Excerpted from Spooky North Carolina by S.E. Schlosser
There was once a railroad conductor named Joe Baldwin who was working for the newly rebuilt Atlantic Coast Line. The year was 1867, and the railroad had expanded to include a small station in Maco, North Carolina. Joe was assigned to the very last car in the train, and he executed his conductor duties to the best of his abilities aboard his assigned car. Then one night, something went wrong. Terribly wrong. The train was heading down the line toward the tiny Maco station when Joe’s car started to slow down dramatically. Worried, Joe went forward to see what was happening, and realized that his car had come decoupled from the rest of the train. Joe’s heart leapt into his throat when he saw the retreating lights of the train disappearing into the distance. His car was stuck on the tracks, and another train was following close behind them!
With a shout of dismay, Joe grabbed his signal lantern and frantically ran the length of the car. Bursting out of the back door, he ran out on the rear platform. Yes, he could see the next train speeding toward them down the track. By the look of it, the engineer had not realized the danger! Joe leaned over the rail, desperately signaling for the engineer in the following train to stop. But the train barreled forward, speed unabated. Joe realized that the engineer must not have seen his signal light – or perhaps had not realized its significance. He kept waving the lantern frantically from side to side, shouting in vain over the huge rumbling force of the oncoming train. The engine grew larger and larger, and Joe’s heart was in his throat as he realized the train was not going to stop.
With a thunderous roar and the great shriek of massive metal hitting massive metal, the engine struck the helpless car. Joe, still at his post, was smashed between the two trains; his head was severed from his body. The signal lantern flew wildly out of his hand, rolling along beside the tangled metal of the two trains and miraculously flipping upright, still alight.
Joe was the only fatality in the railway accident that night. The railroad officials never located his head.
Shortly after the train accident, the Maco Light began to appear on the tracks near the station. People traveling on the train, or crossing the tracks at Maco, would report a light shining in the distance when no train was due. The light would appear as a small ball, far down the tracks, and then would come closer and closer to the observer until it was the size of a lantern. People reported that the light moved back and forth frantically, as if it were signaling a train to stop, just as Joe Baldwin had done the night of the accident.
The phenomenon became so common that the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad ordered their engineers not to stop for the light if they saw it as they were approaching Maco. Folks believed it was the spirit of Joe Baldwin the conductor, desperately replaying his final moments over and over again, trying to get the following train to stop before it hit his helpless car.
Copyrighted content: This is a retold folklore story by S.E. Schlosser, who owns the copyright. This version of the story may not be reproduced, reprinted or used in any other way without the permission of the author. Teachers may link to or photocopy this story as part of their classwork.