated that the travel will soon be resumed along the road."
July 2 1867 article in the New York Times, based on dispatches from the Charleston SC News of June 25 1867
Comment: Another example of railroad accident reporting from the era, in this case on the same line as that for "Joe Baldwin," although somewhat further west, between modern-day Delco and Lake Waccamaw. At this time, this would have been the rebuilt line, having been repaired from Civil War depradations. Names of the engineer and surviving mail agent are not provided. No firm connection is made between this incident and the Maco legend, but it does illustrate another fatal occurrence on the same line, contemporaneous with the start of the legend.
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By Ben Steelman
Published: Friday, October 10, 2008 at 1:14 p.m.
Editor's Note: This story ran in the Star-News on Oct. 31, 2004. Time references and the newspaper's former style rules, such as the use of courtesy titles, have been left as they appeared in 2004.
A hundred years and a thousand storytellers have blurred the legend of the Maco Light, but most versions go like this:
Joe Baldwin, a brakeman, was traveling on the last car of an Atlantic Coast Line train when it suddenly became uncoupled from its train. Joe realized that another train, following close behind, would collide with his car. He ran to the back of the car, wildly swinging his lantern to get the attention of the engineer, to no avail. His head was severed in the crash, but his spirit hung around. Joe, the story goes, walked the tracks looking for his head, railroad lantern in hand, night after night.
There never was much to Maco, and there's even less now - just a country store and a couple of rural roads near the intersection of U.S. 74-76 and N.C. 87 in Brunswick County.
For decades, however, it was practically the ghost capital of the Tar Heel State, the site of North Carolina's best documented psychic phenomenon.
Hundreds, perhaps thousands of people claim to have seen the Maco Light, a ghostly, shining orb that hovered over the tracks of the old Atlantic Coast Line railroad.
The story went that it was the spirit of Joe Baldwin, a brakeman beheaded by a train collision shortly after the Civil War. Ol' Joe, the faithful claimed, was looking for his head, railroad lantern in hand.
Others claim the Maco Light was swamp gas or came from passing cars on the nearby highway - even though it was seen long before the automotive age. Recently, a new wrinkle of the legend has unfolded as a researcher unearthed records indicating the name of the ill-fated brakeman may have been not Joe, but Charles Baldwin, and that he may have lost his head a few years before the Civil War, not after.
Folks agree, basically, on just one point: If Joe Baldwin ever was out there with his ghostly lantern, he doesn't walk there any more.
"The railroad tore up the tracks there, back in the '70s, and it hasn't been seen since, " said Stanley Waldrip, president of the Cape Fear Paranormal Investigations Group, an association of volunteer ghost hunters.
Those who have seen it
People started telling stories of mysterious lights along the track as early as 1873. At first, however, the stories told of two lights, moving in tandem.
The lights apparently disappeared for a while after a major earthquake hit Charleston, S.C., in 1886. Thereafter, the light was a solo.
When President Grover Cleveland passed through in 1889, according to some accounts, he asked why railroad signalmen used two lights. The reason, he was told, was to distinguish real trains from the ghostly Maco light. (Most accounts claim the president saw the light himself.)
Witnesses disagreed about the details of the light. John Harden, in Tar Heel Ghosts, said the Maco Light was about as bright as a 25-watt bulb. Some locals, however, claimed the light was bright enough to read by, casting a reflection along the rails.
Some folks said the light bobbed, as if a lantern were swaying back and forth. Others claimed it didn't swing at all. Mr. Harden claimed it always appeared precisely 3 feet above the left rail of the tracks, always moving east. Others said it was 4 feet high or even 10 feet.
"Summer is the popular time for paying the Maco Station light a visit," Mr. Harden wrote. "Dark and moonless nights are better because they provide a clearer, sharper view."
The light, he added, tended to appear and disappear at 15-minute intervals.
By the early 1900s, the Maco Light was well known, and fast becoming something of an attraction. The Diamond Alkali Co., which operated a caustic soda terminal at the N.C. State Ports, reprinted versions of the legend in promotional materials.
