Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Legend of the Blue Light lives on in the St. Croix Valley

The Arcola High Bridge over the St. Croix River north of Stillwater.
Ripple in Stillwater investigation sheds new light on one of the area's most enduring ghost stories

By Karl Bremer

A couple of months ago, John Michaelson was heading back to his rural Somerset, WI,  home in the woods high above the St. Croix River a little over a mile north of the Arcola High Bridge. It was somewhere between and Michaelson, who has lived out there for 11 years, followed the dark county road west along the railroad tracks to where it veers north at the High Bridge and follows the bluffline.

“I came around the corner, and that’s where I saw him,” Michaelson recalls. “I noticed this guy walking along in a northerly direction on the left side of the road with a blue lantern in his hand. He had a blue denim jacket on—looked like an old railroad guy, maybe in his 60s, kind of heavy. I thought it was kind of odd that a guy would be walking down that road that late and carrying a blue lantern.”

Michaelson drove by the old man, a little bit freaked out, and never looked back.

“All of a sudden, it hit me,” Michaelson says. “I just saw the Blue Light.”

The Blue Light. Mention those three words to a St. Croix Valley native and you’re likely to get a wide-eyed reaction underscored by a knowing smile. The legendary local ghost story goes back to at least the 1960s, and probably much earlier.

The Blue Light's origins lie on Arcola Trail, a quiet little township road that loops off of MN 95 toward the St. Croix a mile north of Stillwater.  At about the midpoint of the loop, the road is bisected by the former Soo Line railroad, now owned by Canadian National Railway. After crossing over Arcola Trail, the tracks head eastward into Wisconsin and traverse the St. Croix at a dizzying height of over 200 feet on the magnificent ½-mile-long, five-arch Arcola High Bridge. It’s there, high above this jewel of a river, where most have dared to come in search of the Blue Light in the deep of the night.

Bridges long have been common sites for paranormal activity. They’re often in remote locations and the scene of accidents or other tragedies. Some believe there are spiritual reasons why so many bridges are haunted. The source of the Arcola High Bridge haunting varies from one version of the legend to the next, but in all cases, the Blue Light sightings have always been either on or near the Arcola High Bridge on either side of the river.

There are least a half-dozen variations on Arcola’s poltergeists. The tale I grew up with involved a farmer who lived near the bridge. He went mad, killed his wife and four children and then set fire to his house and hung himself. It was the lonely ghost of this crazed farmer who walked the bridge at night carrying a blue lantern in search of his family. To this day, the crumbling remains of an ancient limestone foundation lie in the woods atop the bluff south of the High Bridge, but there’s no evidence that it’s connected to a mass murder.
An old limestone foundation lies in the woods south of the Arcola High Bridge.

A variation on that story is in the book “Ghost Stories of Minnesota” by Gina Teel. That version has the farmer living below the bridge and working as a track-checker for the railroad. A shower of sparks from a passing train set his house afire and killed his wife and animals. The distraught farmer put a curse on the area and has haunted it ever since with a blue light that glows where the farmhouse once stood.

Michaelson used to come out to Arcola Road as a kid from Stillwater in the ‘70s. He recalls that it was a railroad worker who had been killed on the tracks many years ago, and his ghost continued to walk the tracks with his blue lantern. A 2002 Journal of Contemporary Ethnography article confirms his recollection:

During World War I, it (Arcola High Bridge) was used in transporting ammunition from the Twin Cities to out East somewhere. In case of sabotage (from whom I was never told) the railroad company that owned the bridge had a nightwatchman hired on with the task of keeping the bridge secure. During a dark and rainy night, in the middle of summer, the night watchman started his hourly inspection of the bridge. Upon reaching the middle of the span (between Minnesota and Wisconsin) he happened to get caught on the bridge while an ammunition train was crossing. In the ensuing ruckus that the train and the high winds made, the night watchman fell from the bridge to his death. The story goes on to say that the night watchman’s ghost walks across the bridge on the midsummer anniversary of his death. The ghost apparently carries a green lantern to light his way on his eternal trip across the bridge. Those unfortunate individuals who see this green light apparently end up dead the day after seeing it.

Still others say the ghost is that of a worker who was killed during construction of the bridge sometime between 1909 and 1911, or a farmer out searching for a lost cow with a blue lantern. Some say it’s the dead farmer’s wife—a lady in white—and not the farmer who walks the tracks.

