Swinging lanterns, headless baggage, and other wrecks

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The Maco Light is a relatively famous story about an 1867 Wilmington-Manchester train wreck in North Carolina and of one Charles “Joe” Baldwin, whose ghost, it is said, haunted that stretch of track until it was pulled up in 1977.

According to the story, Joe, on shift as conductor for the railroad in the caboose, noticed a slowing of his car, only to discover that the caboose had become uncoupled with the rest of the train. Realizing that the slow-moving car posed a grave danger to the fast-moving train following directly behind, Joe grabbed his signal light, headed to the back rail of the platform and frantically tried to warn the engineer in the following locomotive.

Witnesses to the accident reported that Joe stayed where he was, waving the lantern, to the bitter end. According to some versions of the story, just before the engine collided with the car, Joe’s lantern was hurled away and rolled over and over again, finally coming to rest in a perfectly upright position.

Some versions of the tale say that the coach was completely demolished and Joe was killed, his head severed from his body, however, newspaper accounts have him dying days later in the hospital.

Shortly after this horrible accident, the Maco light began to appear along the train tracks and continued to appear to hundreds of viewers over the years until the tracks were pulled up in 1977 – although accounts say the light can still be seen on the abandoned rail bed with the most recently recorded sightings in 2009.

Here in Colorado, on the Rio Grande Southern between Rico and Dolores, I have encountered several similar yarns.

Mary Joy Martin, in her book “Something in the Wind: Spirits, Spooks & Sprites of the San Juan,” offers the following account.

“The freighter, hauling a heavy load of timber and ore was flying down the track below Rico, heading to Durango. A brief stop was scheduled for Rio Lado, where a few section men were to disembark for their bunks at the section house. The train had just passed Milepost 70 and the Montelores passing track. Staring into the engulfing gloom of night, made all the blacker by the deep narrow valleys and canyons of the Dolores River, engineer Tom Quine concentrated on the track where the headlight beam reached. The sky was moonless and the black-robed seemed to close in tighter, their summits higher.”

It was then, according to Martin’s account, that Quine first saw the light.

“Far ahead a signal light appeared, like a pinpoint hovering from side to side above the track. Quine strained to see it. It was gone. He shrugged, gave it over to ‘tricks of the night.’ The sound of the train throbbed against the silent forests, the only sound beneath the moonless sky, a rhythmic, soothing tune to the engineer. He took a long draw on his pipe and relaxed, although keeping a vigilant eye on the track ahead.

The light appeared again and Quine, to assure himself that he wasn’t seeing things, asked fireman Ed Slick to take a look. The fireman saw nothing, Martin wrote.

The signal light appeared and Quine whistled to get the brakeman to slow the train.

“ … And suddenly the swinging lantern seemed to be only a short distance away.

Yelling for Slick to come and see for himself, Quine and the crew brought the train to a steaming, squealing stop within yards of the signaler. The crew jumped out, running ahead of the engine to see who was signaling and why.”

Nobody, with signal or otherwise, was discovered anywhere near, but a dangerous mound of rock, gravel and earth that had washed down from the steep canyons, covered the tracks just in front of them. The phantom signaler, it is said, probably saved the crew’s lives.

“At the original, higher speed of the train, Tom Quine would have been unable see the muck in time, causing a wreck,” says Martin.

Another RGS railroad story bearing some of the marks of the Maco Light incident was related by Dan Asfar in “Ghost Stories of Colorado.”

Asfar describes a mysterious, heavily tattooed man who put his neck on the tracks in the Telluride Depot.

“Nothing is known about the man’s motivation, but he had long been considered one of the town’s more idiosyncratic citizens. After the incident, his apparition was encountered several times by clerks watching over baggage cars out of Telluride. Low miserable moans coming from one of the baggage compartments alerted these clerks that something was amiss. It was just a matter of swinging open a single door and a baggage clerk would be traumatized for life. For there, standing on the other side of the door, was the headless man, his arms and torso bedecked in tattoos of women and religious icons from myriad faiths, holding his own bleeding head aloft with an outstretched arm.”

And one fairly recent account of a documented accident sounds eerily similar to the Maco Light yarn, without the disastrous effects and resultant hauntings.

In the Dolores Star dated Sept. 29, 1950, Hartley Lee writes about it in his Hart’s Stuff from Rico column.

“Friday sure was a bad day for old Puffin’ Jennie when 445 and caboose was rocking along a half mile this side of the high bridge, when the tender jumped the track and went over the hill, was a darn good thing that the coupling unhooked from the outfit or the caboose would have gone with it. Talk about a mess, they really had one, but the most disastrous part of the whole event was when conductor Phillips who was cooking his supper lost his spuds, says they were scattered all over the floor and under the bunks, while the coffee pot went rolling out the door. Due to the fact that the tender was so far over the hill, it was decided to push it on over and let it land on the highway below.

Then they had Roy with the county cat to pull it back to the crossing where it was put on the rails again. Now if that wasn’t honey of a deal seeing that tender down on the road behind a cat. You know if a guy was smart, he could write a book about the old RGS and it would be the best seller in the country.”

Maybe so. And it might be as famous, well known and imitated as the Maco Light yarn.

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