The Ghost Train of Shorewood

Flyer of the Ghost Train
Train image by Marty Peck, poster by Chemistry in Place

One of the many wonderful things about being back in Milwaukee this past month has been catching the Ghost Train! This exciting permanent art installation crosses Capitol Drive in Shorewood, a couple blocks west of my old high school; it debuted on Halloween night 2016. Today it’s all about really cool lighting and sound effects (along with a new bridge), but there’s some great history behind it.

First, to back up the train, what and where is Shorewood? It’s a one-square-mile village where I grew up; it’s the southernmost of the “North Shore” suburbs that stretch north along Lake Michigan from Milwaukee. It’s also incredibly walkable; my parents (and Grandma Jane!) still live here, and most of what they need in life is found within half a mile of home.

There are very few communities like Shorewood. My dad walked less than a mile to his job at UW-Milwaukee, and my mother could walk to work in 60 seconds. I’ll write separate posts about Shorewood and the community in general.

Plensa's "Spillover II" overlooking Lake Michigan
Shorewood has an equally impressive eastern bookend; see “The Plensa” section on this page.

But now it’s time to get back on the (ghost) train! So…Real trains used to cross over Capitol Drive at the main west entrance to Shorewood; in fact, they made the crossing many times daily. The former tracks have been converted to the long, beautiful Oak Leaf Trail.

This corridor was also part of a famous Midwestern high-speed rail network, “The 400,” that traveled 400 miles in 400 minutes between Chicago and the Twin Cities.

South end of the new bridge for the Oak Leaf Trail and Ghost Train

So, why the “Ghost Train?” The train no longer runs today, but in its place, there’s a fun show of light and sound occurring twice each evening: a “north-bound train” at 8PM and a sound-bound traveling show at 8:30PM (and 90 minutes later each way in the summer). The video is too large to share on this page, so I’ll link to the video I shared on Facebook.

Snapshot from a video taken of the Ghost Train at night

The lights simulate the movement and even the approximate speed of the train. There’s even a “train crossing signal” on both ends of the bridge. A small crowd gathers at nearby Culver’s every night to watch, no matter how cold it is (including this January night). I forgot to record their cheering after the show. 🙂

You can even hear the twice nightly Ghost Train from my parents’ house 12 blocks away! They love listening to it from the back porch on a nice summer evening.

Looking south from the bridge to the 108-mile-long Oak Leaf Trail

There are also constantly changing light shows throughout the day. Thousands of LED bulbs installed throughout the bridge play all kinds of fascinating patterns all day and night.

The project cost around $400,000–fitting for the old “400” train line.

By the way, Capitol Drive (Shorewood’s primary east-west street) got its name because if the street continued due west for exactly 75 miles, it would end up right at the steps of the Wisconsin state Capitol—another fun fact.

The Plensa

Before there was a Ghost Train on Capitol Drive’s west end, there was the “Plensa” marking its easternmost point. Created by internationally renowned artist Jaume Plensa, “Spillover II” looks out over Lake Michigan at the main east entrance to Shorewood. Including its 2-foot-thick concrete base, the statue stands (er, sits) nearly 11 feet tall.

Spillover II was the first artwork acquired following the creation of Shorewood’s public art initiative. It was placed at a prominent site on a beautiful bluff overlooking the lake, and Atwater Park visitors are constantly interacting with the sculpture. You can not only look through it, but you can sense its shape changing as you walk around it. Kids of all ages love it, although its prominent siting caused the usual controversy (it partially blocks the view of Lake Michigan from Capitol Drive).

My mother and nieces enjoying the view over Lake Michigan while cozying up to Plensa’s “Spillover II”

The Plensa and the Ghost Train have proven to be such popular east and west portals to Shorewood that there is now a serious effort to create equally artistic north and south entrances to Shorewood along Oakland Avenue, the dominant commercial north-south street in this endlessly charming village. Look for a post on these!