The strikingly beautiful Split Rock Lighthouse, perched high on a 130-foot cliff along Lake Superior on Minnesota's scenic North Shore, celebrates the centennial anniversary of its first lighting in 1910 on July 31.
We've visited the lighthouse a couple of times during the summer, when sunny days with clear skies made it difficult to get a bad photo of Split Rock, and the Minnesota Historical Society acknowledges the fact that Split Rock is favorite with photographers by helpfully posting photos of the lighthouse from several unique vantage points photographers can consider when planning their shots.
I've taken the long trek down the steep stairway (174 steps by one visitor's count) from the lighthouse to the shore to get a few photos from the foot of the cliff. Of course, what goes down must go back up, so it can be quite a workout just to get those few shots!
Today the lighthouse is one of Minnesota's most popular attractions, even as it owes its existence to particularly turbulent times along Lake Superior.
The year 1905 saw a savage storm lasting for several days in late November resulting in 29 shipwrecks. The loss of those ships and the lives of some sailors aboard them spurred demand for a lighthouse in the area.
In 1907, Congress responded to the demands by appropriating $75,000 for the land and construction of the lighthouse with several other buildings.
The lighthouse's cliff-top location makes its beacon visible as far away as 22 miles on a clear day. The remote location also made construction of the lighthouse particularly challenging.
There were no roads to the site, so workers had to bring all building materials to the site via water. Deep water at the foot of the cliff made it relatively easy for ships to pull in close to shore, and a timber derrick with a hoisting engine transported the construction materials from the shore to the top of the cliff.
In 1910, workers completed Split Rock Lighthouse. The site included the lighthouse as well as several other buildings like three light keeper houses and a fog signal building.
Lighthouse engineer Ralph Russell Tinkham designed the pyramidal octagonal brick tower of Cream City brick with concrete trim on a concrete foundation, topped by a cast iron lantern room to house a second-order Fresnel lens. The project reportedly came in under budget at $72,500, but that included a smaller third-order Fresnel lens for the light tower.
The first lighthouse visitors reportedly showed up only six weeks after the keepers lit the light for the first time. In 1924, the construction of the North Shore Highway past the station opened the site up even further to tourists. In 1936, more than 30,000 visitors signed the lighthouse log book. Today, the annual Split Rock Lighthouse visitor total easily exceeds 100,000.
In 1969, the Coast Guard retired the light, even as the lighthouse earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places that same year.
The State of Minnesota acquired the lighthouse in 1971, and the Minnesota Historical Society took over operation of the lighthouse and accompanying buildings as a historical site.
Visitors can tour the lighthouse and a light keeper's home, both restored to their 1920s-era appearance, from mid-May through mid-October. An on-site visitor center is open year round.
Costumed guides, who often include one acting in character as Split Rock's first light keeper, Orrin "Pete" Young, greet visitors at the light keeper's home. I remember the "light keeper" puzzling over my picture taking during one visit, hearing him marvel to his "wife" about my fascination with their washboard, wringer, and wash tub as we left the building!
The lighthouse also welcomes visitors one night during the late autumn, opening each November 10 and lighting the beacon in memory of the 29 men lost during the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald in 1975.
Want to learn more? Check out So Terrible a Storm: A Tale of Fury on Lake Superior by Curt Brown. Some observers and researchers question the whether a lighthouse at Split Rock's location would have done much to avert the tragedies in 1905 or if the toll really justified constructing the lighthouse, questions which Minnesota journalist Brown explores in this book.
© Dominique King 2010 All rights reserved