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.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

State Auditor hammers City of Stillwater over $80,000 donation to bridge lobbyists, sends matter to Washington County Attorney

Stillwater City Attorney Dave Magnuson was
taken to the woodshed by the State Auditor.

By Karl Bremer

When the Office of State Auditor found the City of Stillwater to be in violation of state Tax Increment Financing (TIF) laws over a controversial $80,000 “donation” of TIF funds the city made to a lobbying group this summer, Stillwater City Attorney Dave Magnuson convinced the City Council to challenge the Auditor’s ruling. This week, the State Auditor slapped down Magnuson’s novel legal arguments, citing numerous inconsistencies in the City’s earlier statements, and again ruled that the $80,000 lobbying expense to the Coalition for the St. Croix River Crossing “is not a qualified expenditure of tax increment” from the city’s TIF District No. 1.

In an October 21 letter, Assistant State Auditor Arlin Waelti informed  Mayor Ken Harycki and the City Council that the matter is being forwarded to the Washington County Attorney for enforcement.

The matter came before the State Auditor as a result of complaints filed by myself and Stillwater historian Don Empson.

Harycki, who has been the driving force behind the $80,000 donation to the Coalition that he co-chairs, last month vowed to take the money from other city funds if they failed to convince the State Auditor of the propriety of using TIF monies.

The Coalition returned the $80,000 to the city in September. However, city officials balked at complying with the State Auditor’s initial ruling when it found out that under state statutes governing the use of TIF funds, a large portion of the money would be diverted to the county and school district rather than back to the City’s TIF fund as a penalty for the City’s misappropriation of them. No one seemed certain how much the City would lose. Figures ranging from $40,000 to $60,000 were thrown around during discussion of the matter at a special city council meeting September 13.

“I think they didn’t get it right,” Magnuson told the city council. But the OSA clearly ruled that it was Magnuson’s who didn’t get it right.

In its response to the OSA, which Magnuson wrote, the city argued that the $80,000 was not a donation after all, but rather, a “pass-through to lobbyists under an implied contract with the nonprofit.”

The OSA strongly disagreed.

“The City is wrong on the facts,” wrote Waelti. “During the OSA’s review of this matter, the City and the Coalition repeatedly and consistently described the City’s payment to the Coalition as a “donation.” The Coalition’s Executive Director, the City Administrator, and the City Attorney each described the payment as a “donation.” In addition, the City Administrator and the City Attorney each specifically denied that the City had a contract with the Coalition.”

Furthermore, Waelti noted, “The City did not pay the Coalition based upon invoices submitted by the Coalition for services rendered to the City. The city’s payment to the Coalition was purely gratuitous … Minnesota law generally requires a written itemization of claims prior to payment, and the vendor must declare that the money is owed and no part of it has been paid. The lack of supporting documentation for expenditures has historically resulted in OSA findings of noncompliance with the TIF Act. The City’s $80,000 payment was not made in response to a claim/invoice for services rendered. It was a donation, and the City has no assurance of what, if anything, it might receive from the Coalition in return.”

The City argued that it doesn’t always have contracts with lobbyists, but the OSA noted that “is also contrary to the City’s own prior conduct. According to reports the City provided to the OSA, the City has expended $728,193 for contracted lobbyists from 1996-2008.”

Waelti wrote that “The City fails in its efforts to re-characterize the donation as a pass-through to lobbyists.” But even if the OSA were to accept that argument, he continued, that action “would thwart Minnesota’s lobbying disclosure laws.” The Coalition’s executive director, Mike Wilhelmi, is a registered lobbyist for the Coalition but not the City, and the Coalition has declared all contracts with its lobbyists to be “non-public, trade secret” documents. “Under the City’s new theory,” Waelti states, “a city could hire lobbyists through another entity, and the lobbyist would never need to report that the lobbying was being done on the City’s behalf.”

The OSA also took issue with Magnuson’s contention that lobbying for the new bridge would benefit the TIF District from which the $80,000 was taken, even though the bridge is nowhere near the TIF District or even in the city, because the old lift bridge that it will replace is in the district.

