Historic Locomotive Rides Again with Ghost Train

Oct. 26, 2016
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Courtesy of the Shorewood Historical Society

If you happen to be driving through Shorewood at 7 p.m. on Halloween, don’t be alarmed if the specter of a train careens across the Capitol Drive Bridge. You’ve just witnessed the maiden voyage of the Ghost Train, a new public art installation.

“I like to tell a story with light, no matter what project it is,” says Marty Peck, the principal of Creative Lighting Design and Engineering, the Germantown firm that designed Ghost Train and has left its luminescent mark across Milwaukee. “About a year ago I was approached about lighting the bridge in Shorewood as a way of marking a gateway to the community and expressing its artistic flair.” In his research, Peck discovered that the bridge had once supported a train. And not just any train: “The 400 was one of the first high speed trains,” Peck explains, “It made the trip between St. Paul, MN, and Chicago in 400 minutes and had remarkable amenities for the times. For instance, by running air over blocks of ice, the 400 was air conditioned.” As a self-proclaimed train buff, Peck proposed to tell the story of the 400 with lights. “Everyone was ‘on board,’ so to speak,” he quips.

The Ghost Train will run every evening after dark. First, the sounds of crossing bells will be heard and crossing signals will blink atop the bridge towers. Then the top chord of the bridge will glow as if lit by the approaching headlights of the 400 and the sounds of the coming train will be heard. “There’s a melancholy comfort in hearing the distant sounds of trains,” says Peck, “We’re certainly not bringing back the full volume, but on the other hand we didn’t want it to sound tinny. We wanted a full-bodied sound.” The illusion of the train crossing the bridge is a function of 3200 individually programmable dots situated on the top chord of the bridge, and 336 individually programmable 12" long graze fixtures along the bottom chord. The graze fixtures will throw yellows and greens up the side of the bridge in an intricate interplay suggesting the movement of train cars while rivets of lights along the top chord will simulate the passage of headlights and windows.

“We’re not trying to fool people,” says Peck, “It’s artistic. It’s an illusion. The total effect lasts about half a minute. We are interfacing with traffic signals so that cars will be stopped when the train goes by. It’s been a marvelous project. There’s been a lot of cooperation between the Village of Shorewood, the city of Milwaukee and even the state of Wisconsin, who owns the bridge. The original bridge engineer was involved to make sure we got everything right and Staff Electric has done a marvelous job on the installation. The Ghost Train is a permanent installation. It’s first run just happened to fall close to Halloween. There’s nothing particularly spooky about it, but it is ethereal. I’ve cooked up something special for opening night. But I won’t say what it is. You’ll just have to come check it out.”

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