The first time I saw the St. Louis Ghost Light I didn’t know what I was looking at. I was seventeen years old at the time and did not believe in ghosts.
One of my earliest childhood memories was of a strange cloud in the basement of our home. The room had inexplicably filled with a greenish fog that slowly rolled together and transformed into a human-like shape. My ears rang and my body froze. I tried to breath. It was something I did not want to see. Somehow, I broke the spell and ran. My mom told me I was imagining things, but I learned as an adult she had seen things herself.
Over the years, I sometimes woke to see that green cloud hovering over me. Not just in one home either. I would close my eyes and hide beneath the cover of my blankets. As I grew older, I slowly realized that the cloud was a figment of my imagination. I was half asleep. It was not real. It would be years before someone else saw it at the same time as me.
When I was seventeen though, I no longer believed in ghosts. The cloud wasn’t real. I thought I had grown up – but really, I was just naive.
The St. Louis Ghost Light is one of Canada’s most famous ghost stories. Most of the people I grew up with in Prince Albert have seen it. Whole groups of us saw it at the same time.
In 2014, Canada Post featured the haunting on one of their stamps and posted the story online. The legend, as I already knew, was that a railway worker had been killed on the tracks near the town of St. Louis close to the South Saskatchewan River. The area is mostly farmland, but there is a tree-lined dirt road where the tracks had once been. Nowadays, fences with ‘No Trespassing’ signs restrict access, but back then the road was wide open.
The site has appeared on documentaries, in newspapers, magazine articles, books, YouTube videos, and on the news. Groups have studied the “ghost” and have proposed theories ranging from swamp gas to headlights in the distance.
I have seen this light a hundred times or more. Sometimes, it looks like a large single headlight. At others, it sways back and forth and is red. This is said to be the conductor looking for his head.
I have witnessed these lights during the day, and I have seen them walking along the road in both directions. I have seen them in the distance and I have seen them up close. It is not headlights and there are no swamps nearby. To me, the explanations are even more whimsical than one’s belief in spirits of the dead.
Some places incite peacefulness: temples of worship; well-tended gardens; New Age rooms of healing. The St. Louis Ghost Light has the opposite effect. Something feels unsettling. Car stereos turn off or on by themselves. Vehicles sometimes won’t start. The air burns electric.
Like many places reputed to be haunted, the old road became a place for parties. The location was remote, so we’d light fires and drink whatever we could get our hands on. Pretty girls would come to impress us, and we’d be there to show them how fearless we really were. Adults came too. Curious first-daters. People bored with the bar. Sometimes the police would arrive. They would pour out our drinks and tell us to put out the fire and leave.
It wasn’t like it was a festival or anything. There would usually only be one or two cars at a time. If there were several people, it would be the same group of friends hoping to see the light together. On a few occasions, there were a couple of parties taking place at the same time. This usually meant separate bonfires a short distance apart from one another. Being rural, the place was otherwise dark and quiet. The stars were bright and the sounds of civilization were far in the distance.
The first time that I saw the light up close was on a night several of us had come to build a fire. As usual, music spilled out of a nearby car while the crackling flame kept us warm.
We hadn’t learned yet that the spot on the road where we built our fire was a bad one. It was less visible to authorities in the distance, but it wasn’t a good place to see the light. Once we started to build the flame on higher ground we saw the light more often. It would appear and disappear over and over again. It became so common, that eventually it was just a recurring curiosity. It was more than that in the beginning, of course, and always more than that when one of us left the safety of the fire.
That night, when I was still seventeen, was the beginning.
Three of us had never seen the light, so we left the fire to seek it out. We were brave on the outside, because we listened to hard music, fought and shot guns. We were also brave because we didn’t believe the stories were real.
Some of our friends were ahead of us on the old trail. They kept trying to scare us. An intensely bright flashlight kept shining in our faces when they turned around and pointed the beam at us.
It looked like a motorcycle headlight at ten feet away. It would be there for several seconds and then go out. We were annoyed because the light was jarring and it hurt our eyes.
“Turn that fucking thing off!” I yelled after the third or fourth time.
Eventually, the prank got old and they stopped. We became bored ourselves and headed back to the fire, wondering who had been ahead of us.
“Did you see it?” someone asked when we returned.
My two friends and I looked back and forth at one another in disbelief. There were thick shrubs on either side of us, so we knew that no one had passed us. All of our friends were standing around the fire.
I had become a believer once more.
Next week I’ll share some video of the St. Louis Ghost Light so stay tuned!