Split Rock — North America’s Most Visited Light
Posted on: November 14, 2018
Split Rock Light
Split Rock Light is situated atop a cliff well over 100 ft / 30 m above Lake Superior. To build the light, a steam-powered hoist lifted construction materials from ships to the construction site. (Photo: Boatnerd.com)

Economic Considerations Drive Great Lakes Safety

Somebody had to say it…. “Enough.”

After a 1905 storm damaged 29 ships and sent two ships to the bottom in the vicinity of the yet-to-be-built Split Rock Light, the president of U.S. Steel Corporation did just that. He, along with other ship owners,  travelled to Washington to tell elected officials that a lighthouse was needed on Minnesota’s shore to improve safety. As a result, U.S. Congress appropriated $75,000 to construct Split Rock Light,  which was completed in 1910. Split Rock Light is located some 47 miles/~76 kilometres northeast of Duluth, Minnesota on the shore of Lake Superior.

The “backstory” here is that ore from Minnesota’s Iron Range was a huge economic driver; steel production was the absolute backbone of the U.S. economy. The U.S. Steel Corporation alone had 112 ships, to say nothing of the other Great Lakes carriers. All had a vested interest in safety and preventing loss of life.

Financially, the bottom line may have played a role in the creation of Split Rock Light. Losses were huge when a ship went down, not to mention the loss of shipping capacity and associated revenue. In short, Great Lakes storms were bad for business. Shipping losses cut into profits. Taxes on natural-resource extraction and steel production might also have played a role. Shipowners may have felt that Great Lakes carriers were taking all of the risk, and that if government wanted a cut of profits, it should definitely be putting some skin in the economic game by providing a lighthouse to improve safety.

An actor posing as a lighthouse keeper.
A full complement of period actors, like this actor dressed as a nineteen twenties lighthouse keeper, enhance visits to Split Rock Light. (Photo: infosuperior.com)

A Unique Engineering Feat

Split Rock light is definitely a feat of engineering, especially for its time. Unlike now, in 1905 there was no road to the site and all construction materials and supplies arrived by boat. To build the light, a steam-powered hoist had to be located at the top of the cliffs, well over 100 feet above Superior’s waters. This derrick lift was the only way to hoist construction materials and supplies when the lighthouse was built. Depending upon the phase of construction, anywhere from 35 to 50 workers were involved in the project—including carpenters, brick masons and labourers.

The U.S. Coast Guard took over operation of Split Rock from the U.S. Light Service in 1939 until the State of Minnesota took ownership of the light in 1971. Administrative responsibility for the light was transferred to the Minnesota Historical Society (MHS) in 1976 and the light station has since been completely restored to what it would have looked like in the 1920s. As the pictures accompanying this article show, the MHS has done an incredible job. The light, fog signal, and accompanying houses and facilities present an absolutely charming display of Lake Superior history, complete with actors in period costume in many of the facilities.

Information about the Edmund Fitzgerald at Split Rock Light
Information about the “Edmund Fitzgerald” lake freighter at Split Rock Light. The 729 ft-/222 m-long ore carrier sank in Lake Superior on November 9th, 1975. Victims of Great Lakes shipping disasters are remembered annually on November 10th in a public ceremony at Split Rock Light. (Photo: infosuperior.com)

November 10th Beacon Lighting – Remembering the Edmund Fitzgerald

A significant public event closes out Split Rock’s season each year on November 10th when all those who lost their lives  in Great Lakes shipwrecks are remembered. The naval hymn is played, the names of all those lost on the Edmund Fitzgerald (Nov. 9, 1975) read out, the Split Rock beacon is lit and visitors can visit the lantern room. The ceremony attracts about 900 people each year (see link to this event below). Split Rock Light and historical buildings are closed during the winter, with only the Visitor Centre open: Split Rock Lighthouse website.

Visitors to Split Rock Light
Hundreds of people visit Split Rock Light daily during good summer weather. (Photo: infosuperior.com)

More Public Visits Than Any Other North American Lighthouse

There are a number of famous light stations in North America, in both USA and Canada—Cape Hatteras, North Carolina; Peggy’s Point in Nova Scotia; and Montauk Lighthouse, Long Island, New York State are a few of the most noteworthy. None of these lights is at the top of the list when it comes to public visits, however. According to the Minnesota Historical Society, Split Rock Light sees more people visit it than any other light in North America.

Infosuperior’s visit to Split Rock in August, 2018 backs up this claim. On a sunny Saturday morning there were literally hundreds of people visiting the light. Split Rock’s historical aspect, stunning views and cool lake breezes, go together to create a magical experience. Visiting the light is a wonderful way to learn about regional history and how Great Lakes commerce, in this case mining and steel production, drove the push to build Split Rock and other Great Lakes navigation aids. The large crowds visiting to view the light are no detraction.

In contrast to when it was built, Split Rock Light is now accessible from Hwy. 61, so this historic site is easy to visit for anyone on the road between Thunder Bay, Ontario and Duluth, Minnesota. Tip: take one of the guided tours offered by MHS. The guides are extremely knowledgeable and provide excellent, detailed, historical commentary providing an overview of Split Rock history. Participants start their tour by looking out over the lake at the cliff-top site of the steam hoist, high above Lake Superior. After the tour, visit the fog signal, the homes of lighthouse keepers and the light itself (right to the top of the tower if you like).

Flowers at.a lightkeepers residence - Split rock Light.
Flowers at the entrance to a lighthouse keeper’s residence – Split Rock Light. (Photo: infosuperior.com)

Quick Facts:

  • Construction Completed – 1910
  • Lighthouse Lens – Fresnel Lens manufactured by Barbier, Bernard and Turenne Company, Paris, France,  floating and rotating on a liquid mercury bath. The lens was originally lit with kerosene and was electrified in 1940 utilizing a 1000 watt bulb. A mechanism running down the centre of the tower  is wound up and slowly unwinds utilizing weights to rotate the light.
  • Light Interval – Ten second rotation
  • Light Visibility – Split Rock Light can be seen from about 20 miles/32 kilometres distance.
  • Fog Signal – Originally two sirens powered by two Franklin 30-horsepower gasoline-driven air compressors from the Chicago Pneumatic Tool Company. The fog signal was electrified in 1940.
  • Length of Service – 1910 to removal from service in 1969, when Split Rock Light was added to the National Register of Historic Places


Previous Infosuperior articles about Lake Superior Lighthouses:

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