Monday, December 26, 2011

Photographer Michael P. Smith: Preservationist of New Orleans' Cultural Wetlands

Michael Smith found himself in his usual spot--in the thick of the action--when he shot this amazing jam session of Roosevelt Sykes, B.B. King, Bukka White, George Porter Jr. and Professor Longhair at the 1973 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Fest.

This profile of New Orleans cultural historian and photographer Michael P. Smith was originally published in 2004 in Beat Street, a New Orleans literary magazine now out of print. By that time, Smith had slipped into semi-retirement by then as he began to succumb to the effects of Parkinson’s and possibly Alzheimer’s diseases.

Smith passed in 2008 and left behind a legacy that represents one of the Crescent City’s most magnificent treasures. Smith’s prints, negatives and other archival material was acquired by the Historic New Orleans Collection in 2007 where it is being preserved for future generations. His photographs also are in the permanent collections of the Bibliotheque National in Paris, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian Institution and, the New Orleans Museum of Art, the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, and the Louisiana State Museum.

By Karl Bremer

New Orleans photographer David Richmond calls Michael P. Smith “the last true great undiscovered photojournalist of the 20th century,” and places him in the pantheon of such giants as W. Eugene Smith, Dorothea Lange and Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Jeff Rosenheim, a former assistant of Smith’s in the early ‘80s who is now associate curator of photography for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, asserts unequivocally that “Mike Smith’s life’s work should be preserved in perpetuity in New Orleans for the study of the culture of New Orleans in the last third of the 20th century.”

New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Fest Producer Quint Davis calls Smith “one of the great documenters and great depicters of a unique aspect of American culture. Mike is not just documenting, he’s creating great art.”

But it’s the words of Larry Bannock, Big Chief of the Golden Star Hunters, that would be most likely to bring a smile to Smith’s face.

“Mike Smith wasn’t a cultural pirate,” Bannock says. “He gave back.”

Bannock’s speaking of Smith in the past tense reflects the bittersweet fact that Smith hasn’t been a fixture out on the street for the past couple of years, capturing the pulse and spirit of New Orleans’ mesmerizing subcultures of Mardi Gras Indian practices, social and pleasure clubs, second-line parades and spiritual churches. His battle with Parkinson’s and possibly Alzheimer’s diseases has kept him from pursuing the mission that at once has been Smith’s vocation and avocation in life: to preserve on film the living, breathing, organic, cultural wetlands known as New Orleans.

“There’s a popular misconception around town that Mike is, like, gone,” says New Orleans photographer Bob Compton. “But that couldn’t be further from the truth. There’s still light in those blue eyes.”

There’s also a lot more information behind those blue eyes that Smith is frantically trying to download into his latest book, In theSpirit: The Photography of Michael P. Smith from the Historic New Orleans Collection, before it slips away. (The book was published in 2009. View an accompanying video here. ) Smith also has coauthored a book with University of Munich professor Berndt Ostendorf on New Orleans jazz funerals that is essentially complete but remains unpublished.

While the subject of Michael Smith’s physical and mental health has been of concern to many in recent months, the health and preservation of his legacy—and his monumental archives—has become of paramount importance as well.

“The value of this life that Michael has led is enormous, and it would be a shame to let it slip through New Orleans’ hands like so many other things,” declares Rosenheim.

Rosenheim was 22 years old when he moved to New Orleans in 1983 and went to work for the Louisiana State Museum. Smith’s first book, Spirit World, a captivating look at spiritual churches, Mardi Gras Indians and other aspects of African-American New Orleans culture, had just been published, and planning for a related exhibition of his work was underway.

“I had the pleasure of being involved in his exhibition at the Louisiana State Museum,” recalls Rosenheim. “I had a lot of experience working with archives of both living and deceased photographers. And I could recognize that Michael was not just a local photographer, but a local photographer who was connected to some of the best aspects of New Orleans culture. Michael not only had a remarkable commitment to his subjects but he seemed to be blessed with being at the right place at the right time. … He did some very innovative things, and he just ‘had it.’”

Rosenheim worked in the darkroom with Smith to put together two duplicate sets of prints from the exhibition for a traveling U.S. Information Agency show. “One would travel to the Caribbean—the Black Caribbean—and the other would go to Africa. It traveled for years and years. I used to get photographs from people who saw this exhibit all over the world.”

The cross-cultural appeal of the exhibit was remarkable, says Rosenheim. “Music culture is an international language and so is photography, and they both come together perfectly in Michael Smith.”

Besides documenting New Orleans culture with his camera, Rosenheim says Smith also maintains a vast audio archive of events he’s covered.

“He used to wire himself with sophisticated stereo equipment and record these parades and funerals.” Listening to those recordings as he worked in the darkroom with Smith’s powerful images “was like a kinetic experience.” The sounds of Smith working his way through the drum section of a jazz funeral, then the horns, shifting this way and that as he finessed his position for the maximum vantage point provide an aural context for these images that should be preserved as well, says Rosenheim.

