The Arcola High Bridge over the St. Croix River north of Stillwater.
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
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. St. Croix Valley
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
and traverse the Wisconsin St. Croix at a dizzying height of over 200 feet on the magnificent ½-mile-long, five-arch . 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. Arcola High Bridge
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
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. Arcola High Bridge
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
, but there’s no evidence that it’s connected to a mass murder. High Bridge
|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
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: Stillwater
During World War I, it (
) 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 Arcola High Bridge and Minnesota ) 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. Wisconsin
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
on the Arcola High Bridge 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. Minnesota
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
side toward Minnesota . And then it was gone. Wisconsin
John Koonce lives about a mile south of Michaelson in rural
. You can see the Somerset 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. High Bridge
“It was supposed to have been some guy who lived over on the
side who got killed working on the tracks,” Koonce recalls. “He carried a blue railroad lantern across the bridge.” Minnesota
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
. 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. High Bridge
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.
DOES THAT EXPLAIN EVERYTHING?
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
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. WCHS Museum
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
just south of the Somerset , 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. High Bridge
Matt Peterson has lived on Arcola Trail close by the
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. High Bridge
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.
BURNING DOWN THE HOUSE
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
and killed many people. St. Croix Valley
“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
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. Stillwater
As long as there is a
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. High Bridge
For the rest, there’s always the will o’ the wisp.
Arcola High Bridge is a rock star
on the Arcola High Bridge St. Croix River north of 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 Stillwater and Minnesota sides of the river simultaneously and the two sides met in the middle. Fifty thousands tons of structural steel were used in its construction. Wisconsin
was designed by C.A.P. Turner, a structural engineer who also designed the High Bridge across the Mendota Bridge Minnesota River between and Mendota, and the Ft. Snelling in Aerial Lift Bridge . 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
to see it this year,” he says. Washington
“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
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 since. Arcola High Bridge
celebrated its 100th birthday in June 2011. Arcola High Bridge
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.