Editor's Note: Dr. Stratton Murrell of Jacksonville is an optometrist, Onslow County historian, free-lance writer, author, and a ghost hunter. This story is a special HALLOWEEN RELEASE to the Jacksonville Daily News dated 10-29-2006
Author's Note: 1-14-2010- I stopped by the Onslow County Council For The Arts and talked to Connie Wenner, the executive director, about the Montford Point picture (which was painted by my wife, Billie Jean and was on display at the Onslow C ounty Art Gallery). During the conversation I mentioned my ghost story, A HAUNTING TALE.
For Dr. Stratton Murrell, a Jacksonville historian , the story of the ghostly Maco Light remains a fascination. Now this self-described 'ghost hunter' has uncovered some new details in a mystery that is still unfolding.
GHOST STORIES are often the combination of some fact and a lot of fiction. Still, they have historical value. One of my favorites is about Joe Baldwin and the Maco Light. I told this story to the Onslow County Historical Society in 1998 during the Halloween season.
Here's how it goes.
"Joe Baldwin was a train conductor in 1856. It was a dark night and he was in the caboose (the last car of the train) and it accidentally became unbolted from the train at Maco, which is close to Wilmington, North Carolina. The engineer in the train behind did not know that he was traveling on the wrong schedule and was not aware that there was another train up front. The train behind smashed into the caboose and killed Joe as he was frantically waving his lantern back and forth as an emergency signal. When his body was found, Joe's head was missing. He had been decapitated.
"Since that time, on a real dark night, one can see the light from Joe's lantern as he wanders up and down the railroad tracks at Maco in search of his head. I have seen this light several times and my Boy Scout troop even tried to capture it many years ago. Jack Johnson was a member of the troop at that time. Many years have passed by, but it's still exciting for us to tell the story about this eerie adventure. (8-16-2013: As a connecting link, Jack and I are still swapping stories. This particular story sounds like just another tall tale. I'm checking out the details and so far the story is true. It concerns the rest of the story about the Scotch Bonnet. Check it out by going to the Whale Story. Scroll down to the Scotch Bonnet Story and find its connection with the North Carolina General Assembly).
"There are many theories about the Maco Light. Scientists have investigated this area and have concluded that the it may be some sort of florescent swamp gas or possibly the reflection of automobile headlights reflected off the tracks as cars pass by. Others still cling to the idea of a ghost. (9-17-2014:There re still some additional thoughts about the Maco Light.
"In 1965 Bill Mitcham, executive secretary of the Southeastern North Carolina Beach Association, invited Hans Holzer to check out the Ghost of Joe Baldwin. Mr. Holzer was a professor of parapsychology and the author of several books about ghosts (specifically, his book, DIXIE GHOSTS). Essentially, Mr. Holzer had a great reputation, but he found nothing new (he never found if there was a real person by the name of Joe Baldwin who was a train conductor in 1856), and certainly never found Joe's grave to see if his head is still missing. But we solved the name problem later.
Carolyn Alford, a reporter from the Daily News (and a good friend of mine) was present when I told the story at a meeting of the Onslow County Historical Society. After the meeting she was talking to me about this most unusual ghost story. Billy Humphrey joined in the conversation and told us that he remembered the spot where most people had gone to see the Maco Light and he offered to take us there. One dark night, Billy took us to that spot. It was strangely silent. The train tracks had been removed in 1973 and we never saw the light, but we did interview some people who lived close by and they told us several stories about the legendary Joe Baldwin and the many people who had been there to see his ghost.
Carolyn wrote a story about our adventure and I wrote a follow up saying that I would release a progress report from time to time about our search for Joe Baldwin. I then contacted some of my history associates and kept the ghost story alive by telling them I needed their help in finishing up this story which has been in circulation for over a hundred years. And in addition to that, Carolyn still wanted to know what happened to Joe's head. And the plot thickened as the research began. I literally became a ghost hunter. (I wrote a letter to the editor--the Jacksonville Daily News-- about how Carolyn Alford went on a ghost hunting expedition which I organized at a Onslow County Historical Society meeting in 1998. At that time I told her I would send a progress report of any new developments in this story. And this is a new development: Phil Shepard of the North Carolina General Assembly became a part of the railroad portion of the story).