Smith’s body of work reaches deep into New Orleans’ subcultures. But he is probably best known for his images from the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Fest. Smith is the only living photographer to have shot every Jazz Fest (until his last in 2004), according to Fest producer Quint Davis.
Leslie Smith, Michael's daughter,
helped guide her father's lens at the
2004 Jazz Fest.

Jazz Fest recognized Smith in 2004 with a showing in the Grandstand of his images printed in large format by David Richmond, and 50-60 of his images reproduced, mounted on boards and placed around the fairgrounds as close as possible to where they were originally shot. His work also is being exclusively featured in this year’s Jazz Fest program.

“We’re going to celebrate our 35th anniversary through the eyes of Mike Smith,” says Davis. “The whole infield is going to be a Mike Smith kaleidoscope of the festival.”

Since the beginning, Smith has been “Jazz Fest’s unofficial official photographer,” says Davis. “When you start to do a heritage festival that has New Orleans street culture in it, Mike comes along with it. Because in addition to being an artist and a photographer, he’s an intrinsic part of the culture himself. When we started doing this festival, he was part of New Orleans street culture. Then he became part of the festival culture. He was also unbelievably steadfast. He came every day, every year and went to every stage. Multiply that times 35 years.”

But Davis is quick to note, “Jazz Fest is really just a spoke in the wheel of Mike Smith’s work. We’re maybe a big spoke … Having created this great body of artistic work, he also has brought the images and the awareness of the culture to a lot of people. His photography of those things is a window to the world, and he helped to both popularize and legitimize those cultures.”
Larry Bannock: 'Mike Smith wasn't
a cultural pirate. He gave back.'

Says Larry Bannock: “He gave something to the people that a lot of guys don’t. Mike was one of the first whites to see one of these suits put together. Mike was there when you be sewing, and for years when I was making my Indian suits, Mike would give me books. Whenever Mike would go traveling and there was a book on Native American culture, he brought it back and said ‘Maybe you can use this.’

“A lot of times when I was doing patches, Mike would go out and take pictures of landscapes and color to make it come out right. There’re not a lot of photographers you could ask that of.”

Smith recognized the value of preserving the Mardi Gras Indian culture and he encouraged Bannock: “Don’t just do the beadwork. Know the culture, know the history, know why the blacks ran away and how the Native Americans helped them.” He also urged Bannock to become registered as a “master craftsman in black Mardi Gras Indian beadwork” with Louisiana Folklife.

“One of the people that made me a Big Chief was Mike Smith,” says Bannock. “When I first became a Chief, I was going through a problem, and I was talking to Mike about it.
And he said, ‘When you become a Chief, you become the center of attention. People say things about you—negative things. That’s all part of being a Chief.’ And the first thing he said was, ‘Buy your own equipment.’ Everything I needed to make a suit, Mike said that’s what I need. When you got your own, nobody can come at you.

“Mike isn’t a 9-to-5 friend. He’s a 24-hour friend,” Bannock continues. “Whenever you called him, he was there. There’s a lot of people that’s on the street today because of Mike. Carpenters, contractors, when things were slow, Mike would help them get jobs. He wasn’t just a little white boy who came along and took all the pictures and made all the money. … When the testimony is given, they can say Mike gave back—he didn’t take away.”

Becoming a part of the culture he was documenting had its down sides, too, says Bannock. “Mike and Jules Kahn were taking pictures of second lines when it wasn’t popular. Mike Smith was run out of places, Mike Smith was harassed, the same thing we went through. But when Mike Smith went Uptown, he was protected, and a lot of people knew what he was about.”

David Richmond first knew Michael Smith in 1969, when he took Smith’s place as an assistant to local Black Star syndicate photographer Matt Heron. He ran into him periodically in the mid-70s, although they were never close friends.

“I had a little gallery in New Orleans in the 70s and that was the first real gallery showing of Mike’s work—the Spirit World stuff. But Mike didn’t hang out with that gallery group. He never spent any time being a dilettante photographer.  He was hanging out with people closer to the culture—Jerry Brock, Jason Berry, Jeff Hannusch.

“I really lost track of Mike for about 15 years,” Richmond continues. “Two years ago I started this exhibit space and went over to Mike’s place and said this can’t happen. There was nobody to really champion his work, and he certainly wasn’t going to do it anymore.”

Richmond selected about 30 images for an exhibit. “I started printing them bigger, and cleaner. And I just realized that I’d fallen in love with the images. His best pictures—they’re alive, they’re not two-dimensional. You don’t look at the pictures—they come out and knock you out, especially when you’re giving birth to something like that in the darkroom.”

And, Richmond observes, “I’ve come to the conclusion, in looking at the proof sheets of his stuff and working with the images, that Mike didn’t just take pictures, he received pictures. He just went out there and wrestled away until some spiritual force said ‘You’re gonna receive this one.’”

The Louisiana State Museum raised the bar for recognition of Smith’s work last year when it purchased 75 archival-quality prints for its collection. “These pictures are going to be the museum’s basis of the representation of African-American culture in New Orleans,” says Richmond.

Rosenheim says Smith’s entire collection—photography, recordings, notes—should find a permanent and appropriate home in New Orleans, perhaps the New Orleans Museum of Art or the Louisiana State Museum. “It should be there, in the city that created him and in the city that created the music and culture. I would urge any one of the museum directors in the city to preserve this archive in all its complexity and richness.”

