The St. Louis Light
If you drive half an hour south of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, you’ll come to the tiny village of Saint Louis, an old Metis community hugging the southern shore of the South Saskatchewan River. This sleepy hamlet in the heart of central Saskatchewan boasts not only the distinction of being the hometown of two NHL players, but also the honour of being the setting of one of Saskatchewan’s best known ghost stories.
For nearly a hundred years, thrill seekers across the Land of the Living Skies have flocked to a long-abandoned railroad crossing about eight kilometres north of town, parked their vehicles beneath the stars, and waited to catch a glimpse of the fabled St. Louis Light. Hundreds of Canadians claim to have seen this apparition, which is said to appear almost without fail every night.
Witnesses of this mysterious phenomenon invariably describe seeing one of two different lights. The first is a large, bright luminescence resembling the headlight of an oncoming train. This light is often said to glide along the route of the old railway track, usually in a northerly direction, increasing in brightness as it approaches the witness, before vanishing as suddenly as it appeared. The second light is a smaller orb with a soft red or orange glow which either hovers in the air or moves erratically over the old tracks. Both of these lights are very frequently seen together, the red light often lingering below the white, or dancing around its perimeter.
The old railway bed over which these lights appear was once a line of the Canadian National Railway. The tracks were abandoned in 1983, their ties and rails pulled up in 1988. Today, the husk of the old iron thoroughfare runs through private farmland, appearing as a grassy trail through prairie scrub.
Legend has it that, one cold winter night in the 1920s, when the railroad was in full operation, a brakeman or engineer was obliged to leave the relative safety of his locomotive, perhaps to remove some obstruction from the tracks. Through some terrible accident, he was struck by his own train and decapitated. Ever since, the St. Louis Light has appeared over the tracks on which he met his demise. Some say that the bright light so often seen over the old railroad is the headlamp of the engine that killed the unfortunate trainman, and the reddish globe which often accompanies it a lantern carried by the ghostly victim himself, who returns every night to the site of the accident to search for his missing head.
In his article “The St. Louis Ghost Train,” published in the Virtual Saskatchewan Online Magazine, Saskatchewan-based freelance writer Dave Yanko detailed several alleged sightings of the St. Louis Light, including that of St. Louis’ one-time mayor, the late Emile Lussier. One night many years ago, Lussier and his brother-in-law decided to walk along the old tracks- something that, to the best of their knowledge, nobody had yet tried. After walking for about a mile without seeing anything, a solid beam of bright light appeared directly behind them, its edge kissing their heels, its body casting their shadows onto the abandoned track before them. The two men whirled around in unison, but before they could lay eyes on it, the mystery light disappeared.
Lussier and his brother-in-law returned to St. Louis and informed friends and relatives of their astonishing experience. Intrigued, a handful of adventurers decided to accompany the two men back to the tracks to see if they, too, might encounter the light. This time, Lussier contented himself with remaining at the crossroads and watching the boys as they walked down the old trail. Before they were out of sight, a bright globe of light suddenly appeared over the track bed and illuminated the pedestrians for a few moments before vanishing. Lussier called out to the boys, and was astonished to learn that none of them had seen a thing.
Lussier’s son, Edward, then a teenager, was a member of the party that ventured out onto the tracks that night. He described his experience to writer Taryn Riemer, who published his account in the October 31st, 2014 issue of The Western Producer. “The light came behind us,” he said, “and lit us up, and the silhouettes and the tracks, and they kind of recognized us… Dad come running ‘cause he thought we’d be scared and we hadn’t even noticed, we didn’t see the light ourselves, so that was kind of an eerie thing.”
