—By: Judith Steininger – Special to Milwaukee’s Lifestyle Magazine—
Forever traveling in our songs and dreams are the A Train, the Orange Blossom Special and the City of New Orleans. A new locomotive is about to enter that lore: The Ghost Train. It will cross the intersections of technology and history.
The story behind its inception is one even Albert Einstein, who explained the strange nature of light, would find interesting. Only slightly less creative than Einstein himself, ingenious groups of Village of Shorewood residents wished to expand public art in the town they love. The Public Art Committee partnered with a savvy local historical society and generous donors, and together they are transforming an old railroad trestle into a heart-thumping, twice-nightly event. Renowned lighting designer Marty Peck, their artist of choice, used contemporary technology to resurrect a historic train — the Chicago and Northwestern Railway’s Twin Cities 400.
The “400” never stopped in Shorewood, but from 1935 to 1963, it thundered across the trestle at Capitol Drive, site of the current Oak Leaf Trail bridge. Daily, it departed from and arrived back in Chicago, making the 400-mile trip to Minneapolis in 400 minutes (hence the name). It even looked fast, with its exterior painted bright yellow-gold and green. Dinner was served on white linen by liveried wait staff to diners in their finest, including gloves for ladies.
Alas, as cars and interstates became ubiquitous in the ’50s, with fast food stations dotting roadsides along the way (no gloves required), motoring became the transportation of choice, ridership declined, and by 1963, the “400” was history. Until Peck had an idea.
The Public Art Committee initially consulted him about the possibility of simply lighting the gateway bridge. But the train aficionado — also a former star-struck performance guy for both drama and rock bands, electrical engineer, and most recently, the conductor of his own, nationally known lighting company, Creative Lighting Design & Engineering, LLC — saw an opportunity. He could bring light rail to Shorewood, with absolutely all puns intended. The attendant groups agreed with Peck’s proposal in a nanosecond. Here was a matchless opportunity, as the man has a well-respected reputation to uphold.
Peck has taken his ability to “paint with light in order to tell an underlying architectural story” across the country. He lives to calculate lumens, candelas and primary color mixing with electricity. He lit the famous NASA Rocket Garden at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Visible at night, America’s space endeavor is presented by the cylindrical towering remains of the Juno, Titan II and soaring, 223-feet-tall Saturn 1B rockets. They stand bathed in moon-white light — except for the ostensible rocket fuel orange flares around the base, of course. Peck has illuminated a ski resort in Keystone, Colo., casinos, the Wisconsin governor’s mansion and the Mitchell Park Domes, where he synchronized light to music. In 1994, he re-created a historic fire in the Historic Third Ward. The building blazed with light-strip flames and smoke machines— so convincingly that fire engines appeared, despite being informed beforehand. Thousands lined up to gawk.
Exactly who is Marty Peck? “Artists create a stand-alone thing; lighting designers illuminate what’s there. This is where my synergy exists,” Peck explains. “I say I work in the area of black magic. I deal in illusions and an ephemeral medium — light, which is made visible and colorful only when energy of certain wavelengths is refracted.”
For the Village of Shorewood, he proposed to create the “illusion of an allusion to the ‘400.’” The twice-daily Ghost Train will cross the bridge in 40 seconds. Here’s how it works: The signal lights flash; a whooshing sound indicates the approach. A stream of white light passes, with slits of green indicating car separation, a little red ball of light signifies the end, and — wait for it — pixie dust zinging into space indicates the train is gone. Whether traveling north or south, the show will be the same, but atmospheric variants like pollutants or fog will keep it fresh and new.
Not to spoil the magic, but how is this achieved? Knowing a lot about LEDs helps, says Peck. “Each fixture segment has separate primary colors of red, blue and green, so I can make literally millions of colors by mixing them,” he explains. “Red and green, for example, make yellow. Across the bottom of the bridge arch, I install multiple 4-feet-long by 3-inch-wide strips of LEDs to create the effect of the train cars passing by, washing light up the sides of the bridge with moving segments of yellow. Three rows of LED dots across the top rail of the bridge will produce the illusion of headlights and windows moving with the ‘cars.’
“To create the animated effects, the digital information to each LED light fixture is refreshed 40 times per second,” Peck continues, adding that he first creates and designs all projects on his computer.
Peck, an affable, gregarious and tall man, doesn’t look much like a standard wizard, but looks can be deceiving.
IT TAKES A VILLAGE
Pat Algiers, chair of The Ghost Train effort and member of Shorewood’s Public Art Committee, believes the enchantment of the train is what brought about the magical cooperation among county, city, village and state highway personnel. “The bridge sits at the intersection of so many governmental bodies (that) many doubted we could get this done,” she says. “Each group saw the plans and was immediately on board. We also had to get police agreement and account for crossing lights blinking and the sounds of a rushing train that no longer exists passing over the heavily trafficked Capitol Drive. We had many meetings but little resistance. Guy Johnson, the (Village of Shorewood) president, told us, ‘This will be a first-of-its kind experience, blending art, history and technology, and we believe it will draw interest not only in Shorewood but throughout Wisconsin and beyond.’” The all-volunteer Shorewood Historical Society, led by Karen de Hartog and the source for all historical information in this story, is a savvy group; it uses the virtual and digital worlds. No museum exists in Shorewood to display its rich history, but the Village Hall allows the society archival space. De Hartog recites the society’s motto: “Our style is to get our history public in the most accessible way possible.” De Hartog and the society provided Peck with photos and articles about the “400” and will provide story banners about the train.
INVESTING IN THE PAST
No J.P. Morgan railroad tycoon resides in Shorewood, but people with pockets both deep and shallow donated $350,000 to make Peck’s vision a reality. Bill Nasgovitz of Heartland Advisors committed time and money, encouraging friends to pitch in. Why? He had an epiphany watching Peck’s initial presentation. “Suddenly, I remembered (how) my dad used to bring my little sister and (me) to watch the ‘400’ roar by,” he says. “The real one looked so ‘Packerish.’ We have to keep those memories going.” “The Ghost Train is a wonderful example of Shorewood: a storied history, exceptional community leadership, and involvement and eyes on the future,” say donors Jim and Vida Langenkamp.