The legend of the ‘light’ remains intact

Published 4:47 pm Tuesday, March 26, 2024

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Have you seen the light?

By that I mean the ghostly light at Early’s Station (or Earley’s Station for the local purists).

For the 100th-or-so time, I was contacted recently via email from an out-of-state individual who apparently has a penchant for documenting odd or curious folklore. He had heard about the “light” at Early’s Station and wanted to know more about it. So, being the gracious Southern gentleman that I am, I shared the story that this very newspaper has shared countless times….the tale of a mysterious light piercing through the pitch black night. Some say they’ve seen it from a safe distance. Others swear by the fact they’ve been so close that it appeared “as big as a washtub.” Personally, I’ve witnessed it both ways.

And then there are those who said they parked for hours at the Early’s crossing and saw nothing at all.

The Early’s Station Light has long been a fascination to both young and old alike throughout the Roanoke-Chowan region, but the question remains, is there ghost?

It’s a safe guess that over the years, thousands have visited the tree-lined railroad tracks between Early’s Station and Brick Mill Road. Some brave souls have “walked the line” between the two crossings. A few of those claimed to have seen the light in front of them at one moment, and behind them the next.

So what is the light? According to local legend, it represents the haunting glare of a lantern being used to signal approaching trains.

As the story goes, a train conductor ran into problems some where northeast of Aulander and a desperate decision was made to uncouple the last few cars in an attempt to get the train to its destination on time.

The conductor also knew he would have to make the best time to get to his destination and return for the other cars before the next scheduled train made its way along the same stretch of rails.

Because the timing was so critical, the conductor left behind a single crew member with a lantern to signal the oncoming train if in fact it arrived before he could return.

What happened is still a mystery, if anything occurred at all. The legend in these parts goes on to say the first conductor was quickly approaching and watched in horror as the next scheduled train plowed into the rear of the abandoned cars near Early’s Station.

The single crew member was apparently killed, even though he is said to have desperately waved the lantern to signal the oncoming train.

The legend sounds good and, yes, mysterious lights have been seen in the thick wooded areas along the tracks near Early’s Station.

The real mystery, however, is that there is no train wreck of record along this section of track. Or at least, no such wreck took place that anyone recalls.

I checked the archives of this newspaper, which date back to 1914, and there are no such tales.

The most bizarre report of a local mishap involving a train occurred in August of 1942 in the general vicinity of the mysterious light at Early’s Station. It was reported in the Hertford County Herald that a northbound Atlantic Coast Line train collided with a 1930 Chevrolet at the Brick Mill Road crossing near Aulander.

In his report, Patrolman J.S. Hackett revealed that the driver of the car was approaching the crossing just after midnight at which time he was blinded by the headlights of another car. The report showed that the driver “swung the steering wheel and the old automobile proceeded for a short distance down the railroad tracks before it became stalled.”

The driver and his passenger said they walked down the tracks to flag down an approaching northbound freight train, but were unsuccessful. The train’s engine struck the unoccupied car, knocking it 35 yards off the track. No one was injured.

The Early’s Station Light is one of many similar railroad hauntings throughout the south. Perhaps this particular incident occurred prior to 1914.

There is a story that dates back to 1867 when it is said a conductor by the name of Joe Baldwin was killed at Maco Station near Wilmington. In that situation, Baldwin was riding in the rear coach and realized his car had come uncoupled from the rest of the train.

With another train following closely behind, and at greater speed than any distress signal sent would do any good, Baldwin reportedly grabbed a signal lantern and began waving it from side to side from the rear of the coach in an effort to stop the train.

It failed, as the oncoming train crashed into Baldwin’s coach. But he is remembered for staying at his post until the final moment in an effort to prevent the crash.

The account of an actual train wreck near Maco Station and the conductor named Joe Baldwin are believed to be factual.

So what about the light at Early’s Station? Is it a ghost from another time or is it nothing more than a myth? There are some that believe the light is caused by some sort of swamp gas.

Whatever it is, this local mystery involves some sort of light that appears to creep out of the darkened night and lowly sways from one side of the track to the other.

On some occasions, the light has been described as changing color – from a dim yellow or orange to a bright white and sometimes blood red.

Others say the light is a reflection of vehicle headlights/tail lights from the nearby Brick Mill Road crossing. Due to the angle of the Brick Mill Road rail crossing, lights from those vehicles using that crossing can be seen at night from Early’s Station. But the light that has been reported, and not always by people who were familiar with the legend, has never been seen as headlights or tail lights. The eerie spotting of the Early’s Station light almost always appears somewhere between the crossings.

There is no justifiable answer to what causes that mysterious light….just as there are no answers as to why it can be seen at irregular times.

Check it out if you’re brave enough, but remember to be courteous to other motorists using Early Station Road as well as remembering to be quiet since there are homes nearby.

One final reminder…..this is a “working” railroad track, part of a spur line that runs between Nucor Steel and Boykins, VA. With that in mind, if you observe a fairly large light headed in your direction, accompanied by a loud horn, quickly move out of the way…it’s an oncoming train!

Cal Bryant is the Editor of Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact him at or 252-332-7207.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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