The Dunn-Lederhouse Experiment
Throughout the school season of 2001/’02, two young ladies named Shannon Dunn and Alysha Lederhouse, who attended Grade 12 at Churchill High School in La Ronge, Saskatchewan, decided to make the St. Louis ghost light the subject of their science fair project. They were not the first Saskatchewan students to investigate this spook light in the name of science; back in 1999, 10th Grade students Dustin Armstrong and Ben McIvor of Prince Albert’s Carlton Comprehensive High School videotaped the ghost light as part of their own science project and declared it a paranormal phenomenon when they found that their camera had failed to capture the light they had seen with their eyes. Shannon Dunn and Alysha Lederhouse had also seen the ghost light of St. Louis on an erstwhile road trip they made to the area with several friends – an event which had thoroughly spooked some of their fellow students. Dunn, a firm believer in the paranormal, suspected that the ghostly luminescence was truly some sort of preternatural phenomenon. Lederhouse, on the other hand, was a skeptic at heart, and believed that the phantom light was probably produced by the headlights and taillights of vehicles travelling along some nearby road. As she put it in an interview with journalist Jill Strelieff of Saskatchewan’s Leader-Post, “I thought right off the bat that it was car headlights, especially because a lot of stories say that you can see red lights sometimes. I thought that would be taillights.”
Lederhouse’s hypothesis echoes a long-held objection to the ghost explanation espoused by skeptics across Saskatchewan. This idea was succinctly articulated by the late Don MacPhedran, then an 88-year-old resident of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, in journalist Darren Bernhardt’s excellent article on the St. Louis Light in the October 27th, 2001 issue of Saskatoon’s Star-Phoenix. “They go out of sight wherever there’s a little dip,” MacPhedran told Bernhardt, “and then they reappear again and then turn and go slightly northeast. Then you see the tail lights.”
Taking this theory as their hypothesis, Shannon Dunn and Alysha Lederhouse set out to solve the St. Louis mystery once and for all. With help from Lederhouse’s father, who worked as a surveyor for a mineral exploration company, the girls ordered a magnified map of the area surrounding the old railroad, plotted the point at which they had seen the ghost light on their previous trip as well as the location from which the light appeared to originate, and drew a straight line through the dots. That accomplished, they identified the roads which the line intersected or ran close to, and determined a handful of locations along those roads at which they resolved to test their hypothesis.
Their preparations complete, Dunn, Lederhouse, and the latter’s father made the three hour drive south to St. Louis. When night fell, the girls ensconced themselves in the area from which the ghost light is typically observed, while Lederhouse’s father drove his car to the points on nearby roads which the girls had plotted. At each point, Mr. Lederhouse oriented his vehicle in the direction of the observation point and flashed his high beams on and off, keeping the girls abreast of his activities via cell phone. Although the girls did observe the phantom light on several occasions that night, its appearance seemed to have no correlation with Mr. Lederhouse’s operations.
Left with little alternative, the girls decided to have Mr. Lederhouse drive down the Saskatchewan Highway 2 – a thoroughfare which lay 8.5 kilometres (5.3 miles) from the observation area at its highest point, which the girls had not initially considered a potential location for the source of the ghost light on account of its distance from the old railroad tracks. The other roads on which they had conducted their tests, they noted, were lower in elevation than the observation point, while a hilltop section of Highway 2 lay at a proximate elevation. They hoped that this last-ditch effort might yield interesting results, and they were not disappointed.
“We got dad to stay out there for about an hour just flashing his lights off and on when we’d tell him to,” Lederhouse told Strellief. “He even turned around but we saw his taillights. We could actually see his taillights from eight and a half kilometres away.” Satisfied that they had successfully replicated the St. Louis ghost light, the young scientists concluded their field work and returned home.
Although Dunn and Lederhouse were confident that they had determined the true source of the mystery light, they remained baffled as to how high beam light from the hill on Highway 2 could possibly reach the observation point. They consulted their physics teacher, who suggested a photic phenomenon called diffraction as a possible explanation, diffraction being the distortion which light waves undergo upon encountering opaque obstacles. As an article in the Virtual Saskatchewan Online Magazine explains, “Light passing through a small-opening- perhaps some distant trees on either side of the old track bed- can diffuse and expand in size. In other words, headlights normally too tiny to be noticed could become apparent through diffraction.”