“First, the City tries to divert attention from the construction of a new St. Croix River bridge located outside the City to the closing of the Historic Lift Bridge,” Waelti writes. “However, the Coalition’s stated lobbying effort is to obtain an exemption from the Federal Wild [and Scenic] Rivers Act to allow construction of the new bridge. No change in the Wild [and Scenic] Rivers Act is needed to close the Lift Bridge. Therefore, the closing of the lift bridge does not require the Coalition’s services.”

Waelti went to point out that the City’s contention that the new bridge would bring other benefits to the TIF District is off base too.

“Such an expansive use of tax increment for activities outside a city’s boundaries would be unprecedented and is not authorized by the TIF Act.”

Waelti also rejected Magnuson’s “attempts to equate lobbying efforts by the nonprofit Coalition for a new bridge located outside the City with promoting developments within a district.”

“The Coalition claimed that its efforts were attempting to influence federal legislative action by obtaining a change in the Federal Wild [and Scenic] Rivers Act—lobbying activity at the national level.” However, TIF law “to promote developments within a district does not extend to attempts to influence federal elected officials. A donation of tax increment to a nonprofit corporation that states it is lobbying to change federal law so a bridge can be constructed outside Tif District 1 is not a qualified expenditure of tax increment from the City’s TIF District No. 1.”

“The City failed to resolve the OSA’s finding of noncompliance,” Waelti concludes. As a result, this matter is being forwarded to the Washington County Attorney as required” by state law.

Read the Office of State Auditor's final ruling letter here.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Call of Mt. Hope Cemetery

The Berry family plot beckons visitors in Afton's Mt. Hope Cemetery.
A little-known piece of St. Croix Valley history slumbers in the peaceful hills above Afton.

By Karl Bremer

Above the sleepy St. Croix River town of Afton in the late 1960s, an axle-challenging, one-lane road carved a steep path up a wooded hillside to an ancient, unkempt cemetery on top that was straight out of Edgar Allen Poe. It wasn’t on any map or in any guide book. You pretty much had to be taken there by someone in the know, but if you grew up here, that wasn’t hard to find.

We knew the old graveyard simply as the Old Afton Cemetery back then; its official name is Mt. Hope Cemetery. It was the kind of place you discovered as a teenager when you wanted to do things you couldn’t do at home. You know, catch a buzz, cop a feel. The more remote the better. For most of us, that meant as soon as we knew someone with a driver’s license. We always assumed it was sort of legal to be up there, but such details would have mattered little then anyway.  
William J. Owen died October 28, 1866.
The cemetery had no apparent boundaries. There was no sign announcing your arrival. It just sort of ethereally appeared on the side of the road when you reached the top of the hill. Remnants of tombstones leaned against trees scattered deep in the woods. A small grove of cedar trees in formation like whispering sentries with crumbling, lichen-etched headstones propped against their peeling trunks. A creepy family plot bound by a disheveled wrought-iron fence with a clanking gate that dared you to come inside.  

Oddly enough, ghosts were never part of the lore of the Old Afton Cemetery, but that didn’t stop us from looking for them. Whatever spirits may have been up there kept to themselves, because we never saw anything of another world. We revered the graveyard as a kind of sacred grounds not to be disturbed, but weren’t aware of the true historical significance of the ground—and the unmarked graves below—that we were treading on.  

Several Civil War veterans are buried among the 40 marked graves here; more are likely buried in the estimated 60 unmarked graves scattered throughout the woods, says Ken Martens, vice president with the Afton Historical Society who has extensively researched Mt. Hope Cemetery and its occupants. Martens led a tour of the graveyard on a brisk October afternoon recently for about 85 of the cemetery-curious.

The first grave in Mt. Hope Cemetery that was marked with a monument was in 1854. Prior to that it was just a “burial ground,” Martens explained, with many graves marked only with rocks for headstones and footstones.  

The cemetery was officially dedicated in 1855 on 5 acres donated by the Haskell and Getchell families, two of Afton’s earliest settlers. Charles Getchell had a sawmill and a grocery in Afton and later was a Quartermaster for the Union in the Civil War. Charles’ wife, Electa, is credited with naming Afton after a Robert Burns poem, “Afton Water.” Both Charles and Electa are buried in Mt. Hope. 

Sam Paterson built Afton’s first hotel. It burned down and in 1861, he also joined the Quartermaster Corps. When he returned from the war, he started a general store in Afton with his only surviving son. Another son, a daughter and his wife preceded him in death. They’re buried in a small plot Martens called “Paterson Square.” 

