Editor’s note: WNCT’s Mekaela Muck will take a look at some of the haunted, spooky and just plain creepy places in Eastern North Carolina around the state now through the month of October. If you have some interesting places you’d like to see her do, let her know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
WILMINGTON, N.C. (WNCT) — People have seen lights moving over the railroad tracks near Maco Station for over a century. This tale is one of NC’s most iconic ghost stories.
The lights are consistent, they come and go. If anyone gets near them, they disappear like they were never there. A local legend says the lights come from the ghost of a railroad worker, Joe Baldwin, who died in 1867.
The railroad that Joe Baldwin worked on ran from Wilmington to Augusta, Ga., making a stop in Florence, SC. Joe was a signalman for the train and had been working on trains for a long time. He was awoken from his slumber one night by a sudden pull on his car.
The story goes that Joe was in the caboose of the train and as soon as he felt the yank, he knew what had happened. The caboose came loose from the rest of the train, stalling on the tracks. Joe knew another train was due to come shortly. Disaster would strike if he didn’t do something.
If the train hit the caboose Joe was in at full speed, the passengers aboard could all die. Joe knew what to do. He grabbed his lantern when he heard the chug of the train, waving it wildly to get the conductor’s attention.
It takes a while for a train to come to a complete stop, especially if it’s at full speed like this one was. Joe knew this, knew that he probably wouldn’t survive, and yet he wanted to make sure everyone on the train would be safe.
The conductor saw Joe erratically waving his lantern and hit the brakes. The passengers aboard the train were safe, but Joe was not. The train hit the caboose where Joe was, decapitating him.
Legend has it that the force of the hit threw Joe’s head into the swamp area near the tracks. No one was able to find it. Joe was given a hero’s honor and was buried a week later, without his head.
The mysterious lights are said to be Joe with his lantern looking for his missing head.
President Grover Cleveland rode on the train tracks, seeing the lights himself. It’s said he asked the conductor why the signalmen on that railroad used two lights, to which he was told that they used them to set themselves apart from the ghostly lantern of Joe Baldwin.
The railroad tracks were removed in 1977 by Seaboard Coast Line Railroad. Reports of the sightings practically disappeared after their removal.