Friday, October 22, 2004

WKIX and the Ghost of Maco Station

For Halloween, here's an appropriate true ghost story from long ago and not too very far away -- Dalton Hammond

Just fourteen miles west of Wilmington is the railroad crossing known as Maco Station, the haunting ground of North Carolina's most infamous ghost, who was the headless subject of radio station WKIX's most extensive news investigation, ever.

Overnight show host Mike Reneiri had just left WKIX in the early 60s but some questions raised during his all-night-show lived on. In the spirit of announcers Joe Pyne (then), or Art Bell (now), Reneiri went to work on listener's malleable post-midnight minds on subjects such as U.F.O.s and 'Will Man Ever Land On The Moon'. Larry Gardner, Chief Engineer who had to be there all night anyway, sat in on the broadcasts and provided fact and clear thinking in non-combative contrast to Reneiri threads.

Everyone's favorite late night topic was "The Ghost of Maco Station", or simply, "The Maco Light." Any Tarheel school child knew the story, and references to the legend were easy to find in most local libraries. In 1867, Joe Baldwin, a conductor on the Wilmington-Florence-Augusta line was killed in a train accident at Maco. His head was never found. Ever since, a mysterious light resembling a conductor's lantern has periodically appeared, near the scene of the accident as if searching for the missing head. Mike Reneiri pumped up the story several times with much discussion and call-ins on his show, but with the mystery still hanging like a mist around KIX's famed four towers, he left to work for a Big Radio Station Up North and scientific thought after midnight came to a stop.

But Larry Gardner saw these things and pondered them in his heart. Months after Reneiri's departure, the Maco story would come up often and Larry would toss a fresh piece of tidbit research at us, like feeding porpoises, until our kollective KIX kuriousities kould stand it no longer. We determined to go learn the secret of The Maco Light.

At various times we sent different expeditions to Maco. Tommy Walker, Larry Gardner and I were among them. I would leave for Wilmington right after I got off the air, taking other Maco groupies along with me. Back then the road from Raleigh to Wilmington was all two lane and it was over a three hour trip, each way.

Larry's research told us that several scientific expeditions including, supposedly, a group from The Smithsonian, had attempted to learn the secret of the Light, with no luck. In like style we used his WKIX walkie talkies to scientifically communicate between our command post in our car parked at the station where the road crossed the tracks and the guys we sent to investigate the trestle where the track crossed the swamp about three quarters of a mile away. The guys at the trestle would shine flashlights, burn matches and lighters, anything they could think of to emulate the ghostly light, but at the car we always correctly identified the light source. Even almost a mile away a match looks like a match, etc. We could see car headlights on the horizon far across the woods, but decided there was nothing ghostly about them, nor could there be.

Despite our best efforts to attract him, the ghost never appeared and after many all-night excursions the WKIX research team gave up and courted the occult no more. A British Invasion was beginning and the Men of Music had other fish to fry.

Working my way up the coastal highways returning from a trip to Florida in 1964 I discovered that I was nearing Maco and I decided to visit the place for old times' sake. I was not working for WKIX at that particular time. As I approached Maco it was getting dark and I parked in the gravel beside the road, no more than thirty yards from the east side of the crossing, to await nightfall. There were no other cars or people anywhere around and if they were I could have easily heard them in the quiet, wooded countryside. I intended to get out and walk down the track when it got dark.

I didn't have to wait that long. Just a few minutes after turning off the ignition I saw something appear over the track only about fifty yards north of the crossing, just in front of the old depot. It was a light! As I watched through the windshield I saw the light grow in a second or two from a tiny flicker to a full flame that reminded me exactly of a lantern, being held waist high over the tracks. I have grown up around kerosene lanterns and have owned some, and this light looked exactly like someone lighting, and then turning up the wick on a kerosene lantern. Same color, brightness, everything. Except that no one was holding the light. At its full brightness it lighted the track and ground and everything else all around it in a large circle and anything holding it could easily have been seen, but nothing was out of place except a dead stick that lay between the tracks several yards from the light, but well illuminated by it. After no more than five seconds of brightness the light began to flicker and dim and in two more seconds was gone. It was not quite dark, I could easily see way past the track to the depot behind where the light had been and there was no one around, and no sounds. I got out of the car and walked to where I had seen the light, sixty paces from the car. I could find no sign of what I had seen. The previously illuminated dead stick I had seen from the car turned out to be a dead snake, but I gave that no significance except to verify the brightness of the light I had seen. I concluded that I still do not believe in ghosts, but that I had finally seen the famous Maco Light, whatever it was. In my life of amateur scientific curiousity I have seen many natural phenomena, swamp gas, etc. and have no explanation for this light I saw from such a short distance away. Every word I have written here is the truth.

New homes and rerouted highways have changed the Maco crossing so that you can't even recognize it anymore and my Internet Maco research tells me that the Light is being seen no more these days. I miss this piece of unexplained Tarheelia and have written these things as I have truly seen them to perpetuate the legend. But our ghostly conductor was never the type to give up easily, and I believe The Ghost Of Maco Station still lurks among us. See if I'm right. Write down the first letter in each paragraph in this story and see what you find lurking IN YOUR OWN HANDWRITING. Sweet dreams.

-- (c) 2004, Dalton Hammond

More of My Radio Stories

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