Isaac Van Vleck, a Stillwater lawyer, lost a grandson in 1861 and the following year, joined the 8th Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment at the age of 50. He went west with the Regiment to fight the Indians at the Sioux frontier, including the Battle of Killdeer Mountain in North Dakota in 1864. He was also at the surrender of the Confederate Armies in 1865. Van Vleck died in 1880 and is buried at Mt. Hope, along with his seven-year-old grandson, Willy Van Vleck. 
Rev. Simon Putnam, one of at least four
Civil War veterans buried in Mt. Hope.
Rev. Simon Putnam lived in what is known as Afton’s “Little Red House” when he organized the village’s first congregational church. He was a chaplain with the 3rd Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment and helped recruit many of its volunteers, according to Mertens. His son, Myron, also signed up. He and his son fought the Indians at the Wood Lake Battle in Yellow Medicine County, Minnesota, in 1862 when they returned from the war but both died shortly after they were discharged and are buried at Mt. Hope.

The Berry family occupies the plot inside the wrought-iron fence. David Berry left England in his 30s and came to America to fight the Seminole Indian wars in Florida. He returned to England twice and came to Minnesota on his third visit to America. He went up north to work in the lumber camps of the “pineries” and then he and his wife, Elizabeth, settled in Afton. Their son, Charles, was the first marked burial in Mt. Hope in 1854. His seven-year-old brother, Henry, died the following month. David Berry was the last recorded burial in Mt. Hope in 1892, until the city approved a special burial there in 2004.

The Guernsey family plot is inside the stately cedar grove. Known to be buried here are Bertha C., Edward H., George A., Josephine E., and Rolla A. Guernsey. Others are likely there, but the tombstones are so badly damaged and scattered it’s hard to discern who belongs where. 
The Guernsey family--and possibly more--are buried inside the cedar grove.
“Planting cedar trees was a common practice in Victorian-era cemetery culture,” Martens explained. “They planted evergreens as a symbol of eternal life, everlasting life.” 

The Cushing family plot is marked by an unusual monument made of “New Jersey zinc.” Charles Cushing arrived here in the 1850s and volunteered with the 7th Minnesota Infantry Regiment in 1864 when they offered him a $100 bounty.  They made him a musician and after serving in Alabama, he returned to open Afton’s second hotel, The Cushing House, which today is the Afton House Inn. Up to six Cushings could be buried in this plot, according to records posted at the cemetery. 
The three Stouffer children buried here died within three weeks of each other.
A lone monument in the woods marks the grave of the three Stouffer children—George W. (7 yrs.), Amanda J. (3 yrs.) and John A. (5 yrs.)—who died within three weeks of each other in June 1855. One source attributed it to “putrid sore throat,” an infection that took the lives of many children during that era. 

Martens demonstrated the fascinating technique he uses to search for unmarked graves in the “burial grounds” part of the cemetery. Tramping through thickets of buckthorn, he paused at a small spot that was free of the invasive brush. Buckthorn doesn’t grow in areas where the soil has been disturbed, Martens said, hinting that a grave might be below.
Ken Martens uses a small rake to locate
unmarked graves in Mt. Hope Cemetery.
He scratched around the opening with a small, long-handled rake in search of a particular type of sedge grass that remains green even through the winter. This was planted on top of graves much like the plantings of evergreens, a part of the “cemetery culture.” When he finds some in the buckthorn opening, he gets down to inspect the ground closer, tracing the sedge grass plot and looking for large stones that may have served as a headstone or footstone but are now hidden under years of decaying grass and leaves. A slight depression in the ground between two such stones may be further evidence of a burial below. Then magically, the faint outline of a grave long ago consumed by Mother Nature becomes visible. How many more are hidden in this old hill?

By 1870, cemeteries were required to keep paper records of their burials. But because no cemetery association for Mt. Hope had ever formed, this was never done for the little graveyard on the hill. Now, laments Martens, “We’re losing our history because all we have are the stones.”

Edith O. McDonald’s grave was particularly nettlesome for Martens to decipher. It was marked by a simple stone in the woods away from the other gravesites. The year of death chiseled in it was “185?” with the fourth numeral illegibly chipped. Martens deduced that a “3” or an “8” were the most likely numerals to have chipped off. 

