Digest>Archives> July 2000

90th Anniversary Celebration to Recall Earlier Days at Split Rock

By Jim Merkel

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Split Rock Lighthouse
Photo by: Karen Harshman

With the initial lighting of the Split Rock Lighthouse set for Aug. 1, 1910, head keeper Orren “Pete” Young decided to do things early and lit it the night before.

Appropriately, a big birthday party is planned for the light station on the western end of Lake Superior, two days short of the 90th anniversary of its lighting.

The celebration is set for July 29 at the historic lighthouse about 20 miles northeast of Two Harbors, Minn., on the far western end of Lake Superior.

“That time of year, we’re going to have a busy day of probably 2,000 people, anyway,” said Lee Radzak, historic site manager at the light.

After a day of activities on July 29, Radzak will present a program on Split Rock at 7 p.m. in the visitor center theater and will answer visitors’ questions about life at a lighthouse from 1910 to 2000.

Instead of closing at 8 p.m., as it normally does at that time of year, the visitor center will stay open until 9:30 p.m. At about 9 p.m., visitors will see the beacon go on, as it did from 1910 until a Coast Guardsman turned it on for the last time at the end of the 1968 shipping season. A guided walk also will begin at the trail center building in the adjacent state park at 8:45 p.m., allowing walkers to observe the lighting from across the bay. Those wanting more information about the 90th anniversary events or other information about the Split Rock Lighthouse may write to the Split Rock Lighthouse State Park, Two Harbors, MN 55616, call 218-226-6372, e-mail to splitrock@Mnhs.org.

The source of light will be a 1,000-watt light bulb, instead of the incandescent oil vapor kerosene lamp Young used; but the 3rd order bivalve lens is the same Young used to illuminate the Split Rock Lighthouse one day early back in 1910.

Whether they come that night, or at other times, visitors will see ample reasons why 130,000 people stop by for a look each year, and why Split Rock was the featured Lake Superior lighthouse on the Great Lakes Lighthouse series of U.S. Postage stamps issued in 1995.

Restored by the Minnesota Historical Society to the way it looked before 1924, the 54-foot high lighthouse atop a 130 foot high cliff is the main attraction of the 25-acre historic site. Visitors also can see a fog signal building, two barns, three keepers’ dwellings and a building used to store oil. Interpretive staff portrays the lives of the 1920s keepers and their families in the lighthouse and the restored head keeper’s dwelling.

Decommissioned in 1969, the light station is the site of a popular beacon lighting every 10th of November, to mark the anniversary of the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald and other shipwrecks of the Great Lakes. For the 25th anniversary commemoration of the tragedy immortalized by the Gordon Lightfoot song, this year’s celebration will include a presentation on Lake Superior shipping, navigation and storms.

In some ways it doesn’t make sense for a historic light station on the west side of Lake Superior to mark a tragedy on the east side of Lake Superior. In other ways, however, it makes splendid sense. For the Edmund Fitzgerald began its fateful last voyage at Duluth, Minn., not too far to the southeast. Even more significantly, ship-killing storms were what led to the construction of the Split Rock Lighthouse.

Ninety-five years later, powerful stories are told about the shipping season of 1905, when a series of storms sent vessel after vessel to the bottom of Lake Superior, and caused the loss of more than 200 lives. The storm to end all storms came at the end of the shipping season that year. More than 29 ships were lost or damaged in a storm that lasted from Nov. 27-29 of that year. In that one storm, there were about half a dozen shipwrecks on the North Shore of Lake Superior in Minnesota.

The carnage was a key reason why the shipping trade started lobbying for a lighthouse around Split Rock, Minnesota. But it wasn’t the only reason.

“Because of the iron ore in the hills and the iron range close by, the ships’ compasses tended to veer to the right and steer them closer to the North Shore. So they wanted to know exactly where that was,” Radzak said, in a talk during the 1999 Apostle Islands Lighthouse Celebration. This added to the need for the lighthouse in that vicinity.

As a result of the carnage and the skewing of the compass readings, the Lake Carriers Association, a trade association that controlled the vast majority of ships on the Great Lakes, started lobbying for a new lighthouse, “near Split Rock, Minn.” In 1907, Congress approved spending $75,000 for the project. Plans were drawn up the next year and construction began in May 1909.

“All supplies had to come in by water, hauled up a 130-foot cliff,” Radzak said. There was no road, no access from the inland side. “Three hundred and ten tons of builders’ supplies were brought up this way, off this small ship,” Radzak said.

Construction continued until November 1909, when the 35 workers on the project left for the winter. In the spring, they returned to finish the project. With the installation of the Fresnel lens, the work was nearly done.

The Lighthouse Service instructed Young to turn the light on Aug. 1, 1910. But an entry in his log made it clear that he did it early, at 6:30 p.m., on July 31. “He jumped the gun a little bit. I’m sure he wanted to make sure everything was working right with it,” Radzak said.

After that early lighting, life was busy and lonely for Young and the others who lived at Split Rock Light.

In Young’s days, the main company was provided by commercial fishermen who lived most of the year in the nearby fishing hamlet of Little Two Harbors. Apparently Norwegians, they lived in the hamlet until the mid-1920s. Entries in the keeper’s journal tell about their contacts. “There’s even one entry in the assistant keeper’s journal where he talks about ‘getting tanked’ with the fishermen,” Radzak said.

