Perched atop a cliff overlooking the vast expanse of Lake Superior, the Split Rock Lighthouse has long been a symbol of hope and guidance for sailors navigating the treacherous waters of this Great Lake. Its iconic silhouette has become synonymous with Minnesota’s North Shore, attracting visitors from around the world. This blog post aims to delve into the rich history of this remarkable lighthouse, exploring its origins, significance, and the stories that have shaped it over the years.
The Need for a Lighthouse
The story of the Split Rock Lighthouse begins with the inherent dangers of Lake Superior. Known for its unpredictable weather conditions and rocky shores, the lake has been the site of numerous shipwrecks. The most devastating was the Mataafa Storm of 1905, which damaged or sank 29 ships and claimed multiple lives. This tragedy underscored the urgent need for a guiding light to help sailors navigate safely.
Planning and Construction
In response to the Mataafa Storm, the United States Congress allocated funds for the construction of a lighthouse on the North Shore of Lake Superior. The site chosen was a 130-foot cliff known as Split Rock. Construction began in 1909 and was completed in 1910, at a cost of $75,000—a significant sum at the time.
The lighthouse was designed by Ralph Russell Tinkham, an engineer for the U.S. Lighthouse Service. It featured a state-of-the-art Fresnel lens imported from France, capable of projecting a beam visible for up to 22 miles.
The lighthouse was officially lit on July 31, 1910, and its first keeper was Orren “Pete” Young, who served until 1928. The keepers lived on-site with their families, maintaining the light, fog signal, and other equipment. Life was challenging, with keepers having to haul supplies up the steep cliff and endure harsh winters.
Over the years, the lighthouse underwent several upgrades. In 1932, the original kerosene lamp was replaced with an electric one, increasing the light’s range. The fog signal was also updated from a steam whistle to an electric diaphragm horn.
Decommissioning and Preservation
With advancements in navigation technology, the need for the lighthouse diminished. It was officially decommissioned in 1969 but was not forgotten. The Minnesota Historical Society took over its care, turning it into a museum and interpretive center.
Today, the Split Rock Lighthouse is more than just a historical monument; it’s a cultural icon. It has been featured in films, paintings, and even postage stamps. Every year on November 10th, a ceremony is held to commemorate the sinking of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald and all lives lost on the Great Lakes.
The Split Rock Lighthouse stands as a testament to human ingenuity and the enduring need to safeguard those who venture into the unknown. Its history is rich with tales of bravery, hardship, and community, making it not just a beacon in the literal sense, but also a beacon of Minnesota’s cultural and maritime heritage.
Whether you’re a history buff, a maritime enthusiast, or simply someone who appreciates stunning vistas, a visit to the Split Rock Lighthouse offers a glimpse into a bygone era and the indomitable spirit of those who have gone before us.