While the car light explanation has satisfied many- including the judges of the regional science fair in which Dunn and Lederhouse participated, who awarded the girls third place for their project- many witnesses of St. Louis’ phantom light remain unconvinced. One witness named Rita Ferland, for example, who saw the phantom light move along the tracks in broad daylight while picking raspberries with her mother, is certain that no vehicle light, diffracted or not, could possibly account for her bizarre daytime experience. Others claim that the car light explanation is untenable since, according to local folklore, the St. Louis Light has been seen regularly since the 1920s, in an age before the automobile eclipsed the horse as the vehicle of choice on the Saskatchewan prairies. Others still argue that the light’s typical appearance, behavior, and duration negate the possibility that it might be derived from the lights of passing vehicles. As Canadian author Shanon Sinn put it in his video of the St. Louis Ghost Light, which he captured on film on New Year’s Eve, 2014, “You tell me if you think that’s a headlight right there.” If you’d like to watch Shanon’s footage, please check out the link in the top right-hand corner of this video.
Perhaps the strongest evidence that the St. Louis Light may be more than an optical illusion is the story of Chris McLeod, a native of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, whose unnerving tale appears in both Darren Bernhardt’s aforementioned article and Jo-Ann Christensen’s 1995 book Ghost Stories of Saskatchewan. When he was seventeen years old, McLeod and his friend, Justin Thorsteinson, made regular trips to St. Louis in a Chevrolet Cavalier to see the ghost light. Their final and most dramatic visit took place one cold winter night in 1987.
“One of the unwritten rules of the St. Louis light is that you never park your car on the tracks,” McLeod told Christensen. “Being the immortal adolescent that I was, I sometimes did just that.” McLeod found that this breach of etiquette was often succeeded by minor annoyances, such as the spontaneous animation of his windshield wipers, the flickering of his headlights, or problems with the ignition. On this particular occasion, however, his brashness brought him more than he bargained for.
McLeod and Thorsteinson had only been idling for two minutes when the familiar ray of light appeared over the old tracks. For about thirty seconds, the eerie luminescence glided along ghostly rails, gradually increasing in brilliance as it came towards them. All of a sudden, smoke began to billow from the Cavalier’s hood. Tearing their eyes away from the haunting spectacle, the boys turned off the engine and opened the hood to find the alternator engulfed in flames. “We had no way of extinguishing an electrical fire,” McLeod wrote, “so we decided to blow it out on the highway.” The teenagers raced back to Prince Albert in a panic, but encountered no further issues on the drive. They subsequently had the Cavalier inspected by a mechanic who declared that the alternator appeared to be in perfect condition, and who could provide no explanation for its mysterious ignition.
The Headless Brakeman of Vancouver
In 2014, Canada Post represented the Ghost Light of St. Louis in a collection of permanent stamps honouring ten classic Canadian ghost stories. The Post added five more stamps to its ‘Haunted Canada’ collection in 2015, one of which commemorated another phantom light whose alleged appearance and supposed backstory eerily echoes that of its St. Louis counterpart.
In the city of Vancouver, British Columbia, at the northern end of the historic Gastown district, at the edge of Vancouver Harbour, lies an old Canadian Pacific Railway yard. Local legend has it that, on dark and rainy nights, a soft glow evoking the light of an old lantern can sometimes be seen flickering in the yard, moving slowly across the tracks before suddenly guttering out. Only a handful of unfortunate TransLink employees, who operate the SkyTrain lines out of the adjacent Waterfront Station, are said to have caught a glimpse of the ghastly spectre to which this ghostly lantern is attached: the figure of a brakeman wearing 1920s railway overalls, who appears to be searching for his missing head.
The oldest published material on this spooky urban legend which this author was able to unearth, on which many subsequent retellings appear to be based, is Ted Ferguson’s 1985 book Sentimental Journey: An Oral History of Train Travel in Canada. Ferguson’s book is a collection of anonymous anecdotes on Canadian rail travel which the author assembled throughout 1984, most of them excerpts of spontaneous interviews with railway veterans he met during a cross-Canada trip.
