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 Cape Fear Legends


The Maco Light

For over a century, mysterious lights were seen bobbing up and down along the railroad tracks near Maco Station, a few miles west of Wilmington. When anyone approached the lights, they would disappear. The lights were observed many times over many years, and even photographed on occasion. It's even said that President Grover Cleveland saw the lights while on whistle stop tour in 1889. The source of these lights has never been determined, but according to legend the light is the ghost of a railroad worker who died on the tracks one night in 1867.

On that tragic night in 1867, a train was rolling along the tracks and the signalman, Joe Baldwin, was sleeping in the caboose. Joe's slumber was broken by a violent jerk. A veteran railroad worker, Joe Baldwin recognized the motion and immediately knew that the caboose had become detached from the rest of the train.

Joe Baldwin's heart started racing. He knew that his one car was now stuck on the tracks, and that the main part of the train was rapidly moving away from him and he had no way of contacting it. Joe also knew that his wasn't the only train scheduled for those tracks that night. A passenger train was due along soon, and if the oncoming train struck the stalled caboose there would be a horrible accident.

Joe Baldwin had a choice to make. He knew that he had to signal the oncoming train to stop. He knew that the only way to do this and be sure the engineer in the approaching train would see the signal was to stand on the platform at the back of the caboose.

Joe Baldwin also knew that it takes a long time to stop a speeding train. Even if the engineer saw the light and stopped, there might be time to slow down enough to prevent a complete disaster, but the chances were good that the caboose was still about to be hit. And Joe Baldwin that if that happened, he didn't stand much of a chance of walking away from that crash.

Baldwin made the heroic choice. Grabbing his lantern, Joe Baldwin stood on the back of the caboose as the sound of an oncoming passenger train rumbled closer. Joe frantically waved his warning light, trying desperately to catch the attention f the engineer.

Joe's plan worked. The engineer of the oncoming train saw the light and pulled hard on his brakes. But the momentum of the tons of speeding steel kept the train moving, and the locomotive slammed into Joe's caboose. Joe's signals had worked. His bravery had prevented a more serious collision. But brave Joe Baldwin was decapitated in the crash.

Joe's head was thrown by the force of the accident into the murky swamps that surrounded the tracks. It was never found. His headless body was buried with hero's honors a week later.

Ever since that night, lights have been seen moving up and down the track around Maco. Sometimes it's only one light, sometimes it's two. People says that it's the ghost of Joe Baldwin, still searching for his missing head.



Orton Hotel

A fire in January 1949 completely destroyed the city's grandest hotel built in 1888. Guests were evacuated, most of them through the front door but some of them were rescued by aerial ladder from the roof. At the time it appeared there was not one single fatality but, after further consideration, rescue workers conceded that one or two unregistered guests must have perished in the flames.

One of the hotel's guests was on his deathbed at a nearby hospital, and his brother arrived that day by train to sit at his bedside. He must have decided to use the hotel room that night without notifying the front desk. During the fire guests reported seeing a man trying to find his way through the smoke-filled hallway, always walking away when they called out to him, and weeks later after the debris of a five-story collapse was cleared away, the brother's burned body was found face down on a charred mattress.

Another mysterious victim was a young tugboat hand seen entering the hotel on the night of the fire, and never seen since. Workers extracted a portion of his skull from the rubble and eventually found approximately one-third of his body. Much speculation has been focused on what might have happened to the other two-thirds.

All that remained of the hotel was a basement and during the 1980s it was renovated into two basement pubs, one of them with a seemingly charmed pool table where balls looked to be guided by some unseen force to the pockets. Disembodied voices were fairly common, muffled and indistinct, footsteps echoed through vacant hallways, toilets flushed themselves and faucets turned themselves on. An apparition has on various occasions introduced himself to bar patrons as Bill—the name of the brother whose body was found intact—and he's been known to excuse himself from conversations in the pool hall to go attend to some business on the fourth floor. The current structure is a one-story building.


The Cotton Exchange

Downtown's most fashionable shop-and-restaurant complex sits in a low-lying area that once abutted an old horse pond and paddock. It was known as Paddock's Hollow or, after a couple drinks, Paddy's Hollow, inhabited during the 1700s by a rough lot of squatters living in lean-tos and rickety shacks. A fire in 1886 wiped out the den of iniquity along with a couple of nearby churches, and the churches relocated and rebuilt, claiming to have taken their graveyards with them.

In the 1970s some entrepreneurs renovated a cluster of old buildings, some of them formerly related to the booming cotton trade of the early 20th century, to become a quaint mix of shopping and dining venues. The complex of stairs, halls and courtyards absolutely reeks of history, but without Hirchak pointing out the less than obvious you might not notice the trap doors, secret passages, earthquake bolts and 19th-century tools of the cotton trade straight out of an old Lon Chaney movie.