We spent many nights in the ‘60s and ‘70s camped at the foot of the Arcola High Bridge on the Minnesota side of the river. Besides being a prime camping spot, it afforded a clear view of much of the bridge, and the allure of the Blue Light was an added attraction. We’d wait till after to climb the embankment to the top and walk the tracks under the night sky. There was a narrow walkway along the south side of the bridge with a pipe railing. On the other side of the tracks, there was no railing.

The bridge then was operated and regularly used by the Soo Line, so if a train came when you were out in the middle, your choices were to run like hell to either side before the train got on the bridge, hold on tight to the railing or jump in one of the 55-gallon rain barrels placed at intervals along the ½-mile length and wait until it passed.

On one of many unfruitful visits over the years, we got back down to the riverside campsite from a late-night trip up to the bridge, looked back and saw a faint blue light passing over the bridge. No human figure was discernable, just a blue glow drifting slowly from the Minnesota side toward Wisconsin. And then it was gone.

John Koonce lives about a mile south of Michaelson in rural Somerset. You can see the High Bridge through the bare trees about a quarter-mile away from his home of 33 years. He’s heard about the legend of the Blue Light for about as long.

“It was supposed to have been some guy who lived over on the Minnesota side who got killed working on the tracks,” Koonce recalls. “He carried a blue railroad lantern across the bridge.”

Koonce was a cold-typesetter for the Minneapolis Tribune for many years and worked until after . He saw the Blue Light on two or three occasions when he returned home between and

“It was a lantern-sized blue light, just crossing the railroad tracks,” he says with assurance. He saw no figure accompanying it, just the Blue Light glowing in the darkness.

The last time he saw the Blue Light was about 10 years ago.

Mary Smith lived on a farm near Withrow, west of Arcola Trail. She knew of the Blue Light legend, and even spent nights prowling around Arcola Trail looking for it, but she never put much stock in it.

“It was a good excuse to spend a night in the woods with friends trying to scare each other,” she laughed.

In later years, she volunteered with Arcola Mills, the 1847 Greek revival mansion built on the river by lumbermen John and Martin Mower off Arcola Road just north of the High Bridge. Dr. Henry and Katharine Van Meier later owned the estate and after their death, left it under the auspices of the Arcola Mills Foundation, which now operates the house and 50-acres as an historic site and retreat. Visitors to Arcola Mills occasionally would bring up the Blue Light, she says.
This old gypsy wagon was one of several eclectic "cabins" on the Van Meier
estate on Arcola Trail near the High Bridge. It also had a reputation for being
haunted. The disheveled structure is still on the property, now called Arcola Mills.

“They would have different stories about not only the Blue Light but about other ghosts in the area.” However, Smith says, “I’ve only met a couple of people who swear they saw a blue light or greenish-blue light. One man said he absolutely saw a light, to the south of of the mansion.”

She remains a skeptic.

“There are some low areas down there,” she explains. “I think it was will o’ the wisp,” a colloquial term for a natural phenomenon caused by burning swamp gasses. Decaying organic matter in marshes and bogs produces phosphine and methane gases that spontaneously combust on contact with oxygen in the air. The reaction creates a ghostly glow with no apparent source.

“In my opinion, that’s what the light was,” Smith says with equal assurance of those who claim to have seen it.

The Blue Light wouldn’t be the first ghost story debunked by the explanation of will o’ the wisp. But how does that explain all those other accounts of unhinged farmers and dead railroad workers? Is there a kernel of truth in those tales somewhere?

Brent Peterson, executive director of the Washington County Historical Society, says visitors to the WCHS Museum also bring up the Blue Light legend from time to time. The version he was most familiar with was the murderous farmer who torched his house, but he says he has never seen any documentation of events that might have been the genesis of that legend or any of the other ones from Arcola Trail.

It is a fact, however, that on the railroad, a blue light or flag signaled to trains that there was work on the tracks ahead and to proceed with caution. So that aspect of the legend does have some basis in truth.

Buzz Kriesel, who lives in Somerset just south of the High Bridge, says that while he’s never seen anything unusual around there, he has heard an anecdote about a man being killed during construction of the High Bridge in the early 1900s.