Louis T. Moore, who worked for Wilmington's chamber of commerce, retold the legend - with plenty of color but not much citation of sources - in his Stories Old and New of the Cape Fear Region (1956).
In 1957, Life magazine included a photo illustration of the light, and a brief description, in an article of famous "true" ghost stories.
Newspaper reporters began to make the pilgrimage. Star-News staffer Paul Jennewein tried to photograph the light during a visit in August 1955. He didn't catch the orb, but his print showed a reflection of ... well, something.
Pete Knight, a Star-News photographer, traveled to Maco in 1946 and snapped a photo. When he developed the negative, according to the caption, "there was the chunk of ectoplasm as big as life." Unfortunately, the details on microfilm and photocopy are hard to make out.
A date on the tracks
Meanwhile, the mystery drew young people to the tracks.
"I heard about it all my life, because I grew up in Southport, " said Brooks Preik, who saw the light back in the 1960s and wrote about it in her book Haunted Wilmington and the Cape Fear Coast.
Ms. Preik and her husband at the time drove to the site in the early 1960s with some other couples.
"The site itself was scary, " she recalled. "Nothing happened for about 15 minutes. We had about decided to go back when somebody yelled, There it is!"
"It was like a full moon on a misty night, " she added. "It appeared in the distance and started coming toward us. It was the eeriest thing I ever saw in my life."
The light seemed to pause about 100 feet away. "We started to run for the car, " Ms. Preik said, "when one fellow said, I'm not scared of anything, and started to walk toward the light. The closer he got, the more it would recede." John Golden, a local folksinger and storyteller, heard tell of a unit of Camp Lejeune Marines who once tried to charge the Maco Light. The story went that it suddenly vanished - then reappeared behind them.
Not everyone was as lucky, or unlucky.
"I never saw anything, " said Angie Tsingelis, who rode out to Maco on dates during high school.
As a boy, Norman Melton of Wilmington rode out to the site with a hayride organized by Cape Fear Presbyterian Church. "We had a good time, " he said, "but I guess Joe was on vacation."
Hans Holzer, then a best-selling author and assistant professor in parapsychology at the New York Institute of Technology, visited the area in May 1964, at the invitation of the Southeastern North Carolina Beach Association.
Mr. Holzer didn't see the ghost himself, because of the crowds that followed him around. ("Evidently," he later wrote, "we were the most exciting thing that had happened to them for some time.") He did, however, interview dozens of witnesses.
At a lecture in New Hanover High School's Brogden Hall, he announced that he was convinced the Maco tracks were, indeed, haunted.
"The phantom reacts differently with various people and seems to me a true ghost, " he later wrote in Phantoms of Dixie. " ... by comparing it to other weaving lights in other areas, [I] can only conclude that the basic folklore is on the right track, except that Joe isn't likely to be looking for his head. He is rather trying to keep an imaginary train from running into his uncoupled car, which of course exists now only in his thought world."
Ms. Preik, who attended, was not too impressed with Mr. Holzer's performance: "He struck me as more of a marketing person than a serious investigator."
The history of a ghost
Now, a few folks are suggesting something a bit more radical. Maybe the Maco Light wasn't Joe Baldwin.
James C. Burke, a Wilmington native who is working toward a doctorate in geography at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, stumbled upon the Maco Light legend while researching Southeastern North Carolina's antebellum railroads.
He thinks that legend changed a possibly negligent railroad man named Charles into a struggling ex-Confederate named Joe, trying to make his way in a new world and dying bravely, swinging his lantern to the last, to try to prevent an accident.
In the latest Bulletin of the Lower Cape Fear Historical Society, Mr. Burke notes that Joe or Joseph Baldwin does not appear in Wilmington's city directory for 1866. Nor do those names appear in any death records, marriage records, tax lists or deeds for New Hanover County in the 1860s.
"I couldn't find anything, " Mr. Burke said.
That doesn't necessarily mean Joe Baldwin didn't exist, he added. The railway man might have migrated from somewhere else or moved to the area as a newly discharged Civil War veteran seeking a new life.
