Ghost Lights of North Carolina

Eerie Sightings in the Tar Heel State

by J. M. Pressley
First published: August 5, 2013

Ghost lights are a staple of North Carolina lore and legend. Are they natural phenomena, or is there a more unearthly origin for the Tar Heel State's spectral lights?

Fairy fire. Will-o'-the-wisps. Ghost lights. Generations of North Carolina natives have grown up with tales of the Maco Light and the Brown Mountain Lights. And those are just the two most legendary sightings; the Tar Heel State is home to at least ten ghost lights between the mountains and the coast. Are they natural phenomena, or is there a more unearthly origin for the Tar Heel State's spectral lights, which seem to defy logical explanation? Though some, such as the Maco Light, have faded over the years, the enigma of North Carolina's ghost lights has continued to intrigue readers and researchers into the twenty-first century.

Brown Mountain Lights

Brown Mountain near Morgantown is a fairly unremarkable low ridge in the Pisgah National Forest. But starting with the Cherokee natives before the first European settlers came, tales have been told of mysterious pink or reddish orbs that seem to rise from the very mountain itself, waver, and then disappear. The Cherokee believed them to be the souls of their women, still searching for the fallen warriors from a great battle on Brown Mountain between the Cherokee and Catawba tribes. One of the more persistent later legends concerned a local man suspected of murdering his pregnant wife. The lights appeared soon after her disappearance and eventually guided searchers to a ravine near the mountain where they found the skulls of a woman and baby under a pile of stones. The lights can be seen from as far as 20 miles away; though sporadically appearing year-round, locals say the best viewing times are clear nights in the late autumn.

Cove City Light

Nestled at the junction of NC-41 and old NC Highway 70 in Craven County, Cove City is a town of fewer than 500 people. But for over a century, an orange ghost light has made a reputation for the town. According to folklore, hunters once killed a bear cub, but the mother bear escaped into the swamp. Soon after, a woman traveling with her baby to Cove City was surprised by the mother bear coming out of the woods; the bear seized the infant and ran off into the wilderness. Although a search party was quickly formed, neither the bear nor the baby were ever found. The ghostly light that occasionally appears in the night is said by locals to be the mother, still searching for her lost child.

Ephraim's Light

Woodruff House on the outskirts of Seaboard is a preserved plantation home dating from the early 1800s. It also plays host to an eerie yellowish light that occasionally appears in the downstairs windows, seeming to flutter and dart from room to room before vanishing. The legend is that an insubordinate slave named Ephraim was believed to have murdered his owner, Martin Woodruff. Ephraim had escaped the plantation after the murder, but a posse tracked him down and brought him back to enact a horrible vengeance. They burned Ephraim at the stake. Soon after, the light began to appear. The old-timers swear that it's the restless spirit of Ephraim, still bound to the place where he met his awful death.

Maco Light

Fourteen miles west of Wilmington, near the small, sleepy station of Maco, legend has it that a horrific train accident in 1867 led to this eerie light. A flagman on a freight train, Joe Baldwin, was sleeping in the caboose when a violent jerk awakened him. The caboose had detached from the rest of the train and come to a stop on a train trestle that ran over swampy marshland. Joe grabbed his lantern as he heard an oncoming passenger train quickly approaching. Joe tried to signal the other locomotive, frantically waving his lantern, but the other train plowed headlong into the caboose. The impact decapitated Joe and hurled his body into the swamp. Searchers later found Joe's body but not his head. Soon after, a mysterious light began to appear along the tracks near Maco; locals said it was Joe Baldwin searching for his missing head. For decades, this was one of the prominent ghost stories along the southeast coast. When the old tracks were pulled up and the trestle removed in 1977, sightings of the light dwindled away. But the legend of Joe Baldwin and his ghostly lamp lives on.

Mintz Light

Mintz is a small crossroads community in Sampson County, some five miles west of Roseboro. No one would even know its name if it weren't for the frequent sightings of a ghost light along the nearby railroad tracks in the early 1960s. For a time, as the older residents tell it, the appearance was so routine that it became Mintz's first (and last) tourist attraction. Witnesses describe it as a small, bobbing light, like someone swinging an old lantern. There isn't much documented folklore behind this particular light, although it seems to be another variant of railway death in the same vein of the Maco and Vander legends.

Pactolus Light

In 1910, a young teaching student, Edwin Cox, who was enrolled at the East Carolina Teachers Training School (today's East Carolina University) traveled by horseback to the small town of Pactolus. He wanted to surprise the young lady he'd met at school by meeting her at the train station and proposing to her. The train was very late, and as dusk approached, he left to return to Greenville. On the way, however, some local toughs wanted to rob him of his horse. They ambushed and murdered Cox, but the horse escaped and fled riderless back to his home. The young man's family feared the worst; Edwin's body was never found--and according to some versions of the story, his young love died of a broken heart. Soon after, a ghostly light began to appear near the tracks in Pactolus. Legend has it that it's the ghost of Edwin Cox, still out there in the dark trying to signal his lost love, even though the tracks are long gone. And, according to local lore, if you drive your car down the old dirt road where the tracks used to be and flash your headlamps three times, you'll see the light appear in reply.

Vander Light

Just outside of Fayetteville, the small town of Vander lies near the junction of I-95 and Clinton Road. These days the tracks are rusted and the train station is gone. Many years ago, however, ticket master Archer Matthews was standing on the platform one rainy night, waiting on the next train to pass through. He thought he heard a noise out on the tracks; when he leaned out with his lantern to investigate, Matthews slipped off the wet platform and fell on the tracks, knocking himself out cold. The next approaching train didn't spot him until it was too late, and the train ran right over Matthews, killing him on the spot. Not long after came reports of a mysterious light near Vander Station. Even though the station no longer remains, locals say that where it once stood, you can still see the ghost lamp of Archer Matthews at night, forever searching for the source of the noise that led to his death.


Ghosts of the Carolinas (Roberts, 1967), North Carolina Ghosts and Legends (Roberts, 1959), Tar Heel Ghosts (Harden, 1980), Haunted North Carolina, The North Carolina Ghost Guide, North Carolina Ghost Stories and Legends