Matt Peterson has lived on Arcola Trail close by the High Bridge his entire life. His family built a home on the site of an old farmhouse in 1962. He’s heard about the Blue Light for many years—but says “I’ve never seen anything weird out here.” On the other hand, a relative of his may have had something to do with some sightings.

In the early ‘70s, Peterson says, “I was about six years old when my cousin moved out here from Rice Street. He stayed with us for three years. He used to go down to the river and hang out. It was a big party area.”
Picking up on the local legend, Peterson confides that his cousin “painted a lantern blue and used to hang it off the bridge.”

Will o’ the wisp. Painted lanterns. Was that all it was? Perhaps. Or perhaps not.

Peterson says the version of the legend he’s heard over the years was of the farmer looking for his lost cow. When I told him about the crazy farmer who murdered his family and burned his house down, Peterson paused and then reflected on something else.

“The original farmhouse used to be across the tracks on the north side of the bridge and the barn was down here in our yard. They moved the house down here where our house is now when they put the railroad in. It split their property.”

His family’s house was built on the site of the old farmhouse, he continues. “When we did our remodel job awhile back and dug down into the old farmhouse foundation, we found that it was burned down.”

That’s not all.

Peterson says that 100 years or more ago, a fever swept through the St. Croix Valley and killed many people.

“The people in this farmhouse had four kids and they all died from the fever,” says Peterson. Just two weeks ago, he adds, “We were tearing apart the old foundation of the barn and some people pulled up who said their relatives used to own the old farmstead. They said there’s supposed to be four family members buried right there by the barn.”

So how did the house burn down? Did the farmer torch it? Sparks from the train? Did the separate stories of the fire and the four kids who died from the fever become embellished over the years and morph into a more grisly single tale of murder and mayhem?

Based on what Ripple in Stillwater has learned, it seems the events at the old farmstead on Peterson’s property may be at the heart of some of the Blue Light legends. But it still doesn’t elucidate sightings such as John Michaelson’s.

As long as there is a High Bridge at Arcola Trail, there will be a Legend of the Blue Light. Crazed murderer. Dead trackman. Grieving widow. Lost farmer. Whosever spirit it is that haunts the century-old bridge will endure—at least in the minds of the believers.

For the rest, there’s always the will o’ the wisp.

Arcola High Bridge is a rock star
The Arcola High Bridge on the St. Croix River north of Stillwater is world-renowned among bridge engineers and enthusiasts for its stunning five arches. A steel deck arch design, the Arcola High Bridge was built by the American Bridge Company of New York for the Wisconsin Central Railway between 1909 and 1911. Construction began on the Minnesota and Wisconsin sides of the river simultaneously and the two sides met in the middle. Fifty thousands tons of structural steel were used in its construction.
The Arcola High Bridge was designed by C.A.P. Turner, a structural engineer who also designed the Mendota Bridge across the Minnesota River between Ft. Snelling and Mendota, and the Aerial Lift Bridge in Duluth.

Total length of the bridge is 2,682 feet. Height of the lowest steel to the water at normal level is 184 feet.

The Arcola High Bridge was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1977. Arcola Trail resident Matt Peterson says they get people coming to the door all the time interested in the bridge. “One guy came all the way from Washington to see it this year,” he says.

“Experts have called this bridge the most spectacular multi-span steel arch bridge in the world,” writes bridge aficionado John A.Weeks III. “Others compare the magnificent steel work to that of Eiffel's creations in France.”

The Wisconsin Central merged with other railroads in 1961 to form the Soo Line, which owned and operated it until 1987, when the bridge and tracks became part of Wisconsin Central Ltd. Canadian National Railways (CN) acquired Wisconsin central Ltd. in 2001 and has operated the Arcola High Bridge since.

The Arcola High Bridge celebrated its 100th birthday in June 2011.
The Arcola High Bridge was built to replace the original railroad
crossing about a half mile down river. The old pilings remain in the river.

All photos by Karl Bremer.


  1. Awesome Karl! We have talked about this quite a bit at work this year - most of us being valley folk from way back. We found this online about a young woman looking for her husband

    My bro Kent and his friends used to go out there to party in high school and once had some kind of a scare or sighting, you'll have to ask him sometime.

  2. Consulted with a couple friends who actually spent summers living on the Van Meier property when they still were alive/owned it. Neither remember any "gypsy" cabin shown in the photo. Both state this is not on the VanMeier estate.

