North Carolina Ghosts

Railroad ghosts

Wilmington was the hub of the Atlantic Coastline Railroad for nearly a century, with major rail lines radiating outward through long stretches of vast and open terrain. The most locally famous haunting is the unexplained lights at Maco Station, 14 miles west of Wilmington in Brunswick County. These lights first appeared soon after the train wreck that killed Joe Baldwin in 1868. Regardless of who is waving this lamp, this light was seen so often by so many that the Atlantic Coastline Railroad was forced to change its signal lights to red and green in order to avoid confusion.

As the story goes, Baldwin was a signalman sleeping in a caboose when he was shocked awake by a violent jerk and the realization the caboose had become detached from the rest of the train. Knowing other trains were scheduled to follow on the same track, he took his lantern to the back of the car and frantically waved it to signal the next train, which was not able to stop. Baldwin was decapitated in the collision and his head was never found. Legend has it that he and his lantern continue to search for his head in the swampy area around the tracks.

Earley Station

In Hertford County a similar phantom light appears at night at a lonely and remote train crossing that was at one time known as Earley Station, and this is an area much too far removed from the swamps for it to be written off as swamp gas. The light has appeared regularly—nightly—since the 1920s and a group of young men in the 1970s got together to try to corner the thing. They parked cars on the tracks at either side of the place it typically appeared, and waited about 40 feet apart, knowing from all previous reports that the light would never approach them. And it didn't. It wavered between them, intensified to a near-blinding brightness, and then disappeared. The next night it was back, business as usual.

The Shoo Fly

In Warsaw a ghost train made a regular appearance every day for years following a cataclysmic accident in November 1906. It was the Norfolk-to-Wilmington run, known affectionately as the Shoo Fly, and when it hit a switch that had accidentally been thrown open, it emitted a screaming, wrenching sound, belched out huge puffs of steam and plowed off the tracks. The engine twisted hideously and overturned. Most of the train remained intact and the passengers survived, but the baggage master was crushed to death and the engineer and firemen were scalded to death.

Investigators concluded that a freight train carrying timber the night before had a stray piece of timber sticking out of the last car that threw the main line switch when it passed by. The twist of irony in this tale is that young Will Horne was the engineer who ran the northbound freight train that threw the switch that killed his father Gilbert, who ran the southbound passenger train the next day.

For many years after that, hikers on the tracks through Warsaw stepped aside when they heard the whistle and saw the headlight. And then they looked all up and down the silent tracks, slowly coming to the realization there was no train at all.

Contemporary and who-knows-why ghosts

At the turn of the 20th century on Wrightsville Beach, Pembroke and Sarah Jones were the origins of the saying, "Keeping up with the Joneses." Their lavish estate, now known as Airlie Gardens, was in the exclusive, gated Landfall community, and their garden parties were legendary. In the spirit of "The Great Gatsby" servants circulated with champagne and fancy hors d'oeuvres while a band played and guests danced.

At one such party Pembroke Jones, Jr. noticed a petite, dark-haired servant girl distributing flutes of champagne and he offered her a ride home when the party was over. She accepted, and the next morning was found dead along the side of Shell Road. Investigating authorities discovered she had recently broken up with her boyfriend and that, coupled with the Jones money and influence, kept the younger Jones from being arrested or charged.

Nevertheless he was ostracized, and soon his vehicle was found overturned with his dead body lying next to it. But it is the servant girl who is believed to be the Airlie Ghost, and she is most often seen along Shell Road—now Wrightsville Avenue—stepping out only briefly from behind a tree and then vanishing.

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