The archiving of Smith’s work “is an ongoing process,” says Bob Compton. “The phrase ‘treasure trove’ does not do it justice. There must be 100,000 images in that Race Street building. It physically fills up five great big rooms in an old hotel-size house.”

Meanwhile, Smith races against time to finish In the Spirit, which his daughter, Leslie, describes as “an exploration of freedom rituals in New Orleans,” from jazz funerals to the underground gay Mardi Gras.

“He’s driven. He’s afraid of not remembering, so he writes and doesn’t sleep, but he’s got so much writing to do, and it’s a vicious cycle.”

Bannock hopes the recognition that’s due Smith happens soon.

“There’s an old saying in the black church,” he muses. “Give me my flowers while I’m alive.”

A second line parade was held at the Jazz Fest Fairgrounds in 2009 to commemorate Michael Smith and human jukebox guitarist Snooks Eaglin, who passed earlier that year.

Top photo: By Michael P. Smith
Bottom two photos: By Karl Bremer

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A personal note from the author

By Karl Bremer

Ripple in Stillwater was never meant to be a personal blog, but I need to steer into that territory for a moment.

Three weeks ago, I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Tomorrow I start chemotherapy to try to destroy it. I’ve fought a lot of battles in my life and beaten some long odds. None of them have ever been life-threatening, though, so at this point, they all seem rather inconsequential.

This one’s for real, and I’m going to need all the energy I can muster to beat it. Consequently, you may see a little reduction in flow here at Ripple in Stillwater. I’ll be recycling some old material to keep you entertained in the meantime.

Thanks for your understanding as we work our way through these troubled waters.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Petters Ponzi clawback targets Bachmann-Vennes connection

Frank Vennes Jr. is still running from his past.

Complaint in Florida bankruptcy court seeks
Vennes campaign contributions to Bachmann

By Karl Bremer and Ken Avidor

The long arm of the Tom Petters Ponzi scheme clawback has reached out for Congresswoman Michele Bachmann in an effort to recover $27,600 in contributions to her congressional campaign from Petters associate and Bachmann friend, convicted money launderer Frank Vennes Jr.

The move came in an "adversary case" complaint filed in U.S. Bankruptcy Court proceedings in the Southern District of Florida for the Palm Beach Funds. These were Palm Beach, FL- and offshore-based hedge funds allegedly used by Vennes to steer billions of dollars into the Petters Ponzi.

Barry E. Mukamal, liquidating trustee for the bankrupt Palm Beach Funds, filed the action November 29 against Michele Bachmann, Bachmann for Congress, and Bachmann Minnesota Victory Committee. It identifies seven contributions to Bachmann’s congressional campaigns made between December 2005 and June 2008 that it seeks to recover for the Palm Beach Fund creditors. Based on Federal Election Commission records, those contributions were made by Frank Vennes Jr. and his wife, Kimberly.

Because the donations were made with Vennes’ allegedly ill-gotten gains from the Petters Ponzi, the complaint seeks to recover them for the Palm Beach Funds, which are now creditors of Vennes. According to court documents, from 2002 through September 2008, the Palm Beach Funds invested approximately $8 billion in PCI (Petters’ company) notes. As of September 24, 2008, when the Petters Ponzi came crashing down, the Palm Beach Funds had more than $1 billion invested in PCI.

“The direct effect of Petters’ fraudulent activities was that Palm Beach Funds’ investments in Petters purchase financing transactions were worthless,” the adversary case complaint states.

Vennes earned more than $60 million in commissions paid by Petters and/or PCI for the Palm Beach Fund investments based on a percentage of the money he attracted. Vennes was indicted July 19 on 24 counts of fraud, money laundering and making false statements, many of them related to his involvement with the Palm Beach Funds.

David William Harrold and Bruce Francis Prevost were owners and managers of the Palm Beach Funds. Vennes recruited the two to raise money for Petters and Petters’ company, PCI. The arrangement netted Harrold and Prevost more than $58 million in fees under their agreements with the Palm Beach Funds.

Harrold and Prevost were indicted along with Vennes in April. They pleaded guilty to securities fraud in the scheme and reportedly are cooperating with federal authorities.

The November 29 complaint says that Bachmann and her campaign committees were “unjustly enriched” by their receipt of Vennes’ campaign contributions, which occurred while Vennes was “committing these tortious acts and receiving transfers from the Palm Beach Funds.”

The complaint concludes:

“The Defendants’ [Bachmann] receipt of the benefit of the Transfers unjustly enriched the defendants to the detriment of Vennes and his creditors.

“Under the circumstances set forth herein, it would be inequitable for the defendants to retain such benefits.”

Bachmann previously has tried to wash her hands of some of Vennes’ “dirty money.” Following FBI raids on Vennes’ and Petters’ homes in 2008, Bachmann quickly moved to donate $9,200 of Vennes’ and his wife’s money to charity. However, that represented only a portion of the more than $50,000 Vennes and his family and personal lawyer gave to Bachmann from 2005-2008.
Ripple in Stillwater asked over a year ago why political contributions of fraudsters and Ponzi men weren't being clawed back.