According to one of Ferguson’s unnamed sources, the phantom light of Vancouver’s oldest train yard has its roots in an event which took place one dark and rainy night in 1928. While pulling into the train yard, a brakeman named Hub Clark slipped on the rain-slick floor of a boxcar and fell from a freight train, lantern in hand. He tumbled awkwardly and hit his head on one of the rails, knocking himself unconscious. Before Clark knew what hit him, an incoming passenger train, whose conductor’s vision was impeded by the rain and the darkness, slammed into his prostrate form, rending his head from his body. Ever since, Clark’s headless ghost is said to return to the train yard on dark and rainy nights and, lantern in hand, walk the tracks in search of his lost head.
Ghost Light of Central Alberta
Another of Ferguson’s nameless informants told him about a ghost light which Canadian National railwaymen routinely spotted at night on a stretch of tracks in central Alberta. “I was clerking for CN in Edmonton,” he said, “before I transferred to the coast. In the 1930s, we’d get these reports of mysterious lights. No kidding. Engineers barreling at night and suddenly there’s a white glow on the rails ahead. The brakes go on, the train halts, and the lights disappeared. In God’s back acre, nothing for a hundred miles around, with the exception of coyotes and gophers, and they sure as hell don’t light up in the dark. The engineers couldn’t make heads nor tails of it.” The anonymous trainman went on to scoff at the idea that ghosts were behind the mystery lights, suggesting instead that flying saucers were responsible.
Vehicular malfunctions and headless trainmen notwithstanding, it is tempting to propose a connection between the abovementioned ghosts lights and a phenomenon called the will-o’-the-wisp. Variously referred to as “jacks-o’the-lantern” and “ignes fatui,” or “fool fires”, wills-o’-the-wisp are mysterious flickering lights resembling lanterns or candle flames which are said to appear in certain wilderness areas at night, often to lone travellers. Those who attempt to follow these lights often find themselves led off the beaten path into rugged and dangerous country, only to watch the object of their pursuit suddenly vanish, leaving them lost and alone in the darkness.
Folkloric traditions all over the world propose different explanations for this strange optical phenomenon. Celtic legend, for example, ascribe the lights to the lanterns of mischievous fairies who delight in disorienting human travellers. Anglo-Saxon tradition, from which derive the names will-o’-the-wisp and jack-o’-the-lantern, contends that the lights are the lanterns carried by lost souls, perhaps as divine punishment for misdeeds committed in life. To the Tlingit of the Alaskan Panhandle, mysterious lights in the wilderness are the campfires of the Kushtaka, or “Land Otter Man,” a semi-preternatural entity which preys on lost travellers.
Science has also proposed a number of theories to account for wills-o’-the-wisp. One of the most popular scientific explanations, which hinges upon the observation that mysterious flickering lights are often seen over swamps and bogs, contends that these nocturnal candles are produced by the natural combustion of certain flammable gasses which regularly leak from wetlands, which ignite when exposed to oxygen. This explanation, of course, cannot account for the many mystery lights reported in deserts and other settings in which such gasses are not present in requisite concentrations. Other scientists have proposed that ‘ball lightning’ might be the culprit, ‘ball lightning’ being a volatile, airborne globe of light which appears very infrequently during thunderstorms, supposed to be an extremely uncommon and poorly understood form of lightening. This explanation, considering the alleged rarity of ball lighting, cannot account for wills-o’-the-wisp which are said to appear in the same general area on a regular basis. A third explanation holds that wills-o’-the-wisp are bioluminescent clouds produced by the activity of some sort of organism, fireflies and foxfire fungi being the most frequently indicted suspects.
