My middle school band instructor was from a town near Maco, NC, where this tale takes place, and swore up and down that it was true. (I played trombone, known the world over as “the instrument of loooove.” Right? No? Damn, no wonder I couldn’t get any dates.)
In the 1800’s, the railroads were a vital part of travel and commerce throughout the country. One night near the Maco station, the conductor had gone to the rearmost car, when he noticed that it seemed to be slowing down even through they weren’t due to stop. A quick glance showed why: the car had come uncoupled from the rest of the train and was being left behind!
Now, this would have been bad enough under ordinary circumstances, but soon enough the conductor saw a light in the distance and heard a faint whistle. Another train was coming up from behind. In the dark, the engineer would never see the stopped train car in time to avoid a horrible collision!
Hoping the save the lives of the people on the other train, the conductor grabbed his lantern and rushed onto the platform on the back of the car. He waved the lantern wildly, trying to get the attention of the engineer. Alas, it was all for nothing: the second train plowed into the stopped car.
Many people died in the crash, and the valiant conductor was decapitated. Survivors from the train said that the lantern was thrown from his hand and landed upright, still shedding its soft glow over the horrifying scene.
Shortly thereafter, people began to report seeing a mysterious light on the tracks, about the size of an old railroad lantern. Hovering in the air at a consistent height, it would proceed slowly down the track, until it reaches the site of the crash, at which point it abruptly flew off to one side and vanished.
The light can still be seen to this day. Some folks from the area claim that if you look hard enough, you can see the conductor behind the light…only instead of trying to stop an oncoming train, he is now searching for his missing head.