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Split Rock Lighthouse

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Color photograph of Split Rock Lighthouse, c.2000

Split Rock Lighthouse Station. Photographed by Dennis Adams of the Federal Highway Administration c.2000.

Split Rock Lighthouse opened in the summer of 1910 to guide bulk ore ships sailing near Lake Superior's rocky coast. By 1940, its picturesque North Shore setting had made it one of the most visited lighthouses in the United States.

In the early years of the twentieth century, iron ore shipments on Lake Superior doubled and redoubled. United States Steel's bulk ore carriers became "the greatest exclusive freight-carrying fleet sailing under one ownership in the world." The demand for a new lighthouse on the lake's inhospitable North Shore was hardly surprising.

A single storm on November 28, 1905 damaged twenty-nine ships. One-third of them were the uninsured property of the steel company fleet. Two of these carriers foundered on the rocky coastline, in an area which some called "the most dangerous piece of water in the world." A delegation led by the steamship company president descended upon Washington, D.C. In early 1907, Congress appropriated $75,000 for a lighthouse and fog signal in the vicinity of Split Rock.

The construction of Split Rock Lighthouse was an engineering feat carried out by an organization already known for building structures in remote locations. The Duluth construction firm of L. D. Campbell & Son supplied all the labor necessary: carpenters; brick masons; demolition men for dynamiting the hard rock of the cliff to build foundations; and laborers collected from all over the Great Lakes region.

The first challenge in the spring of 1909 was to erect a steam-powered hoist and derrick for lifting supplies off the boats on the lake, more than 110 feet below. A construction crew of thirty-five to fifty men was supplied by boat throughout the construction period.

By the time Split Rock Light Station was completed, workers had spent thirteen months on the desolate cliff, with a break only during the worst months of winter. The light was lit on July 31, 1910.
When the first keepers arrived at Split Rock in the summer of 1910, it was a remote and barren place. The few trees that grew on the cliff top had been cut down during construction, so the wind howled constantly.

Because the station was isolated by the lake and had no land access, supplies and visitors could come only by boat. Their visits proved to be infrequent. Getting to the lighthouse was so difficult in those early years that many families of the keepers would come only for short visits, leaving for their winter homes when school started. They were joined by the keepers when the station was decommissioned for the annual winter shutdown in December.

In 1924, Lake Superior International Highway was built along the North Shore. It eventually linked all of the shoreline from Duluth to Canada. The highway made it easier for supplies, visitors, and keepers' wives and children to get to the lighthouse.

By the 1930s, the keepers were living with their families at the station through the winter layoff. Children boarded buses for school in Beaver Bay and Two Harbors. Keepers found it necessary to ask the Lighthouse Service headquarters for guidance on how to work amid the influx of visitors. It also became necessary to erect safety fences along the cliff's edge.

The keepers' tools changed as well. Kerosene lamps and gasoline-powered fog horns gave way to electric lights and compressors. The basic job, however, remained the same: round-the-clock manning of the navigational equipment. Maintenance still occupied most of the keepers' days, and they could look forward to spending only a supper and maybe a quiet evening with their families before the night watches started.

The station closed in 1969 when modern navigational equipment (including radar and LORAN, or long range navigation) made it obsolete. The State of Minnesota obtained the scenic landmark in 1971. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources operates Split Rock Lighthouse State Park, a 2,200-acre site that offers hiking, picnicking, and tent camping to visitors.

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© Minnesota Historical Society
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Hall, Stephen P. Split Rock: Epoch of a Lighthouse. Minnesota Historic Sites pamphlet series, no. 15. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1978.

Related Audio

MN90: The Lure of the Lighthouse | Details
MN90: The Lighthouse Keeper's Mistake | Details

Related Images

Color photograph of Split Rock Lighthouse, c.2000
Color photograph of Split Rock Lighthouse, c.2000
Split Rock Lighthouse blueprint
Split Rock Lighthouse blueprint
Black and white photograph of Split Rock Lighthouse being built c.1909.
Black and white photograph of Split Rock Lighthouse being built c.1909.
Color image of U.S. Light House Service uniform hat.
Color image of U.S. Light House Service uniform hat.
Black and white photograph of Split Rock Light Station and a tram car c.1916.
Black and white photograph of Split Rock Light Station and a tram car c.1916.
Black and white photograph of Franklin J. Covell by the Split Rock Lighthouse lens.
Black and white photograph of Franklin J. Covell by the Split Rock Lighthouse lens.
Black and white photograph of Split Rock Station c. 1930.
Black and white photograph of Split Rock Station c. 1930.
Black and white photograph of Fog signal equipment at Split Rock Lighthouse.
Black and white photograph of Fog signal equipment at Split Rock Lighthouse.
Black and white photograph of Split Rock Lighthouse. Norton & Peel, September 1, 1939.
Black and white photograph of Split Rock Lighthouse. Norton & Peel, September 1, 1939.
Black and white photograph of Assistant keeper Tom Hassing standing next to diesel air compressors at Split Rock Lighthouse c.1945.
Black and white photograph of Assistant keeper Tom Hassing standing next to diesel air compressors at Split Rock Lighthouse c.1945.
Black and white photograph of Split Rock Lighthouse by Eugene Debs Becker taken in August of 1959.
Black and white photograph of Split Rock Lighthouse by Eugene Debs Becker taken in August of 1959.
Map of Split Rock Station
Map of Split Rock Station

Turning Point

In 1924, construction crews complete the Lake Superior International Highway along the North Shore. Visitation to Split Rock increases as tourists take advantage of the new route.

Chronology

1905
A late November gale damages twenty-nine ships on Lake Superior.
1907
Congress appropriates $75,000 for a light station and fog signal in the vicinity of Spilt Rock.
1910
Split Rock Light station is commissioned, and Orren "Pete" Young begins his tenure as head keeper. He goes on to hold this position for eighteen years.
1924
Lake Superior International Highway is completed along a route that passes by Split Rock Lighthouse. The first tourists visit the site by car.
1928
Franklin J. Covell begins his tenure as Split Rock's head keeper, a position he will hold for sixteen years.
1933
Lighthouse tenders make their last visits to Split Rock Station.
1939
The Lighthouse Service is absorbed by the U.S. Coast Guard.
1940
Split Rock Station is electrified. Its incandescent oil vapor lamp is replaced by a one-thousand-watt bulb; electric motors operate both its lens and its fog signal.
1942
The U.S. Coast Guard is taken over by the U.S. Navy for the remainder of World War II. Lightkeepers became "commanding officers."
1961
Split Rock's fog signal is discontinued. Its light is continued.
1969
Split Rock Station is decommissioned. Its site is placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
1975
On November 10, the Edmund Fitzgerald and her twenty-nine crew members are lost on Lake Superior.
1976
The Minnesota Historical Society begins to administer the Split Rock Station site.
2010
Split Rock Lighthouse turns one hundred.
2011
Split Rock Lighthouse gains National Historic Landmark status.