The German Cafe is in the old Granary Building, and is frequented by an elegant apparition dressed in flowing Victorian clothing. On the floor above, a carpenter working late at night in the Avon Boutique heard a woman scream and saw a window slam shut—not once but twice. The owner has found her shop redecorated on some mornings and she has named her ghost Henrietta.

The Top Toad is across the hall, and employees have heard hangers clattering on display racks, footsteps walking through the store and muffled voices. Security cameras have caught a shadowy figure more than once and whoever this is—Henrietta or someone else—occasionally tears down signs and throws them on the floor.

Paddy's Hollow is an Irish pub and restaurant located on the northeast corner of the Cotton Exchange about as close to the old church graveyard as it can get. When the bar was closed for renovations the manager saw a tall man with black hair, dressed in black, who swiftly turned and exited through the kitchen. He gave chase and, when he got to the rear kitchen door, found it had boxes stacked in front of it and would have been impossible to open.

The Scoop is upstairs from Paddy's and its many ice cream flavors apparently entice a mischievous little girl ghost who runs her fingers through the wind chimes, presses all the buttons on the kitchen equipment, sweeps napkins off the counter and has even shoved off a few stacks of dishes. Employees have seen her image in the glass case and in a clock that hangs high on the wall. The owner was forced to shout at this child one afternoon when the girl was playing with the owner's hair and pulling the tag out of the back of her shirt.



The Latimer House

Zebulon Latimer came to town in the mid-19th century on the same wave that carried in railroad cars and transatlantic steamers. He made a tidy fortune with stock in the railroad and his enterprise in the dry goods business, met and married Elizabeth Savage and, in 1852, built a 10,000-square-foot Italianate revival house with intricate stone, iron and wood detailing.

Originally the house had a wood fence but at some point the couple went for a carriage ride through Oakdale Cemetery and yanked out the old iron fence surrounding their family plots. After they'd installed the fence around their stately new home, they had nine children, five of whom died before reaching their fifth birthdays.

During the early 20th century an artist named Elizabeth Chant temporarily occupied the house and devoted much of her time to regularly communicating with the spiritual world. It is Hirchak's belief that she—along with the heisted iron fencing from the cemetery—pretty much stirred things up in a historic landmark that would later pass to the Lower Cape Fear Historical Society, to become the LCFHS headquarters open to the public for daily docent-conducted tours.

Some of the dead children have been spotted in and around the house, and from time to time things have gone missing, most particularly a few pairs of glasses. A fire started in the basement in 1981 and contractors went to work removing furniture and repairing smoke damage. They reported strange noises coming from the fourth floor, endless sounds like furniture dragged across the wooden floor, scraping and clattering. And yet there is no furniture on the fourth floor.

A docent found a book of poetry by Emily Dickinson and realized it was a first edition. She consulted with a staff member about the possibility of selling the book to raise funds for the historical society, and they set about typing up some letters and making a few phone calls. When they saw the book of poetry along with a wicker basket levitating and trembling five feet above the floor, they changed their minds and put the book back on the shelf.

The kitchen and dining areas are in the basement, a common practice in old Southern homes to beat the heat, but in this case these areas have been a hotbed of paranormal activity. One volunteer who was vacuuming the tearoom ran up against a chair that hadn't been there one minute and wasn't there again in the next. The smell of pipe tobacco in the after-dinner smoking room is nothing in comparison with a putrid stench that seems to temporarily pervade the kitchen on certain occasions. Some have called it the smell of death itself.

Hirchak has an explanation for this repulsive odor. An enormous cypress table stands at the center of the kitchen, and he contends that this is where the family laid out the bodies of its five dead children. The cellar would be the coolest place to preserve a body and this huge old table would have been ideal. The historical society takes issue with this theory, contending that nobody in their right minds lays out a dead body on a table where they prepare food.

Paradise Alley

In Old Wilmington, known in the early days as New Liverpool, an area between Market and Dock streets, just off Front Street, was a place where attractive young women draped themselves seductively from upstairs windows. Most infamous among these houses of ill repute was a dive known as the Blue Post, run by a six-foot-tall, 350-pound woman by the name of Gallus Meg. Her work as a bouncer was legendary and it is said when she deposited an unruly customer on the pavement in the alley she'd bite off his ear and later spit it into a pickling jar kept for that purpose on the bar.

Luckily there have been no reports of any recent ear biting, but it seems Meg's current mission is to keep men out of the ladies room. Drunks who have stumbled into the wrong restroom by accident have reported a rather large woman moving aggressively to remove them from the premises, and every last one of them has cleared out without letting her do her job.


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