After years of research by various people, no one has ever found any records of a train conductor by the name of Joe Baldwin or his involvement in a train wreck and certainly not his grave. If we found it, would it be necessary to exhume the body to determine if Joe was the headless train conductor?
I recently discovered that there is a surprising answer to this question. There never was a Joe Baldwin! But there was a train wreck and there was a train conductor by the name of Charles Baldwin. My fellow historian, John Rhodes, published his story about Joe Baldwin in the January, 2006 issue of his history newsletter the "Old Onslow Times."
As the result of some meticulous investigation, John found a most interesting news story in the Daily Journal of Wilmington. It's dated Jan. 5, 1856:
"Rail Road Accident. We learn that a painful accident occurred last night, on the Wilmington and Manchester Rail Road in the neighborhood of Hood's Creek, some eight to 10 miles from town. It would appear that on account of some defect in the working of the pumps of the locomotive engaged in carrying up the night train going west from this place, the engineer detached the train and ran on ahead for some distance, and in returning to take up the train again, came back at so high a speed as to cause a serious collision, resulting in some damage to the train, the mail car being smashed up and some little damage done to the other cars. The most painful circumstance connected with the affair is that Mr. Charles Baldwin, the conductor, got seriously, and it is feared, mortally injured, by being thrown from the train with some much force as to cause concussion of the brain. Mr. E.L. Sherwood, Mail Agent, was also slightly injured. None of the passengers were in any way hurt. Until circumstances of the affair can be fully examined into we forbear any comment."
Therefore the train wreck involving Charles Baldwin in 1856 seems to be the beginning of the Joe Baldwin story. If this is true, there will be no need to dig up a grave. Joe Baldwin, er I mean, Charles Baldwin, had a head injury, but he was not decapitated, according to the news report of the time. 10-17-2010: A group of men in New Hanover county search for the graves of veterans of the Civil War and honor them by cleaning up the grave site and placing a Confederate Flag on the grave. At my suggestion, they have found the records of a Confederate soldier by the name of Joe Baldwin, but at their last report they have not found his grave. There is a lot more to the story that includes the Cape Lookout Lighthouse. It's the story of the life and death of a ghost story. And the search goes on. 7-30-2013: John Flanigan called me tonight and asked me for some infomation concerning some paranormal experinces he had at Maysville concerning a fire in Maysville perhaps in the Civil War days. John is a paranormal investigator. SCROLL DOWN FOR RAILWAY HISTORY
But there is more to Joe Baldwin than just a ghost story. It’s part of the story about railroads on the coast of North Carolina (But there's more to railroads than just ralroads. There was a Wilmington-Weldon railroad which was completed in 1840. At that time it was reported to be the longest railroad in the world and surprise, surprise----the president of this railroad was Edward B. Dudley who was the 28th Governor of North North Carolina. And most important to us in Onslow County, he was born near Jacksonville---a real celebrity. (7-16-2013: There were several small railroads on the coast of North Carolina and they were all gradually absorbed by the Coastline Railroad Co. by the later part of the 19th century. Wilmington became the central terminal for the Coastline.
Wilmington's major economy depended upon the Coastline in much the same way as Jacksonville depends on Camp Lejeune. When the Coastline moved its main terminal to Jacksonville, Fla. In 1965 it was devastating to Wilmington, but it recovered. And then the railroad tracks were removed (between New Bern and Wilmington) in 1985 and it became a part of the Rails To Trails Bike Trail System. here was so much time and expense involved in building this particular railroad line and now it is gone (The Coastline merged with the Seaboard Railroad and now this conglomeration is known as the CSX which is an international transportation company). There are no more railroad tracks to reflect the light from Joe Baldwin’s lantern. They just disappeared, like many ghosts, into the pages of history. And now the closest passenger train service is at the Amtrak Station in Raleigh. ( 9-9-2013: But there is more to the train story than just about trains. The most famous song and fidler's piece is the ORANGE BLOSSOM SPECIAL which was named after the famous passenger train by that name. The violin part simulated the sounds of a train.It's claim to fame is that it made bluegrass a very popular form of country music. And what is significant to us is that this song writer, Erwin T. Rouse, was born in Craven County. My mother is in the Chadwick family and Erwin is her first cousin.The Rouse part and the details is in the book, THE FIDLER'S CURSE, by Randy Noles. The Chadwick part is by Josh Chadwick, III, the family's genealogist. I gave a lecture on this info to the genealogist group at the Onslow County Public Library on 9-9-2013. . Kim Cowdrey ( she takes care of the technical maintenance of DIGITAL WINGS) is in charge of this Dept. Bob Bartlet was also there. He was of great help to the program.).