After researching census, newspaper and Civil War records for years in his quest to identify every possible grave in Mt. Hope, Martens eventually came across an item in an area newspaper about a local couple named “McDonald” who had died in a ferry accident on the Mississippi River at Hastings in January 1858. They had a child who had died earlier, so with all the other pieces in place, Martens determined that child was Edith and that she had died in 1853.

“It only took me 40 years,” Martens laughed.
Here lies C.A. Wemple (no date).
Mt. Hope Cemetery gets a little more attention these days but is by no means a popular tourist Mecca. Afton Coulee Ridge Road, the name given to the rutted trail we used to navigate up the hill to the Old Afton Cemetery, is slightly better maintained, but it remains relatively unknown to anyone but St. Croix Valley locals and cemetery hunters. There’s a single parking spot for visitors off to the side before you reach the top. A kiosk built by Eagle Scout Garren Riemenschneider of Afton’s Troop 226 in November 2005 informs visitors about the known burials and shows a map of the archeological survey done there in 2000.
The old observatory platform is barely standing.
An old wooden observatory platform in the woods on the edge of the hillside is still standing, but the once-breathtaking vista of the Afton Hills it afforded is now obscured by full-grown trees.

Patrick Tierney, who was involved with the Afton Historical Society for many years and had a special interest in the preservation of Mt. Hope Cemetery, was buried here at the age of 52 in 2004 after the Afton City Council granted special permission to his wish.

“Patrick Tierney thought that if he were buried here, somebody would always take care of this place,” says Martens.

Other than Tierney, the cemetery has seen no burials since David Berry was put to rest here in 1892. What little maintenance that gets performed on this hidden gem sequestered in the hills above Afton is done by volunteers like Martens. It's an ongoing task because with every new generation comes a new round of vandalism, he sighs.

I still get up to the Old Afton Cemetery at least once a year. It usually calls in the fall when the ghosts of lives past stir old dreams from their cobwebs. No matter how many times I return, I always know it won’t be my last. That visit will be when my roasted bones are scattered beneath the cedar trees of Mt. Hope to mingle with the rest, waiting to send shivers up the spines of future generations of youthful visitors.

That’s one trip up the hill to the Old Afton Cemetery I’m in no hurry to make.

Click here for directions to Mt. Hope Cemetery.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Minnesota Democrats giving a helping hand to Klobuchar-Bachmann Boondoggle Bridge

House Natural Resources Committee votes bill to floor as no-show Bachmann campaigns in Iowa

By Karl Bremer

Almost 20 years ago, I stood with Paul Wellstone on the veranda of a large Stillwater Victorian home overlooking the St. Croix River from halfway up Myrtle Street hill.  It was a fundraiser for Paul’s campaign, and I managed to corral him for a few minutes to talk about the proposed freeway bridge across the St. Croix River.

I directed his gaze south of Stillwater, and asked how he’d like to see a massive new bridge crossing the federally-protected St. Croix River bluff-to-bluff, which then, as now, was being heavily promoted by business and development interests. Paul winced, knowing full well how close to their heart many of his supporters held the St. Croix River and the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act. He also knew how desperate other factions of his own party were to push this bridge forward, despite the federal prohibition against adding new structures on rivers protected under the Act.

The conflict went even deeper than that. One of Paul’s heroes and mentors, Walter Mondale, was the Senate co-author of the Act in 1968, and still had a place on the river.

“The passage of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act was one of the proudest moments of my political life,” Mondale told the Department of Natural Resources’ Minnesota Conservation Volunteer magazine in 2006. “Still, I've always recognized the designation as a starting point for protection of the St. Croix. It bought us some time, perhaps. But sustaining the values of the St. Croix will require that each generation make a renewed commitment to the cause. We will need to be most vigilant on the local level, making land-use decisions carefully and responding to threats to the riverway as they arise.”

Paul never responded to my question out on the veranda that day with anything more than that quizzical grin of his that suggested he was listening. I wouldn’t presume to guess whose side he ultimately would come down on. He never had to make that choice. But I’d like to think that he would have erred on the side of the river, and not greedy business interests and Wisconsin land developers, if he were faced with the decision of whether to circumvent the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act  as one of his successors, Amy Klobuchar, now seeks to do.