    1. Agreed. We spent summers on the Van Meir property as well. I don't recall any haunting stories and never sae the Gypsy cabin.

  3. The gypsy wagon, in fact, is still on the Van Meier property where this photo was taken and has been for many years. You can read about it in the exhibit at the Arcola Mills site.

  4. Karl Bremer...there's a name from the past. My sister Shirley Peterson would always say, "Yep, Karl borrowed my Animals album back in the late 60's and never returned it. I wonder if he still has it."

    Well you? :)

    Dale Peterson.

  5. That's really amazing a structure like this lasting for a hundred years. I'll be sure to share this for sure.

  6. There's more to the dark history of this bridge. On August 10th, 2008, my 20 year old daughter fell through a place where the planks were missing on the footpath of the bridge. She fell over 150 feet to her death. While I know she was trespassing up there, nearly everyone in the Valley has done so. We never learned why those boards were missing--either due to vandalism or an improperly marked construction project. While it's fun to speculate about hauntings and blue lights, my daughter died on this bridge.

  7. Thanks to the engineers and architects, the Arcola High Bridge lasted for years. Hopefully when I grow older and have my grand kids, this bridge would still stand to be seen by the newer generations. This bridge is a legend!

  8. That bridge is a definite architectural wonder right there. I'm sure they put in all the best materials and equipment to get that thing laid down. And to think that it's still around after it first opened in 1911 is a clear feat; a hint to the craftsmanship of the metal beams and bolts holding the bridge together.

  9. Has anyone visited the mansion type Home on the MN side? Approx 1985 - Go to the right side of the Bridge go down the Hill and walk the shoreline down the St. Croix River. Dam ass Scary House on your right off in the woods, newer style Home. It was Huge, Quarantined by the police due to internal Fire Instruction. The Basement had a tunnel that went all the way to the river like an escape route or whiskey Runner and Exit. Secret Rooms a parapet on the Upper Level. Cool place we were checking to shoot a movie at. I would like to know if anyone has any history of this home.

  10. Just a note. The Bridge was owned and utilized by the Soo Line, but the Soo Line isn't owned by the Canadian National. It's owned by the CN's competitor, the Canadian Pacific. That bridge was my strike assignment (should a strike have taken place) in the early and mid-seventies. I was an Office Manager in Freight Traffric/Sales for the Soo and remained with them until the late nineties in numerous positions and states. I'm kind of glad the strike didn't materialize as I would have had to spend my nights walking that bridge. Soo Management worried about possible vandalism to the bridge by striking employees.

  11. Ive driven over that bridge too many times to mention! :-)

  12. Just wanted to no if anybody remembers when a rail car went over the bridge and landed on the Wisconsin side. Like maybe 75feet down. I believe it was on fire. I was just just a kid,im thinking late 60s. I don't no if it was on fire and they derailed it and pushed it down the hill. As to not burn the bridge. Or if it flew of the bridge.

  13. Time to come clean. I'm over 66. The Blue light came about as way to get girls. We invented the flag man.. A little cheap beer and a ghost story worked grate!. It is fun to see how our little story grew legs. The Blue light flagmen story is just that, a story.

  14. I have spent all my summers on the property from about 1959 to 1976. We had a big floating dock and house boat there. The gypsy wagon was on our parcel that we rented from the VanMeier's. I used to sleep in it when our whole famliy was there for the weekend and there was not enough room on the boat. I used to run around that property an look in all the little houses and cabins. There was a cabin north of us in the woods that was called The North Star cabin. A friend of mine would rent for the summers back in the early 70's. Back to the wagon. Ihad found that wagon in the woods with terrs growing all around it and the wheels were buried in the dirt. I asked Mary VanMeier if I could have it and she said yes. I spent one summer cuttuing it out of the trees and digging it out so I could pull it out and tow it to our place. I cleaned it up and did some repairs on it so I could use it as my cabin. There was a bunkbed in there and a little cabinet like a small kitchen. I also had a small pot belly stove which I still have somewhere. Our place was north of the VanMeier's. It had a very long stairway down to the river and onto the dock. The dock is gone now. I think the spring ice took it out. I have many stories about that place and it was a big part of my life when I was growing up. If you would like to know more email me at
    Great memories.
    Paul H.