Vennes was donating heavily to Minnesota politicians throughout most of the last decade as he sought a presidential pardon for earlier crimes unrelated to the Petters Ponzi.

Vennes was convicted in North Dakota of money laundering and illegal firearms and cocaine trafficking charges in 1987, served 38 months in federal prison in Sandstone, MN, and a decade or so after his release, began laying the groundwork for his presidential pardon.

In addition to Bachmann, Vennes and his family were major campaign contributors to former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, former U.S. Senator Norm Coleman, and state Republican Party entities. Vennes and his family also contributed to Sen. Amy Klobuchar and former State Sen. Ted Mondale, who now chairs the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission.

Vennes and his family were among Bachmann’s heaviest campaign contributors. Bachmann wrote a glowing letter of support for Vennes’ pardon on December 10, 2007, even though Vennes, a resident of Shorewood, MN, and Jupiter, FL, was not and never had been a constituent.

“As a U.S. Representative, I am confident of Mr. Vennes’ successful rehabilitation and that a pardon will be good for the neediest of society,” Bachmann wrote to the Office of Pardon Attorney. “Mr. Vennes is seeking a pardon so that he may be further used to help others. As I know from personal experience, Mr. Vennes has used his business position and success to fund hundreds of nonprofit organizations dedicated to helping the neediest in our society.”

Bachmann noted that Vennes needed a pardon because he “still encounters the barriers of his past and especially in the area of finance loan documents.” Bachmann has refused to further explain the nature of her “personal experience” with Vennes or provide clarification of the finance loan documents to which she refers in her letter.

Less than a week after FBI agents raided Vennes’ home in September 2008, Bachmann wrote a letter to the Office of Pardon Attorney withdrawing her earlier letter of support for Vennes’ pardon.

Other clawback actions filed by the Palm Beach Funds liquidating trustee include:
  • Vennes family members Norma Vennes (Frank’s mother), Colby Vennes and Denley Vennes (Frank’s sons), seeking funds that are alleged to have been fraudulently transferred from Metro Gem, Inc., one of several feeder funds for the Petters Ponzi scheme managed by Frank Vennes. Other Vennes family members targeted by the clawback made significant political contributions to Pawlenty and the Republican Party of Minnesota. It’s not known whether they will be subjected to clawback attempts by the Palm Beach Funds as well.
  • Vennes business associate Darrel Amiot, who is mentioned in a lecture by Frank Vennes [listen to an Amiot sermon here] Another case was filed against Larry Greely, an associate of Amiot.
  • A single complaint was filed against CitySites Urban Media, Inc., North Dakota Teen Challenge, Inc., Minnesota Teen Challenge, Inc., KidsFirst Scholarship Fund of Minnesota, Desiring God Ministries, Prison Fellowship, Trinity Christian School, Crown Financial Ministries, Inc., Great Commission Foundation, Inc., New Life Family Services, Northwestern College, Masterworks of Minneapolis, Inc., Metro Hope Ministries, Inc., Smithtown Gospel Tabernacle, Inc., T-Net International, Wheaton College, Billy Graham Center, Seg-Way Ministries, International Ministerial Fellowship, Williston Assembly of God.

    Some of these institutions have close connections to Vennes. Vennes served on the boards of Minnesota Teen Challenge and Northwestern College. Some of these institutions, like Desiring God Ministries (whose Pastor John Piper wrote about an anti-homosexual-tornado) and Minnesota Teen Challenge were involved in the strange saga of Hope Commons.
  • Grace Consulting of Southeast, Inc. run by Vennes’ brother and Bachmann donor Gregory Vennes, who was sued by investors in 2008 for alleged seven counts of fraud and misrepresentation (the lawsuit was settled).

This week’s clawback action suggests that the shadow of Frank Vennes Jr. will continue to cloud Bachmann’s political future well into the presidential caucus and primary season. For a candidate who can barely explain away her present—let alone her past—that can’t be good news.

For the full story on the Michele Bachmann-Frank Vennes Connection, read The Madness of Michele Bachmann by Ken Avidor, Karl Bremer and Eva Young.
    Photo © Copyright Karl Bremer

Friday, November 25, 2011

A window into the hidden world of New Zealand's white herons

By Karl Bremer

Deep in a secluded lagoon near the hamlet of Whataroa on New Zealand’s South Island West Coast, a spectacular avian display takes place between October and March when the country’s entire population of majestic white herons returns to nest at the Waitangiroto River colony. Dozens of these magnificent birds—called Kotuku by the native Maori—take up residence in kowhai, mahoe and kamahi trees and in the crowns of fern trees alongside a colony of even rarer royal spoonbills that also migrate to this remote backwater north of Okarito Lagoon to breed.

