At the turn of the 20th century, Lake Superior’s Minnesota shoreline was a dark and isolated place northeast of Two Harbors. As shipping traffic blossomed, so did concerns about this remote stretch of coastline. Mariners advocated for a lighthouse to help captains keep their bearings, but it took a catastrophic November storm and the loss of lives and multiple vessels to convince the U.S. Congress to build what would become among the most recognized and beautiful landmarks on Lake Superior – Split Rock Lighthouse.
One could say that the lighthouse was borne to Minnesota’s North Shore by the gales of late November 1905.
Autumn 1905 may have been the most disastrous in the history of Lake Superior shipping. A freak storm in early September battered the fleets, destroying a number of boats in the Apostle Islands and sinking or severely damaging several large, modern steel ships.
October was not much better, then late November ushered in what has become known as the Mataafa Blow – named for a boat that foundered with nine crewmen lost off the Duluth, Minnesota, pier-head. The storm wrecked or seriously damaged 18 ships over two days in western Lake Superior – arguably the worst storm of the 20th century.
Howling northeast winds blew a blizzard that blinded all vessels in its grasp. Monstrous seas challenged even the strongest of ships. Less seaworthy craft either limped into the safety of nearby anchorages … or went to the bottom. But the rocky cliffs of Minnesota’s North Shore inflicted the worst damage.
Within 15 miles of one another and only a few miles from where Split Rock Lighthouse was later built, four vessels of the Pittsburgh Steamship Company, the shipping arm of U.S. Steel Corporation, were blown ashore and either destroyed or damaged severely. Most crewmen reached safety, but three lives were lost in the accidents and the Pittsburgh line lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in salvage and outright losses.
Blinded by snow and unable to cope with the wind and seas, the captain of the William Edenborn ordered a “full speed ahead” into what he thought was deeper water, but instead crashed ashore at the mouth of the Split Rock River. One crewman was killed when he fell into a hatch that opened as the boat cracked mid-ship. About two hours earlier, the towline between Edenborn and its barge Madeira had separated and the barge was blown helplessly before the raging wind, crashing against Gold Rock (east of today’s Split Rock Light) and quickly breaking up. One crewman fell overboard and drowned, but the others were saved by one brave man who jumped onto the cliff face, scaled its side and tossed down a weighted rope to help the others up before the barge broke apart against the rocks.
At virtually the same time, Pittsburgh Fleet’s SS Lafayette crashed into the promontory west of Split Rock that now bears the steamer’s name. Its tow barge Manila was blown into it and both were stranded on the rocky shore. Four of the Lafayette crew jumped aboard the Manilaas it crashed into the steamer. They, with the barge captain, then jumped ashore and established a rope with the floundering Lafayette. The remaining steamer crew made it hand-over-hand across the rope to shore, except for one fireman who fell off the line to his death.
Besides the three lives claimed, the loss of vessels tallied more than $585,000 for the steamship company. The wreckage of the Madeira remains where it went down, now a dive site for scuba enthusiasts.
Not surprisingly, in short order the president of Pittsburgh Steamship Company led a delegation to Washington, D.C., to lobby Congress for a lighthouse. Other companies and the Lake Carriers’ Association joined that effort and convinced Congress to appropriate $75,000 in 1907. Two years later, construction began on what was then called Stoney Point.
Why or where the name Split Rock came to be used for the lighthouse is unclear, although the nearby river of that name is clearly identified on maps from Henry Bayfield’s 1825 survey onward. Likely the name was first used when engineers considered building the light on Corundum Point near the river and simply continued to be used when the present site was finally developed.
Lighthouses are designed and built to call attention to themselves, but few U.S. lighthouses have been as successful at that as has Split Rock Lighthouse. Not only has the light pointed the way for generations of mariners after its August 1, 1910, dedication, but it has hosted millions of land-based visitors since Minnesota Highway 61 opened in 1924.
Details about the difficult construction of Split Rock Light Station would fill a volume. With no road to the site, all the workers and building material had to be shipped by boat. Tons of brick and other supplies were laboriously hoisted to the top of the 130-foot rock cliff by steam-powered derrick. Windy days halted lifting, thereby delaying the project. As fashioned by a crew of up to 35 skilled workmen, a sturdy, serviceable facility took shape that also displayed a unique beauty and maritime ambiance. The stately, octagonal yellow-brick lighthouse high atop the craggy cliff immediately attracted accolades from shipboard passengers and became the subject for thousands of images by artists and photographers through the years – many of which sold briskly as printed souvenir postcards.
Lee Radzak, manager of the lighthouse site for the Minnesota State Historical Society, says, “Because it was such an isolated site, the construction contractor took the unusual step of hiring a French chef to provide the crew with excellent food as one way to keep them happy on the project.”
At a cost of nearly $73,000, the Split Rock Light Station consisted of 10 buildings, which included the lighthouse, fog signal building, houses for three keepers and their families, an oil house and storage barns. The third-order, twin-lensed “clamshell” Fresnel fixture was lighted by an incandescent oil vapor lamp fueled by preheated kerosene introduced as a mist into the combustion chamber. Powered by a mechanical “clockwork” system of weights and pulleys, the lens rotated once each 20 seconds, emitting a white flash of light every 10 seconds. From its 130-foot perch on the cliff, the tower rises an additional 54 feet, giving the beacon an official focal plane of 168 feet above water level and a range of 22 miles, but the flash has reportedly been seen as far as 45 miles away and in the Apostle Islands when weather conditions are perfect.
