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This article is from the Encyclopedia of North Carolina edited by William S. Powell. Copyright © 2006 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. For personal use and not for further distribution. Please submit permission requests for other use directly to the publisher.

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Maco Light

by Bland Simpson, 2006"Antique Lantern." Image courtesy of Flickr user Jerad Heffner, taken October 8, 2008.

The Maco Light, also called the Ghost at Maco Station, is one of North Carolina's most well-known and enduring supernatural phenomena. It dates to a fatal train wreck in 1867 at a small rural station then called Farmer's Turnout, 14 miles west of Wilmington on the line serving Wilmington, Florence, S.C., and Augusta, Ga. Conductor Joe Baldwin, riding in the last car of a wood-burning train, discovered that his car had come uncoupled. He died waving a lantern from the rear of that car in a failed attempt to signal and stop a second train coming from behind. One witness saw Baldwin's lantern fly clear of the train wreck, land and right itself in the adjacent swamp, and burn on.

Shortly afterward and for over a century since, a flickering light has appeared regularly along the railroad tracks in the vicinity of the 1867 collision. Legend attributes this light to the ghost of Joe Baldwin, who was decapitated in the wreck; the ghost is said to be looking for its head. From 1873 until after an 1886 earthquake, railroad workers reported a pair of Maco lights that would appear together. Over the years, the Maco Light has been bright enough to fool many railroad workers into stopping their trains. To remedy the ghost's schedule-thwarting attempts, signalmen at Maco used two lights, one red, and one green. While President Grover Cleveland's train was wooding and watering up at Maco in 1889, the president saw the two signal lights, asked about them, and got the full story of Old Joe Baldwin.

In the spring of 1964, the South Eastern North Carolina Beach Association contacted parapsychologist and ghosthunter Hans Holzer to come to Maco and investigate the mysterious light. After his visit, Holzer gave an apparent certification of the phantom conductor, citing the consistency of his return appearances. Since the railroad tracks were removed around 1980, sightings of the Maco Light have "greatly diminished, if not completely disappeared," according to Cape Fear Museum historian Harry Warren. In its time the Maco Light has been the object of many a dark vigil at Maco Station, where anywhere from a few to dozens of people would frequently gather at night. It has also been the subject of numerous newspaper stories and at least one narrative ballad, "The Maco Light," which sums up the tale:

They found Joe’s body,
They found Joe’s head!
They buried ’em both,
But he’s not dead!
On a dismal night in a dismal swamp,
You can see his lantern shine!


John Harden, Tar Heel Ghosts (1954).

Bland Simpson and Jim Wann, King Mackerel and the Blues Are Running: Songs and Stories of the Carolina Coast (1986).

Image Credits:

"Antique Lantern." Image courtesy of Flickr user Jerad Heffner, taken October 8, 2008. Available from (accessed May 30, 2012).

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I wonder if reinstalling metal rails could bring back the phenomenon, to provide a tourist attraction to the area.


Hello. I had been fascinated by the story of The Maco Light since I read Nancy Roberts story. As a film student at UNCW, I directed a short film about The Maco Light in 2012 for my documentary film class. I insisted we re-create the light, which we close to the actual location as we could (where there are still railroad tracks, about 1/2 mile east of where the light was seen). The re-creation is about halfway through the film.


Where is the location of the tracks? I love to go to the location if they are still there or even just the location itself. Whats the Lon & Lat Thanks.


I see that you left this message almost a year ago, so you may not still be interested or someone else contacted you and answered your questions. If not, contact me and I can show you exactly where it's at. I grew in Jacksonville. My friends and I from high school back in the seventies would quite often visit the site. Many times I saw a light far down the tracks, but one time in 1974 (the last time I ever went) I saw something that has forever changed my belief in the supernatural.


I saw the Maco Light in 1967 when my parents and I were visiting Southport one weekend. The light was quite a way down the track. We had parked the car at the trestle to wait. Within twenty minutes, the light appeared about three feet over the left rail and made its slow approach. It would then disappear. This happened the whole time we were there which was about an hour. I’m curious to know what else you observed there that more firmly cemented your belief in the paranormal. Thanks!

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