And so the mystery of Joe Baldwin was probably Charles Baldwin in real life and the story was embellished as time went by. According to the news story Charles Baldwin was buried at Oakdale cemetery in Wilmington. I talked with the director of the cemetery. He knew the story about Joe Baldwin. He knew about Charles Baldwin, but he said that none of these men (fictitious or real) are buried at the Oakdale cemetery. But we find that Charles was a drifter like so many people at the time. He had very few possessions. Could it be that since Charles was a pauper that he was buried in a “Potter’s Field” area at the Cemetery? The people buried in this area had no Tomb Stones The search goes on….
And the story continues: In 2010 I received a phone call from Cliff Williams of Wrightsville Beach, N.C.(near Wilmington). We were working on another project and he found a Joe Baldwin who was in the Confederate Army. As of 9-7-2012 I contacted Rodney Kemp (at the History Place, Morehead City,N. C.) and I will probably add more to the story ------- possibly developing a story line in that my version is the Life and Death of a Ghost Story. 10-17-2012: According to my news story, Carolyn Alford of the Jacksonville Daily News went Ghost hunting with me in 1998. Billy Humphrey (a civil war re-enactor) provided the transportation to find the ghost of Joe Baldwin at Maco---near Wilmington. Carolyn wrote a story about our investigation (see the Jacksonville Daily News, 10-31-1998, pg. 1 and 2), I wrote the above story in 2006 and have added information from time to time. It then occurred to me that Carolyn may want to update the story in her newspaper column. I searched through my notes and found some new theories about the Maco Light. Some time in the late 1960s or early 1970s I was returning from a business tgrip and I stopped by the office pf J.B. Rhine at Duke University in Durham. I had read several of his articles about Parapsychology. He was the world's authority on the subject. He had also been in the Marine Corps.Parapsychology is the study of clairvoyance, reincarnation, life after death experiences,etc. After studying the scientific papers written by J.B. Rhine plus his association with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (an ophthalmologist and the creator of the Sherlock Holmes stories) I have conceived a rather startling "rest of the story" about Joe Baldwin. I hope that it is just a theory. If my conclusions are true, some people are in some serious trouble. Time went by after we checked out the Joe Baldwin story and I had other experiences. I joined the genealogy group at the Onslow County Public Library and as a result of this a member of the Murrell family (who I had never met) contacted me. During our telephone conversation he mentioned that one of the newest things in genealogy was using DNA as a tool whereby one could trace their family tree more efficiently. Could this be applied to the Joe Baldwin story. What could be the danger in using this new technology?............ When they took up the tracks in 1974 Joe Baldwin's light disappeared. People assumed that the light was just a reflection on the tracks from some light source and that was it----end of story. At that time I was busy with other things and I let this incident slide by. Things changed when Carolyn Alford became interested in the story and she wrote a story about it.6-27-2013: After a few years people lost interest in the story and the Dailly News wouldn't publish the story anymore even though I thought there were a lot of people who had never heard the story and would be interested in it. In spite of this I kept adding more information. And this information came from the most interesting places.As of 7-14-2013 I was updating Joe Baldwin and the railroad ghost story and I noticed that Phil Shepard of the North Carolina General Assembly was interested in this abandoned railroad. I checked on Wikipedia and I found an excellent description of the Wilmington to railroad route from 1890 through 1985. At that time I sent him an e-mail concerning more pertinent information, from Lt. Col. Lynn J. "Kim" Kimball, ret. ;concerning the relationship between the railroad and Camp Lejeune.