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Split Rock Lighthouse was an early-20th century engineering marvel

split rock
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.

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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