On the other hand, the published schedules of the Wilmington & Manchester - a railroad later absorbed into the Atlantic Coast Line system - don't match up with accounts of how Joe Baldwin's accident supposedly occurred.
That detail, however, might not disprove Joe Baldwin either, Mr. Burke noted. Railroads in that era occasionally deviated from schedules or added special trains.
While plowing through old records, though, Mr. Burke found another, well-documented story of Charles Baldwin, a conductor for the Wilmington & Manchester. The only catch: His brush with fate came a decade before Joe Baldwin supposedly died.
The lead item in the Wilmington Daily Herald for Saturday, Jan. 5, 1856, read:
"Just as we are going to press, we learn that an accident occurred upon the Wilmington and Manchester Road last night, at Rattlesnake Grade, by which several persons were more or less injured, among them Messrs. Charles Baldwin and E.L. Sherwood, of this town. Mr. Baldwin's injuries, it is feared, may result fatally."
The Wilmington Daily Journal, for the same date, added a few details. "On account of some defect in the working of the pumps on the night mail train, the engineer uncoupled the locomotive, leaving the rail cars behind on the tracks, 8 to 10 miles outside Wilmington. He then sped ahead, apparently for repairs.
"When the engineer returned to pick up the rest of the train, however, he sped too fast and collided with the cars, resulting in some damage to the train, the mail car being smashed up and some little damage done to the other cars."
Charles Baldwin, the Journal reported, was thrown from the train "with so much force as to cause concussion of the brain. Mr. Sherwood, the mail agent, was slightly injured."
The Journal noted that Mr. Baldwin was "seriously, and it is feared, mortally injured." Four days later, on Jan. 8, 1856, another Wilmington newspaper, the Chronicle, printed the following:
"On Monday evening, the 7th inst. Mr. CHAS. BALDWIN, formerly of New York, but for many years a resident of this place, where he enjoyed the respect and good wishes of all who knew him."
Records at St. James Episcopal Church show he was buried at Oakdale Cemetery.
A few days later, a coroner's jury found that the engineer, Nicholas Walker, was not at fault in the accident. Charles Baldwin was.
According to the Wilmington Journal account: "there was no light at the front end of the train, " which would have signaled Mr. Walker to slow down.
"[I]t was the duty of [the] conductor to have placed [the lantern] there, " the Journal added.
What does this have to do with Maco? Back then, Mr. Burke explained, Maco didn't exist.
The community was officially founded in 1890, under the name Maraco, as one of the developments by Hugh MacRae's land company.
Locals later shortened the name to Maco, according to historian William S. Powell in The N.C. Gazetteer.
By the time of Joe Baldwin's supposed demise, the site was known as Farmers Turnout. Before then, however, railroad men knew the area as Rattlesnake Grade. The tracks had to rise by more than 22 feet to cross the trestle over nearby Rattlesnake Creek.
Thus, we have no record of a Joe Baldwin. Confederate records list a "Joe Baldwin" from the 26th N.C. Regiment, wounded in the hip on the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg. Nothing, however, links him to Wilmington.
We do know that a railroad worker named Charles Baldwin died of injuries suffered on Jan. 4, 1856, in the same general vicinity as the Maco Light.
Did Charles Baldwin somehow become Joe Baldwin in public memory? If so, how did people confuse an 1856 railway accident with a collision in 1867?
"History becomes legend, " said Mr. Burke, shaking his head.
Facts, however, can be summarized as follows. In 1977, the Seaboard Coast Line, corporate successor to the Atlantic Coast Line, pulled up the tracks along the old Wilmington & Manchester route. Since then, no sightings of the Maco Light have been reported.
Still, the light, and Joe Baldwin, live on in memory.
At the Wilmington Railroad Museum downtown, the Joe Baldwin display is among the most popular exhibits, said executive director Sadie Hood.
"By the trestle on the (model train) layout upstairs, we have a little character without a head," Ms. Hood added, grinning.