The roar of the foghorn sounded every 20 seconds during inclement and foggy weather and could be heard five miles away, depending on conditions. Identical twin air compressors for the air horns ensured that there would be a backup if one unit failed. The compressors were powered by 30-horsepower gasoline engines – an innovation at that early date.
Orren P. “Pete” Young was appointed as the first keeper at Split Rock and served until 1928, when his first assistant keeper, Franklin J. Covell, succeeded him. Covell served at the site for a total of 20 years. Both he and Young worked until their forced retirement at age 70. When the Coast Guard assumed command in 1939, Keeper Covell continued at the light until his retirement from the Lighthouse Service in 1944 and was replaced by James Gagnon of the Lighthouse Service. Eventually, Coast Guard personnel would assume all duties at the site as the last of the old-time Lighthouse Service personnel, Robert Bennetts, retired in 1961.
Radzak says that Keeper Young quickly made friends with fishing families at nearby Little Two Harbors and traded fish for haircuts when the families got a little shaggy. He also tried gardening – not a huge success – and hunted, fished and picked the abundant berries growing in the area.
The lighthouse’s success is evidenced by the fact that there were no major shipwrecks or accidents in this once-dangerous area of the North Shore after the light began operating.
A few months after it began operation, the station itself suffered the tragic loss of two assistant keepers on their way to Beaver Bay to collect the mail. Keeper Young had warned the men, who were inexperienced sailors, not to tie off the sail, but to hold it in place by hand. That way, they could release it easily if adverse winds caught it. When the men failed to return, a search was mounted and located the small sailboat, minus the two keepers. The sail was securely tied to the gunwale – mute testimony to the soundness of Young’s advice.
After the arrival of Highway 61 (at the time called Lake Superior International Highway) in 1924, increasing automobile traffic and the beginning of tourism saw greater numbers of summer visitors to the site. Radzak credits the highway as the single most important factor in Split Rock’s history and public perception. It brought a flood of visitors that at times threatened to overwhelm the routine of the keepers, especially after improvement to the road into Split Rock in the mid-1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps unit that was developing nearby Gooseberry State Park. As early as 1936, the keeper estimated that 100,000 people visited the site during the summer.
Keeper Covell was ordered to be in dress uniform on Sundays to direct tours of the facility for visitors – at no extra pay, of course. He apparently adhered to that routine until the U.S. Coast Guard took over the station in 1939. A lower-ranking enlisted man was then assigned as tour guide.
“The Coast Guard always looked at all those visitors as a good public relations opportunity for the service,” Radzak says. “They put a good deal of time and money into making it a showplace – although we have gone back and restored some things that they altered, like removing the original oak trim and some other woodwork and replacing it with aluminum, which was easier to maintain.”
In 1940, electricity came to the North Shore and the lighthouse. A 1,000-watt bulb and an electric motor were installed in the tower to light and turn the lens, making the keepers’ lives easier, since there was no more sooty residue to clean from the lens and no need to adjust and wind the clockwork rotating mechanism.
World War II saw sidearms requested by the light keepers to use if necessary to protect the property from any attempted sabotage. (That request was denied.) Even though Clyde Adams had opened the Split Rock gift shop in 1942 as a commercial enterprise adjacent to the lighthouse, visitors long accustomed to using the site as a rest stop were not welcome during the war. The rationing of gas and tires led to much less traffic on the North Shore anyway. Once the war ended, tourism exploded into a major industry on the shore and the flood of visitors returned to Split Rock.
Through two decades following World War II, the lighthouse continued to beacon the way for ships passing to and from Two Harbors, Duluth and Superior, Wisconsin. In 1961, after technological advances, and reportedly as a favor to the owner of a nearby resort where he normally stayed during visits to the site, the lighthouse inspector ordered the shutdown of the fog signal. Seven years later, new navigational technology made it possible to turn off the light.
After the 1968 decommissioning, the Coast Guard deeded the property to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in 1969. The DNR reacquired the Clyde Adams’ property and designated a small state park adjacent to the lighthouse. The DNR operated the site as a park and tourist stop until 1976. Then, as part of the Minnesota Outdoor Recreation Act, Split Rock and other historic sites were transferred to the Minnesota Historical Society (MHS). The DNR focused on Split Rock Lighthouse State Park and turned the light and surrounding 25 acres over to MHS, which has done a great deal of restoration and upgrading to present an authentic look at the life of light keepers and their families at a beautiful but remote station.
A youthful Lee Radzak assumed the position as MHS site manager of Split Rock Lighthouse Historic Site in 1982. He and wife, Jane, have spent interesting times since as residents on the site. Their two children have never known another home. In 1986, construction of the Visitor Center and parking areas were significant improvements on the site but, by 2001, ever greater numbers of visitors meant that additional facilities were needed. Radzak estimates annual increases in traffic at up to 5 percent per year.
Overall, Split Rock Lighthouse State Park now totals more than 2,000 acres, including the spectacular 80-acre Gold Rock property purchased for the park by the Parks and Trails Council in 1998 and an additional 43 acres of ridge line above the highway that was purchased and made available to the park by the Parks and Trail Council in 2001.
Although officially removed from the charts as a navigational aide, the lighthouse is still listed on them as “abandoned” but it is very much intact and functional. The beacon shines to mark significant occasions, like the anniversary of the sinking of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald each November 10. And, in true lighthouse tradition, it continues to attract and call attention to itself.
Written by Hugh E. Bishop August 1, 2001