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Mystery Solved?

A mysterious light that appears almost nightly near the central Saskatchewan community of St. Louis has frightened and puzzled people for decades. Thrill seekers venturing out to the old railroad crossing north of town typically report what appears to be the light of a train approaching from the south.

Trouble is, the rail line is abandoned and the tracks were torn out years ago. An accompanying legend about a train conductor who lost his head during a routine track inspection lends an icy shiver to the eerie experience.

"The St. Louis Ghost Train" is one of Saskatchewan's most popular, unexplained phenomena. It's been featured in a book, on websites and in many media reports, including an item on the American television program Unsolved Mysteries. Through it all, no one has been able to come up with a good explanation for the strange phenomenon.

Until now.

Alysha Lederhouse
Alysha

Alysha and Shannon are Grade 12 students who live in northern Saskatchewan. Shannon believes in the paranormal; Alysha is the skeptical type. When Shannon told Alysha how she and a group of friends "freaked out" when they spotted the ghost train during a road trip to St. Louis, Alysha scoffed.

Shannon
Shannon

"I argued that it's probably car headlights," Alysha said when she and Shannon were interviewed by telephone. "But everyone else was like: 'Well, what if it's not? What if it's a ghost train?'"

As it happened, the two friends were one good idea short of a science fair project. Studying the St. Louis Ghost Train seemed a good way to satisfy their curiosity and earn good science marks while they were at it.

They began with the hypothesis the ghost train was nothing more than vehicle headlights from a nearby road. They researched their topic over several trips to St. Louis in the fall of 2001 and winter of 2002. St. Louis is located less than a half hour south of Prince Albert.

Using a 1:50 000-scale map, a compass and a global positioning system borrowed from Alysha's father, who's involved in mineral exploration, the girls calculated their precise location while viewing the mysterious lights from the old track bed. On the map, they drew a straight line from their location, through the spot where the light appeared to originate, and beyond. They then marked all roads on or near the line, paying particular attention to the latter.

"Apparently there have been other people investigating this thing, even scientists,'' said Alysha. "We thought that if it turned out to be a road that completely lined up with the line, they would have found that out.''

For testing the various locations, the girls enlisted the help of Alysha's father. They asked him to drive to the first spot on the map and position his vehicle so that his headlights aimed in their direction. The two parties stayed in touch by cell phone.

"Then we'd say: 'okay now, flash your headlights'."

Alysha's father flashed his lights from a half dozen locations as Shannon and Alysha stood outside their vehicle at the old train crossing, carefully watching for the ghost train light to appear. Except for the odd coincidence, however, there was no match between flashing headlights and the appearance of the ghost train.

As they mulled the disappointing results, the girls wondered whether the roads they were testing were simply too low to be seen from the old track bed. The nearest roadway with a similar elevation, however, was a hilltop section of Highway No. 2 situated 8.5 km (5.3 miles) away - a seemingly impossible distance for headlights to be seen at all, let alone to appear as large as the ghost train light. After several tries from the greater distance, they discovered a short stretch of highway they are convinced accounts for the ghost train sightings.

"We got (dad) to stay there for about 20 minutes, just flashing his lights off and on,'' said Alysha. "He'd tell me when he turned on his lights and it was exactly, like, there was no question that that was where the light was coming from.''

When the Alysha's father turned his vehicle around on a gravel road at the crest of the hill, the girls observed a reddish light occasionally reported by ghost train observers. According to legend, the reddish light is the lantern the dead conductor uses to search for his head.

Alysha says "we were shocked" with the results. How, they wondered, could vehicle lights appear so clearly from such a distance?

Alysha and Shannon

Their research suggests an optical phenomenon called "diffraction" may be the answer. 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.

Has the St. Louis Ghost Train mystery been solved? Well, Alysha and Shannon believe so, even if Shannon feels the findings "take a lot of the fun out of it."

"I'm a believer in the supernatural,'' she says, "but as long as there's something scientific there…"

Alysha, on the other hand, says there's still good reason to gather up friends to pay a night time visit to the abandoned track bed north of St. Louis.

"If I had heard there's this really neat phenomenon with light waves, I'd be more inclined to want to see it than a ghost train,'' she said.

Something both girls are pleased with is their mark: The ghost train project earned them one of three gold medals awarded at the science fair.


(We ran two stories about the ghost train a couple of years before this one. If you're interested, I recommend first reading The St. Louis Ghost Train, followed by Family Ghost Hunt -- ed.)

Web cam images courtesy Lederhouse and Dunn.



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