Klobuchar, a Democrat up for re-election next year, is the author of the Senate version of Rep. Michele Bachmann’s bill, H.R. 850, to do an end-run on the Act. Yesterday, the House Natural Resources Committee amended Bachmann’s bill to adopt Klobuchar’s language, and then moved the bill to the House floor. Minnesota’s other Democratic senator, Al Franken, supports the Klobuchar-Bachmann bill, which will likely grease the skids for its passage in that chamber. Democratic Governor Mark Dayton, after initially announcing that all bridge options were on the table, abruptly reversed himself a month later and became an enthusiastic supporter of the Klobuchar-Bachmann bridge.

Proponents of the massive $690 million freeway bridge have waged a disingenuous—and sometimes secretive—lobbying war of misinformation. Klobuchar and Franken have pitched the Klobuchar-Bachmann bill as a “one-time exemption” and tried to downplay the potential for it to set a “dangerous precedent” for future such exemptions, as Mondale has predicted.  However, former Congressman James Oberstar, longtime chair of the House Transportation Committee, told a recent forum on the Stillwater bridge to pay no attention to claims that so-called one-time exemptions will not set a precedent. In his 35 years in Congress, Oberstar said, he’s seen such promises broken “over and over again.” He’s even been guilty of it himself, he confessed.

Klobuchar also has leaned on the reprehensible excuse that because there’s already a power plant on the river south of the proposed bridge site—Xcel’s Allen S. King plant—adding another scar to the face of the St. Croix nearby makes perfect sense. What she fails to mention is that the Lower St. Croix River was brought under the protection of the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act in 1972, in large part, to prevent another riverway development like the King plant from despoiling it.

Bachmann introduced her legislation to make it appear like she was doing something in Congress. But as with everything else on her legislative agenda, she has abandoned it in favor of her self-promotional run for president. She didn’t even bother to show up for the only full committee hearing for her marquee bill yesterday; she was in Iowa campaigning instead.

So what’s gotten into Klobuchar and Franken, and DFL Governor Mark Dayton? One source, a transportation consultant and former longtime congressional staffer, told me recently that the word in Washington is that Klobuchar introduced her bill to inoculate herself again a Bachmann claim to victory on the bridge should Bachmann challenge Klobuchar in 2012, which long has been rumored. The same source said Franken truly wasn’t wild about supporting the bridge, but was only doing it to provide cover for Klobuchar. Dayton’s erratic behavior and flip-flops on the issue, according to several sources, is inexplicable but not surprising.

Bachmann’s bill was amended yesterday to adopt the language of Klobuchar’s. It was later passed out of the House Natural Resources Committee on a 30-14 vote, with all Republicans voting in favor and all but four Democrats voting against. It was passed out of a House subcommittee earlier this year on a voice vote. The next stop will be a full House vote. Klobuchar’s bill has had one subcommittee hearing to date.

If the Klobuchar-Bachmann bill to open the flood gates for billion-dollar bridge exemptions to the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act becomes law, the blame will rest squarely with Minnesota Democrats Klobuchar, Franken and Dayton. Bachmann never could have passed this bill on her own. She has shown zero interest in anything but promoting herself for president since she first began publicly speculating about running last year, and has not cast a single House vote since August 1.

Once Klobuchar and Bachmann get their way, river advocates everywhere should be on their guard. Despite the authors’ claims to have written a tightly drafted bill that will trash only the St. Croix River, the next time developers on any protected river want to change the rules of the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act, they’ll merely have to point to the Klobuchar-Bachmann Boondoggle Bridge exemption and say “I want mine now.”

I hope environmentalists remember this come election time when their boondoggle-supporting “friends” in Washington and St. Paul seek their expected endorsement and vote. They should say “Thanks, but not this time.” Because for some of us, this is our BWCA. Our Everglades. Our Glen Canyon. Cramming this bridge down the throat of our St. Croix River and spitting on the legacy of one of the greatest pieces of natural resources legislation ever passed will be an unforgivable sin that we will not soon forget.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Spotty's Spot

Spotty over at The Cucking Stool put together this nice promo video for our upcoming book, featuring the folks at Drinking Liberally and the words of Michele Bachmann. We were kind of hoping we could get Michele herself to make an appearance in it, but she seems to have lost her way back to the district.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Ripple in Stillwater celebrates first anniversary online

By Karl Bremer
It’s been quite a first year for Ripple in Stillwater.