Young served as head keeper at Split Rock for 18 years, until he reached the mandatory retirement age of 70. When Young stepped down in 1928, Assistant Keeper Franklin J. Covell stepped in to serve in his place. Covell served until 1944, five years after the control of the lighthouses passed to the United States Coast Guard. Although Covell had the option to switch over to the Coast Guard, he retired from the Lighthouse Service.

Life for the keeper and his two assistants could be dangerous. Once, for example, Covell was standing watch while the fog signal was running, and the compressor blew a rod. The rod just missed Covell’s head by about six inches. “It went up and put a big dent in the ceiling of the fog signal building,” Radzak said.

The signal itself was designed so that the two copper megaphones on the roof blared for two seconds, followed by 18 seconds of silence.

“It could be heard five miles out into the lake,” Radzak said. “You didn’t want to be standing anywhere in front of it.”

It wasn’t just fog that caused the keeper to decide to activate the fog signal. It could be smoke from a forest fire, snowstorms, blizzards or anything that obscured visibility.

Usually, the keepers would have to deal with these and other problems by themselves, and rarely had contact with the Lighthouse Service. About twice a season, though, those at the lighthouse would receive visits from light tenders who brought supplies. They might come more often if a mechanic from a lighthouse depot was needed to work on an engine.

About once a year, keepers also would get surprise visits from inspectors.

“The keepers at the different stations were pretty good about warning each other about the inspectors coming,” Radzak said.

The inspectors worked hard to surprise the keepers, so they had as little time as possible to do last-minute straightening. For example, there are stories about inspectors coming in with the rising sun, making it harder for keepers to see them.

Once, an inspector noticed where a keeper’s wife had stenciled a pattern on the wall near the ceiling. When the inspector asked who was responsible, the keeper’s wife defensively responded that she was. The inspector completed his inspection, Radzak said, and then remarked that he was glad somebody had an imagination.

Such visits were only brief interruptions in the isolated lives led by the keepers.

“The keepers would get dropped off in early April and stay till late December. Then they’d get picked up by the lighthouse tender again at that time,” Radzak said. “The families would usually come up from their permanent home some time in June when the weather got better, when the kids got out of school and then they’d spend the summer with their fathers.”

The life of isolation ended in 1924, with the opening of the North Shore Highway from Two Harbors to Split Rock.

“From that point on, it was opened up to an immense amount of tourist traffic coming up the shore, and life was never the same for the keepers up at Split Rock,” Radzak said.

By 1930, there was a road right up to the lighthouse itself.

“Right away, there were tourists that started coming in and parking right outside the keepers’ homes,” Radzak said. “They talk about people walking right into the house, and people putting children on their shoulders and looking into the windows.”

In 1936, 30,000 people signed the visitors’ log. Calculating that only one person in three signed it, Covell calculated that about 100,000 had visited the lighthouse. Radzak was amazed that the keepers there were able to handle the visitors and do their job.

Adding to the traffic was the opening of a gift shop in 1942, right outside the gate. Taking advantage of the situation, keepers and their families took to buying fish from fishermen, smoking it and selling it to tourists. Or rather, their children did, because the keepers themselves weren’t allowed to do another job.

Although the threat of sabotage led to the closing of the station to the public during World War II, the visits picked up again after the war.

“It kind of became a showplace for the Coast Guard,” Radzak said.

That showplace reputation may have been a big reason why the Coast Guard didn’t decommission the lighthouse earlier. With ship to shore radio, radar and other changes in technology, the light was less important than it once was. “As early as the 1950s, they were talking about closing down Split Rock,” Radzak said. In the winter of 1968-69, the Coast Guard decided the time had come.

Present at the end was Mike Roberts, who is now a plumbing instructor at a technical college in St. Cloud, Minn.

Now 58, he lived at the lighthouse for 2-1/2 years before it was shut down. He and his wife Mary had their first child when they were at the light.

Roberts comes back from time to time. Last year, in the ceremonies marking the anniversary of the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald, he was there, ringing the bell 30 times, once for all the sailors lost at sea and 29 times for each of the 29 people who died in the wreck of that big ship.

“It was easy work, because it was just turning the light on and off, the general maintenance of the place,” Roberts said of his time at Split Rock. Roberts and another guardsman who was at the station turned the light on a half-hour before sundown and off a half-hour after sunup and kept the place straightened and fixed up.

However, as it was in Covell’s time, the visitors could make it rough.

“It got so in the summertime that there was so many people there that you didn’t dare go up to the lighthouse,” Roberts said. If one person was allowed in, everybody on the grounds wanted to go up. “Pretty soon, you’re spending your whole day just as a tour guide.”

Roberts and Jim Schubert, the other guardsman who worked at Split Rock, didn’t think much when one of them turned out the light for the last time at the end of the 1968 shipping season. They learned later that the light wouldn’t go back on in 1969.

“When we shut off the light, it was no big deal,” Roberts said. “We didn’t know that that was the last time, and we never reflected on it, either.”

When he heard the news the light wouldn’t go back on in 1969, “I was immensely sad, and so was my wife.”

This story appeared in the July 2000 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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