The regal white herons mingle as one with the equally noble royal spoonbills in this secret, otherworldly lagoon.  Gliding across the bronze-colored water, these iridescent creatures are like poetry in motion. The two spindly, white birds are distinguished in flight by their markedly different bills and the crook of their neck; the sharp-billed herons fly with their necks kinked, while spoonbills extend their broad beaks and long necks in flight. Together here during the breeding season, they present birders with a marvelous opportunity if you schedule your visit right. For much of the rest of the year, the herons and spoonbills are not even at the lagoon.

We arrived in late November—prime time to witness them resplendent in their breeding plumage cavort with one another while others sit on the nest with their fledgling young.

The trip back into the hidden sanctuary is part of the thrill of the white heron experience. White Heron Sanctuary Tours in Whataroa is the exclusive operator allowed into the sensitive area by the Department of Conservation and works closely with the Department to protect the heron and spoonbill population.
The jet boat skimmed across gravel bars in less than 6 inches of water.
After a short van ride across the open glacial plain with the Southern Alps visible in the distance, we arrived at a launch and boarded a jet boat. Apprehension about the propriety of roaring up and down the river to view a rare bird nesting area gave way to awe as our tour guide/pilot deftly guided the craft down the winding Waitangitaona River at speeds of 50-60 kph, shooting between deadheads and flying over gravel bars in 6 inches of crystal-clear water. And, as we would soon find out, the jet boat doesn’t get anywhere near the sanctuary.

The well-muffled roar of the boat’s jet propulsion scarcely got a nod out of the cows grazing contentedly along the river as we flew by. An occasional Putangitangi, the paradise shelduck, took flight and kept pace to escort us down the river. After about 20 minutes, we disembarked and boarded our third means of transport—an open-air jitney pulled by an ATV—that took us over to a different river.

Yet another boat ride awaited us there—this time on a double-decker pontoon that chugged quietly back up the murky, stained waters of the Waitangiroto River, which drains the middle of the floodplain. As we cruised along, we began to see increasing numbers of spoonbills and white herons skimming low across the water or perched on the shore fishing.

Our guide eased the pontoon up to the dock and we set out on the last leg—a short hike on a boardwalk through the swampy forest to the viewing stand. Along the walkway, box traps are set for stoats, a weasel-like varmint that preys on the eggs of white herons and other birds, including the endangered kiwi.

Visitors become hushed as they approach the two-level viewing stand across the lagoon from the nesting area. Once inside the wooden shanty, it’s like looking through a window into another world. The verdant forest spread out before you, thick and tangled below with taller kahikatea trees towering above, is punctuated with brilliant white herons and royal spoonbills. Dozens are sitting on nests while others perch like sentries or soar back and forth feeding their newly hatched young.
Fantastic plumes spray light off their backs and wings as they sit elegantly on their nests and preen. When they lift off, their sleek bodies float with ethereal grace on their immense wings, announced by an occasional guttural croak.

The viewing stand is equipped with multiple pairs of high-quality binoculars, allowing everyone ample opportunity to zoom in close on the birds’ family life for as long as they wanted. It appears to be unobtrusive to the birds’ activities, although during nesting when the birds are more protective, it’s sometimes necessary to partially shutter the large openings in the stand to keep from spooking them.

When the herons start arriving at the colony in August or September, they begin the magical transformation into their breeding stage. Their yellow beaks turn black, the facial skin turns blueish-green and long, spiked plumes develop on their backs and wings. These plumes long have been highly prized by humans. Maori thought them to be sacred and used them to adorn their chiefs and other tribal elders. Their desirability for women’s hats in the 1800s nearly decimated New Zealand’s population of the birds when their breeding ground was discovered in 1865. By 1941 only four nests remained, and the area was established as a reserve. It since has received increasing levels of protection.

Once they arrive at the lagoon, the males build a platform upon which they perform a dazzling mating ritual to compete for a mate. When birds are paired off, the female builds another nesting platform of fern fronds and sticks anywhere from 8 to 40 feet in the air.

Between 40 and 50 pairs of white herons typically breed at the site each year. Of the three to five eggs laid, only one or two usually are fledged. Their survival largely depends on weather conditions during nesting season, when storms can blow nests down, or flooding occurs in the nearby Okarito Lagoon, which can make stalking their diet of whitebait, eels and crayfish difficult.

The birds disperse throughout New Zealand in the winter after breeding, but the Waitangiroto River colony remains New Zealand’s only heronry. Their numbers reportedly have stabilized at between 100-120. How the colony was established in the first place is still somewhat of a mystery. Egretta alba modesta is found throughout India, China, Japan and Australia as well. Some theorize that perhaps hundreds of years ago, winds carried a flock from Australia across the Tasman Sea, and they established this colony on the West Coast just a few miles from the sea.

A royal spoonbill soars beneath the white herons.
Even more rare than the white heron in New Zealand is the royal spoonbill, or Kotuku Ngutu Papa (board-billed kotuku), that has been coming to the same lagoon to breed since 1949. Because the royal spoonbills nest in the much taller kahikatea trees, they’re more exposed and vulnerable to storms. As a result, fewer chicks are fledged. Their population, while stable, is far less than the white heron’s in New Zealand.

The royal spoonbill is slightly shorter and heavier than the white heron. It sweeps its black, shovel-like bill from side to side as it wades the swamps and estuaries to feed on shellfish, frogs and other aquatic life.

Similar to the white herons, plumes extend off the back of the royal spoonbill’s head during breeding. They disperse across both the South and North islands after the nesting season, usually to estuaries along the coast.

The lagoon is also home to a kawaupaka, or little shag, rookery. The little shag is common throughout New Zealand and nests near the white herons and royal spoonbills. Slightly smaller than either of its neighbors, the little shag’s plumage ranges from all black to black and white, with black feet, a yellow face and stubby yellow bill.

After about 45 minutes, we left the viewing stand in silence and with a sense of reverence at what we had just seen. The serene pontoon ride back down the Waitangiroto gave us a chance to ruminate on the experience as we passed an intermittent heron or spoonbill wading along the riverbank.

As the jet boat flew upstream and across the shoals of the Waitangitaona, it felt like we were being transported forward in time from a visit to an ancient world, where these wondrous monarchs ruled the sky.

To the Maori, Kotuku is a sacred symbol of all things rare and beautiful. It even shows up in a Maori funeral chant that concludes: “Ko to kotuku to tapui, e Tama – e” (“Kotuku is now thy sole companion, O my son!”). Visit the White Heron Sanctuary at Whataroa and see for yourself why.


Whataroa is on the South Island’s West Coast on State Highway 6, 103 km south of Hokitika and 32 km north of Franz Josef Glacier. White Heron Sanctuary Tours is on the west side of the road in the middle of the village.

White Heron tours run from late October to March. A rainforest nature tour by jetboat in the Waitangi Roto Nature Reserve is run during the rest of the year. Cost for both tours is $110 for adults and $45 for children 12 and under. Tours are run daily at approximately 9 a.m, 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. Studio, motel and cabin units also are available at the Sanctuary Tours Motel next door.

Phone:  0800-523-456

A visit to the tiny Kotuku Gallery in Whataroa is time well-spent before or after the 2.5-hour white heron tour. It features a splendid collection of bone, jade, wood and antler art pieces by a local Maori carver and his family. And there’s nothing like buying direct from the artist.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

'Madness of Michele Bachmann' book signing December 10 at Common Good Books in St. Paul

The authors of "The Madness of Michele Bachmann" -- myself, Ken Avidor and Eva Young -- will sign copies of our book at Common Good Books, 165 Western Ave. N., St. Paul, on December 10 at 2 p.m. Come out and meet the authors behind the bylines and get your holiday shopping done at the same time!

Friday, November 11, 2011

A Veterans Day for Veterans

By Karl Bremer
It’s Veterans Day again.


Federal government workers will get the day off, whether they served or not. Likewise, most state employees will get a holiday, regardless of their veterans status. Bankers too. In fact, 21 percent of private employers plan to observe the holiday in 2011, according to the Society for Human Resource Management.

But if you’re a veteran, unless you’re working for one of the employers listed above, chances are, it’s just another day on the job. If you want to attend one of the many events recognizing veterans today, you’ll probably have to take a day of vacation.

Which brings me to my modest proposal.

If we are to set aside one day a year to honor veterans and call it Veterans Day, why are we giving the day off to nonveterans? For most, it’s an extra day to put away the mower and get the snowblower out, a free day in the tree stand waiting for a deer, a bonus day on the golf course, an opportunity for a three-day road trip somewhere, or just an extra day to sleep in. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

But if veterans are going to lend our name to a holiday, why not make Veterans Day truly a day for veterans and give those who served in uniform the day off while others work? It’s simply a matter of truth-in-advertising. Otherwise, we may as well call it Government Workers & Bankers Day. See how well that goes over.

Minnesota wouldn’t be the first state to move in this direction. Since 2010, all employers in the state of Iowa are required to give veterans the day off on November 11. However, they have the option of making that a paid or unpaid holiday for the veteran, which in the latter instance, isn’t really a holiday at all.

Governor Dayton yesterday announced two new veterans initiatives—one to expand a job retraining program to all veterans and another to provide funding for military honor guards at veterans’ funerals. Ripple in Stillwater is calling on him to add a third:

Require that all public and private employers in the state of Minnesota give veterans a paid holiday on November 11, and rescind it as an “official” state holiday for all others.

Memorials, editorials, rememberances, flags and salutes are all fine. But if you really want to show your appreciation for those who served, give them a real holiday to go along with it.

(For the record, I was drafted in 1972 and served two years and a day in the U.S. Army, Military Police.)

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

A River of Misinformation

By Karl Bremer

When I exposed the Coalition for the St. Croix River Crossing’s big lie about the Obama Administration and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood supporting their Boondoggle Bridge, the Coalition’s director defended its claim in a blog posting of his own.

“Despite what some people want us to believe, recent comments by U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood indicate that the Obama Administration really does want the St. Croix River Crossing to be built,” huffed Coalition Executive Director Michael Wilhelmi. “Honestly.”

“The only way one could think that his comments in support of the St. Croix River Crossing actually mean that the Obama Administration doesn’t support the St. Croix River Crossing,” Wilhelmi charged, “is when you ignore basic facts, as was recently done by a local blogger.” He linked to my column.

Today, the Star-Tribune newspaper in Minneapolis confirmed what I had reported last week: the Obama Administration has not thrown its support behind the Boondoggle bridge, and neither has Secretary LaHood, as the Coalition has falsely claimed. Mary McComber, the Coalition member who told Ripple in Stillwater that neither the Administration nor LaHood had expressed a preference for any particular bridge, also reaffirmed to the Star-Tribune what she told me.

According to the Star-Tribune: 

McComber, who was at the White House last month for a meeting with local officials, said Tuesday that [White House Chief of Staff] Daley did not specifically back the project and that the coalition's statement went too far. "Something has gotten mixed up somewhere along the lines," she said.

When one of Wilhelmi’s own Coalition members says they aren’t being truthful, that should tell you something.

The Star-Tribune went on to note:

Even though LaHood has said he supports building a bridge, he declined to back the specific legislation in Congress, saying that's something he never does.

The White House declined to comment for the Star-Tribune’s story.

Wilhelmi boasted in his missive that “We make sure that the details and facts that we use in support of the project are verified by a state or federal regulatory agency. Bridge opponents cannot say the same.”

Maybe when Wilhelmi sees his deceptions exposed by a big-city newspaper instead of just a “local blogger,” he’ll think better of continuing to make false claims about support for his Boondoggle Bridge that doesn’t exist. Then again, maybe he’ll just blithely accuse the Star-Tribune of “ignoring the facts” too, and continue to spew his river of misinformation.

A Kinky Night with Ray Davies

By Karl Bremer

Kinks co-founder and former frontman Ray Davies turned in a splendid performance at St. Paul's Fitzgerald Theatre last night. Backed by L.A. indie rockers The 88, Ray blew through a wide range of mostly Kinks material-- from transcendent classics Waterloo Sunset and Celluloid Heroes to timeless treasures like 20th Century Man, which still resonates even in the 21st Century:
This is the twentieth century
But too much aggravation
This is the edge of insanity
I'm a twentieth century man
but I don't wanna be here.
Ray last played in Minnesota in 2006 at First Avenue in Minneapolis. For more photos of last night's show, go here. For a great interview on Minnesota Public Radio, go here.

All photos copyright by Karl Bremer.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Boondoggle Bridge Coalition muddies the St. Croix waters with more misinformation

By Karl Bremer
Michael Wilhelmi

Michael Wilhelmi, executive director of the Boondoggle Bridge-supporting Coalition for the St. Croix River Crossing, took umbrage at my recent post regarding the misinformation campaign of his Coalition. In a rather huffy response on the Coalition’s blog, Wilhelmi responded with more misinformation, and accused me of ignoring the facts. Let’s have a look.

Curiously, Wilhelmi begins by disclaiming ownership of the $700 million Boondoggle Bridge.

“First, the St. Croix River Crossing proposal is not ‘the coalition’s’ bridge,” Wilhelmi insists. That’s funny, because they’re the only ones lobbying for it, so if it’s not “their” project, whose is it?

Wilhelmi continues down this twisted path: “The Federal Highway Administration, which is led by Secretary LaHood, participated in the bridge design process and approved the bridge project with a Record of Decision. The administration even defended the project in a three-year court battle with the Sierra Club.” Therefore, Wilhelmi reasons, “the U.S. Department of Transportation supports this project.”

There are a few things wrong with that assumption.

First, the FHWA issued its Record of Decision on the bridge in 1995 during the Clinton Administration two presidents ago. The National Park Service (NPS) subsequently ruled against the bridge that administration’s FHWA signed off on, and the courts upheld the NPS’s decision.

It was the FHWA under the Bush Administration that issued a second Record of Decision in 2006 and defended the project in the Sierra Club litigation. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the current FHWA—which is led by FHWA Administrator Victor Mendez and not Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, as Wilhelmi states—supports the Coalition’s bridge.

Remember, it was under the Bush Administration in 2005 that the NPS gave the project a green light. That decision was reversed by the Obama Administration’s NPS after the courts sided with the Sierra Club in 2010 and ordered the NPS to reconsider its earlier approval.

Nor does it mean that Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood necessarily supports the Coalition’s version of the bridge, as Wilhelmi claims. Even Coalition member Mary McComber admitted to Ripple in Stillwater that LaHood’s recent comments didn’t indicate support for any specific version of a bridge—only that it be done “within the law.” If Wilhelmi has any solid evidence of LaHood’s support for the Coalition’s bridge—a letter, perhaps?—he needs to offer more proof than his own wishful thinking and hearsay.

Wilhelmi continues with his fantasies.

“There is no way to build any new bridge without an exemption from the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The National Park Service has concluded that the Act does not allow them to grant a permit for any new construction in any Wild and Scenic River that would have a ‘direct, adverse’ impact on the river’s ‘scenic values’,” he states.

That’s not what the NPS concluded at all. It concluded that “the St. Croix River Crossing Project (emphasis added) would have a direct and adverse impact to the river and that those impacts cannot be mitigated.” It said nothing about bridge designs other than the Coalition’s monstrosity it had before it.

Wilhelmi’s contention that “there is no way to build any bridge without an exemption to the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act” is equally phony. In fact, two bridges have been built across the St. Croix River since it fell under protection of the Act and neither required an exemption by Congress: the replacement bridge at Osceola, WI, in 1980, WI, and the lift bridge at Prescott, WI, in 1990. It’s just that there’s no way to build his bridge without an exemption to the Act.

Wilhelmi claims that "the law specifically allows Congress to provide an exemption for worthy projects. Therefore, exempting the St. Croix River Crossing from the provision in the WSRA is 'within the law.'  However, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act has never granted an exemption for a bridge. The Coalition once promoted that myth as well until Ripple in Stillwater debunked it too. The only two exemptions that have been granted under the Act in its entire history have been for fisheries habitat improvement projects.

Wilhelmi concludes by playing the victim card and accuses opponents of the Coalition’s Boondoggle Bridge of trying to “attack and smear” them. Maybe he’s just upset that he’s got a gaping $80,000 hole in his Coalition’s budget thanks to the diligence of those opponents.

Following after the Coalition for the St. Croix Crossing’s press releases is getting to be a bit like the guy with the broom and shovel trailing the elephants in the circus parade. It’s a distasteful job, but someone’s got to clean up the mess they leave behind.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Obama Administration supports Boondoggle Bridge? Not really

This is the $700 million monstrosity proposed to be built just 6 miles north of the eight-lane I-94 bridge at Lakeland-Hudson.

By Karl Bremer

The way the lobbyists for the bridge across the St. Croix River are portraying recent comments from Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, you’d think President Obama has given his personal stamp of approval to the $700 million Bachmann-Klobuchar-Dayton Boondoggle Bridge.

Not so fast.

“St. Croix River Crossing is a priority for President Obama,” trumpets the headline on a press release from the Coalition for the St. Croix Bridge Crossing, a lobbying group for the Boondoggle Bridge. The press release continues:

“Oak Park Heights City Councilmember Mary McComber spoke with LaHood and White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley about the St. Croix River Crossing during a briefing for city and municipal leaders held at the White House on Thursday, October 27. McComber was invited in her capacity as incoming chair of the Regional Development Committee of the National League of Cities.

“In response to a question from McComber during his presentation to the group, LaHood said that President Obama and his administration are well aware of the St. Croix River Crossing and are committed to getting it done. 

“Secretary LaHood said, ‘I know about your project. I know what the problem is. I am committed to getting it done. The President is committed to getting it done,’” McComber stated.”

So is that project that he’s committed to getting done the Coalition’s $700 million, 65-mph, four-lane freeway version of the bridge? Not necessarily.

Ripple in Stillwater contacted McComber and asked her to clarify her statement—specifically, whether LaHood was referring to the Coalition’s bridge proposal.

“What Ray LaHood said was that the Obama Administration is committed to getting this project solved, but totally legally—and he kept referring back to this—within the law,” McComber said.

LaHood did not say he or Obama supported an exemption from the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act to get the bridge built, and did not express support for any specific bridge proposal, McComber said. There was some discussion about the need to streamline federal approval processes for infrastructure projects when multiple agencies are involved, said McComber, but there was no talk about including an exemption from the Act in a  “streamlining” of the process to get the St. Croix bridge problem resolved.

The Administration’s support was “more just to get it off people’s plate,” McComber noted.

The Obama Administration on November 1 released a list of 14 infrastructure projects that it said “will be expedited through permitting and environmental review processes” in order to move them “as quickly as possible from the drawing board to completion” and create jobs.

There are two bridge projects on that list, but the St. Croix bridge is not one of them.

Once again, the Boondoggle Bridge Coalition appears to be playing loose with the facts, and their strategy worked with some in the media..

Stillwater loses battle over $80,000
TIF donation to bridge lobbyists

Meanwhile, in other Boondoggle Bridge news, the City of Stillwater decided to cut their losses and return to Washington County the $80,000 in tax-increment finance (TIF) funds the state auditor ruled they had illegally donated to the Coalition. The city stands to lose half of those funds because of their misappropriation of them to the bridge lobbying group, which Stillwater Mayor Ken Harycki co-chairs.

The state auditor's ruling was in response to complaints filed by myself and Stillwater historian Don Empson.
Stillwater City Attorney Dave Magnuson
refuses to admit he was wrong.

Not content with having his dubious legal opinions repeatedly called into question by the Office of State Auditor in its reports on the matter, Stillwater City Attorney Dave Magnuson accused the auditor’s office of playing politics with its decision. He was joined by City Council member Jim Roush, who the Star-Tribune reported opined in an Oct. 31 council meeting on the matter: I think their office is out of control and has exceeded their authority.”

Said council member Micky Cook, according to the St. Paul Pioneer Press: “I think we just need to suck it up, unless we want to get slapped around some more.”

Roush told the Star-Tribune’s Kevin Giles after the meeting that the auditor’s ruling was “politically motivated” but Roush declined to elaborate.

State Auditor Rebecca Otto responded that Roush’s comments were “a little bit like blaming the dentist for a cavity in your mouth.”

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.