I published my inaugural post here on October 3, 2010, followed by the latest in a series of investigative articles I had written throughout last year on a fraudster known as “Bobby Thompson.”

That series of articles, which appeared here and on, was virtually ignored by the mainstream media, but not by the Minnesota Society of Professional Journalists, which awarded it 2nd Place in the special category of “Best Use of Public Records” in its 2011 Page One Awards. It also resulted in an investigation by the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Disclosure Board, which found “Thompson” guilty of making fraudulent campaign contributions in Minnesota as my earlier investigations had found. The CFB fined “Thompson,” who is on the lam from other state and federal investigations, $21,000. 
Frank Vennes Jr.
That was far from the only exclusive Ripple in Stillwater has broken in its first year. The malpractice lawsuit filed against GOP gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer last year in the weeks before the 2010 election was first reported here. The twisted history of Michele Bachmann’s track-suited pastor pal “Bradlee Dean,” lead homobigot at the Annandale hate “ministry” You Can Run But You Cannot Hide International, was exposed on Ripple in Stillwater. The continuing saga of Michele Bachmann’s subsidy-reaping family farm in Wisconsin, first reported by me in 2007 and updated here this year, continues to dog her campaign. Likewise, Ripple in Stillwater has been the go-to source for the story on Bachmann’s Ponzi pal Frank Vennes Jr., the convicted money launderer and campaign contributor for whom she solicited a presidential pardon. The mainstream media is still playing catch-up on that story.

Ripple in Stillwater’s exclusive, in-depth look at the unsolved murder of legendary Stillwater storekeeper Caton Felix prompted widespread media coverage on the 30th anniversary of his death last year. We've helped bring some sunlight to the shady lobbying shenanigans the City of Stillwater has engaged in regarding the proposed freeway bridge across the St. Croix River. And you’d never have heard about the Stillwater Sasquatch if Ripple in Stillwater hadn’t broken the story.

I’ve been able to indulge my own musical interests by publishing stories of personal heroes Dave Ray, Lil' Band O’ Gold, the Radiators, and James McMurtry, without first having to secure the imprimatur of the gatekeepers at mainstream media outlets. Stay tuned—there’s plenty more where that came from.

Ripple in Stillwater also has served as a repository for old articles deserving of a second life, like my Paul Wellstone interview from The Progressive in 1991. Look for more of those nuggets in the future as well.

The cherry on top is the forthcoming book on Michele Bachmann I and my two compatriots from, Ken Avidor and Eva Young, have coming out in early December. For a decade, the local media slumbered through Bachmann’s rise in politics while we toiled away at documenting it. So when Bachmann’s political star began rising and a major New York publishing house went looking for someone to write the book on her, they tapped us. The book, The Madness of Michele Bachmann: A Broad-Minded Survey of a Small-Minded Candidate, is a compilation of years’ of material we’ve written about Bachmann on our respective websites.

Thanks for stopping by in the past year, whether you’re friend or foe. Your interest is appreciated, as are your links and acknowledgments. With your help, our total visits just rolled over 100,000 tonight on our first anniversary! Thanks, also, to the friends, family and professional colleagues who have encouraged me to keep on keepin’ on. I’m just gettin' warmed up, so stick around.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Bachmann Boondoggle Bridge legislation up for markup in House committee October 5

The markup on Republican Congresswoman Michele Bachmann’s bill to do an end-run around the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act in order to build her Boondoggle Bridge across the St. Croix River is Wednesday, October 5, in the House Natural Resources Committee.

Bachmann’s bill, H.R. 850, is one of about 20 bills the committee is expected to deal with at Wednesday’s meeting, which begins at 9 a.m. CST. It will be streaming live online at the committee’s website.

Minnesota Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar has introduced a Senate version of Bachmann's bill, S.1134, that was heard in the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks July 28.

