A Ghost Train is Coming to Shorewood

May 2, 2016

An elegant meal on a train. The railroad company that owned the 400, and the 400 series of passenger trains it inspired, hoped the promise of speed and luxury would draw travelers who were increasingly gravitating toward private vehicles for transportation.
Credit Shorewood Historical Society

In 1935, Fred Astaire’s Cheek to Cheek was the most popular song in America. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president. A new house cost around $3,500. And between Chicago and Minneapolis, racing right through Shorewood, what was then the fastest train in the nation started its daily trips.

Shorewood Historical Society president Karen de Hartog says the 400 was called that because its owner, C & NW Railroad,  claimed it could carry passengers the 400 miles between Chicago and Minneapolis in 400 minutes.

Each time the train sped through Shorewood, it created a sensation. Stressing the impact of the 400 on the north shore village, de Hartog quotes Jim Scribbins' book, The 400 Story: Chicago & North Westerns Premier Passenger Trains:

“Shorewood, just outside Milwaukee’s northern limit, posted a police car at a principal grade crossing every day to control traffic when the 400 passed. Sometimes as many as fifty automobiles were parked at the crossing, there occupants anticipating the Minneapolis bound streak of black lightning.”

The train was also known for it's comfort, and for the care it took to make sure its passengers traveled in luxury. After all, it was competing with the growing popularity of cars. "They had really lovely, they called streamlined service. Lovely Pullman cars and eating cars," de Hartog says. "It was really a genteel way to travel."

Plans for the Ghost Train.
Credit Bonnie Petrie / WUWM Milwaukee Public Radio

John Kallman is a 400 enthusiast, and remembers well the amenities of train travel during this period. In fact, it characterizes his first memory of riding the train. "It was with my aunt and uncle. We were leaving Milwaukee, and I was seven, maybe eight, and they bought me supper on the train, and it was a real nice experience."

Gretchen Fairweather of Shorewood rode the 400 every summer for several years, starting when she was around seven. She says the memories are among the fondest of her life. She used to love to hang her head out the windows of the fast moving locomotive, she says, and feel the wind in her face the whole way to her destination. She would open the top half of the train's dutch door, and she would "lean out that window as long as I could stand."

The Twin Cities 400 stopped running in 1963.

For more than fifty years, there has been no rumble of a train through Shorewood, no whistle warning of its approach.

But on Halloween night, that will change. Lighting designer Marty Peck, of Creative Lighting Design & Engineering in Germantown, will unveil an art installation that will create the illusion that the ghost of the 400 is crossing the Oak Leaf Trail bridge over Capitol Drive. Commissioned by the Shorewood Public Arts Committee, Peck will use lights and sound to create the effect. 

We’re going to have crossing signals, but they’ll be at the top of those towers that are on either end of the bridge, so they’re not really going to interfere with traffic. But there’s going to be some red, flashing beacons, if you will, on top of those four towers, and those flashing, alternation, along with the signal bells will suggest the approach of the train. Then you’ll hear the whistle.

Cascading dots of light will create the impression that a train is speeding over the bridge at fifty miles an hour. Then, in under a minute, the Ghost Train will be gone.

What do those who remember the real 400 think about the Ghost Train? Kallman can't wait, and he hopes it draws a crowd, like in the old days. He says, "Even though the actual train is no longer here, I hope they can appreciate a piece of history that was once so much a part of Milwaukee."

The Ghost Train will start running through Shorewood twice a night for the foreseeable future on October 31, 2016. The 'train' will run at 8 and 8:30 pm each evening until March 15, 2017.

It is the second of 15 planned village art installations celebrating the history of Shorewood.

The Ghost Train will pass over the Oak Leaf Trail bridge over Capitol Drive. Supporters of the project include Shorewood Public Arts Committee member Patricia Algiers, Shorewood Historical Society president Karen de Hartog, lighting designer Marty Peck and Shorewood resident Gretchen Fairweather.
Credit Bonnie Petrie / WUWM Milwaukee Public Radio