Will-o’-the-Wisp of Lake Simcoe
Whatever its nature, some of those who have written on the subject have equated the will-o’-the-wisp with mysterious lights which appear over railroad tracks, of which the St. Louis Light and the ghost of Hub Clark are but two of several. One such researcher was Fortean writer Curtis Fuller, whose article “A Problem for Physicists,” appeared in the February 1953 issue of the magazine Fate. After arguing that the various scientific explanations for the will-o’-the-wisp phenomenon are far from satisfactory, Fuller described a certain mysterious light which once appeared regularly over a stretch of the Grand Trunk Railway which ran along the northern shore of Ontario’s Lake Simcoe. His primary source was an elderly lady named Mrs. J.B. Running, who lived on Toronto’s Harshaw Avenue at the time of writing. Fifty years earlier, when she had lived in the Brechin district along Lake Simcoe’s northern shore, Mrs. Running claimed that the mystery light appeared so frequently that she and her neighbours became used to it, and accepted it as an inexplicable but regular fixture of the area. Brechin’s 1950s residents appear to have maintained a less cordial relationship with their neighbourhood will-o’-the-wisp than their turn-of-the-century predecessors, as Fuller’s article and a contemporaneous newspaper piece bear out.
“One of the light’s favourite pranks,” Fuller wrote, “was to appear on the grand Trunk Railway tracks and stop trains. When the crew climbed down to find out the trouble, the light, which gave a reddish glow much like a lantern, disappeared completely into the swamp.”
The September 3rd, 1952 issue of Sault Ste. Marie’s newspaper, the Sault Star, described a similar incident:
“Provincial Police and residents of the northeast end of Lake Simcoe played tag last night and early today with a red light.
“The light, first reported late in the evening, was said to have appeared at many points around the lake. Police checked each report but the cause of the light has not been determined.”
Unlike the St. Louis Light, this particular mystery light did not confine its capers to the railroad track. At the end of his article, Fuller wrote, “Mrs. Running recalled a game warden named Henry Thompson who chased the light several times as it went ahead of him down a trail to his cabin beside the lake. He used to laugh about it until one morning he came into the Brechin Hotel white-faced and shaking. Seems he had waked up during the night to hear a loud buzzing outside his cabin window. His dog was running around looking for a place to hide and his cat was climbing the wall. Right outside the window was ‘a ball of fire – as big as a football.’
“Will-o’-the-wisp, of course. Whatever that is.”
The St. Louis Light
- “‘St. Louis Light’: Students Shine Light on Mystery,” by Jill Strelieff in the March 23, 2022 issue of the Leader-Post (Leader, Saskatchewan)
- “The St. Louis Ghost Train,” by Dave Yanko in the Virtual Saskatchewan Online Magazine
- “Rolling Through the Night: The St. Louis Ghost Train,” by Rebekah Lesko in the October 31st, 2018 issue of Global News: Canada
- “Ghost Story Debunked” in the October 30th, 2013 issue of the Leader-Post (Leader, Saskatchewan)
- “A Car Light? Swamp Gas? Or is it… a Ghost?” by Darren Bernhardt in the October 27th, 2001 issue of the Star-Phoenix (Saskatoon, Saskatchewan)
- “Students Claim to Have Brush with Ghostly Light,” in the November 19th, 1999 issue of the StarPhoenix (Saskatoon, Saskatchewan)
- “Ghost Train Story Haunts Small Saskatchewan Community,” by Taryn Riemer in the October 31st, 2014 issue of The Western Producer
- Ghost Stories of Saskatchewan (1995), by Jo-Ann Christensen
Headless Brakeman of Vancouver
- “Favourite Haunts: Ghost Stories from Downtown Vancouver,” by Kendra Mangione in the October 27th, 2017 issue of CTV News: Vancouver
- “Brakeman is Still Seeking His Head,” in the October 31st, 1985 issue of The Province (Vancouver, British Columbia)
- Sentimental Journey: An Oral History of Train Travel in Canada (1985), by Ted Ferguson
Will-o’-the-Wisp of Lake Simcoe
- “A Problem for Physicists,” by Curtis Fuller (a.k.a. John C. Ross) in the February 1953 issue of Fate
- “Red Light Mystery in Lake Simcoe,” in the September 3rd, 1952 issue of the Sault Star
(Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario)