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A POSSIBLE SOURCE OF THE LEGEND OF JOE BALDWIN

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.