You can use this form to send the committee your comments on Bachmann’s legislation. For some ideas on where else in Minnesota we could spend $360 million on bridge repair and replacement rather than this Bridge to Nowhere, you can start with this recent report. To discuss the issue of the precedent this bridge would set for other rivers protected under the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act, check out this past article. For background on one no-cost option the city of Stillwater and Minnesota department of transportation have so far ignored--reducing the frequency of the bridge's lift--read this. Jim Erkel of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy gave an excellent presentation at a recent forum on the proposed Stillwater bridge. You can view it here. For details on a more sensible bridge proposal that costs hundreds of millions of dollars less and significantly less in environmental impact, go here.

Please send your comments to members of the House Natural Resources Committee before Wednesday. Tell them this bridge is an environmental and economic disaster that will result in a horrible precedent for the development of other protected rivers nationwide. Tell them there are far more sensible bridge solutions to crossing a protected scenic riverway than with a $680 million, 65-mph freeway bridge just 6 miles from an existing eight-lane freeway bridge. Tell them this is the wrong bridge at the wrong time.

New historic Gateway Trail bridge over Washington County 15 gets a third lease on life

Not every Stillwater bridge is a boondoggle

By Karl Bremer

An historic Minnesota bridge has begun its third life in 134 years as part of the Gateway Trail between the city of Grant and Stillwater Township. The bridge will now serve bikers, hikers, rollerbladers and horseback riders crossing Washington County 15 (Manning Avenue) on the popular East Metro state trail.

This isn’t your run-of-the-mill span. This bridge has been around the state and has a few stories.

The historic 378-foot Silverdale Bridge was born in Sauk Centre in 1877. It was constructed as a wood-deck, wrought iron truss bridge across Main Street in Sauk Centre. In 1937, it was dismantled and moved up north to serve as a Minnesota Highway 65 crossing over the Little Fork River in southeastern Koochiching County near the town of Silverdale. Traffic loads that included heavy logging trucks eventually became too much for the old bridge and it was replaced and dismantled once more in 2009.
The Silverdale Bridge spanned the Little Fork River in Koochiching County.

Like the historic Stillwater lift bridge, the Silverdale Bridge is on the National Register of Historic Places. It was listed there in 1998, and is one of 24 bridges on the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s (MnDOT) list of historic bridges to preserve. Also, like the more famous lift bridge over the St. Croix River, the Silverdale Bridge is what is known as a “camelback-through-truss” design. Its wrought-iron construction is much less susceptible to rusting than steel, which explains its longevity.

Louie Zeleznikar of Silverdale, MN
Officially called Bridge No. 5721 in MnDOT parlance, the Silverdale Bridge also has been called the Zeleznikar Bridge, named for local Silverdale resident Louis Zeleznikar, who lived on the Little Fork River and died in 2007.

The Silverdale Bridge was scanned using laser survey equipment to measure the geometric properties of each member (check out this cool video) and moved to Maplewood, where it remained in storage until this year.

MnDOT began construction of earthen ramps on either side of Washington County 15 north of MN 96 in August 2009. Old Bridge No. 5721 was rehabilitated, reconstructed on-site and set on concrete abutments built into the berms on May 20. A new concrete deck was poured in June. Washington County paid $100,000 of the approximately $2.8 million cost for relocating the bridge.
Bikers, hikers and horseback riders no longer have to risk life and limb crossing Washington County 15, which some motorists apparently mistake for I-35.
The bridge was opened to nonmotorized, pedestrian and equestrian traffic in September. Its 18-foot width easily accommodates three lanes of “traffic” high above the speeding motorists on County 15 below.

That’s not the only good news for Washington County bikers and hikers. Work is beginning on the Brown’s Creek State Trail, which will connect the Gateway Trail at its junction with MN 96 to the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway in Stillwater. The 6.5-mile section will use the old Zephyr dinner train railroad right-of-way. Washington County kicked in $1 million toward the $4.2 million right-of-way purchase price. The state will pay for the remainder, including the cost of removing the old ties and rails, which will begin this fall. Funding for the project was in the 2011 bonding bill.

The trail may be open for walking later this fall. The Department of Natural Resources will pave 2 miles of the trail next summer and the remainder as additional funds are secured. Another bridge over Manning Avenue eventually will be built for the Brown’s Creek Trail.

The DNR will hold a public meeting and open house on the Brown’s Creek trail at the Stillwater Public Library October 19 from 4:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.

New bridge photos by Karl Bremer
Historic bridge photo courtesy of