The railroad was a great technological marvel of the 17th century, but bizarre folklore about trains spread anywhere that railroad tracks were laid.
For instance, there are countless stories of ghost trains, trains that come rolling down the tracks at night but make absolutely no sound. One famous ghost train which used to appear in the American Midwest was apparently an apparition of Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train. Some witnesses said the train was draped in black, as Lincoln’s had been, but it was manned by skeletons.
Railroading in the 19th century could be dangerous, and dramatic accidents led to some chilling ghost stories, such as the tale of the headless conductor.
As the legend goes, one dark and foggy night in 1867, a railroad conductor of the Atlantic Coast Railroad named Joe Baldwin stepped between two cars of a parked train at Maco, North Carolina. Before he could complete his dangerous task of coupling the cars together, the train suddenly moved and poor Joe Baldwin was decapitated.
In one version of the story, Joe Baldwin’s last act was to swing a lantern to warn other people to keep their distance from the shifting cars.
In the weeks following the accident people began seeing a lantern — but no man — moving along the nearby tracks. Witnesses said the lantern hovered above the ground about three feet, and bobbed as if being held by someone looking for something.
The eerie sight, according to veteran railroaders, was the dead conductor, Joe Baldwin, looking for his head.
The lantern sightings kept appearing on dark nights, and engineers of oncoming trains would see the light and bring their locomotives to a stop, thinking they were seeing the light of an oncoming train.
Sometimes people said they saw two lanterns, which were said to be Joe’s head and body, vainly looking for each other for all eternity.
The spooky sightings became known as “The Maco Lights.” According to legend, in the late 1880s President Grover Cleveland passed through the area and heard the story. When he returned to Washington he began regaling people with the tale of Joe Baldwin and his lantern. The story spread and became a popular legend.
Reports of the “Maco Lights” continued well into the 20th century, with the last sighting said to be in 1977.