A Brief History of the Split Rock Lighthouse – Fall 1972

The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.

By Glenn Sandvik

Split Rock Light Station. Minnesota, 1945. Photograph courtesy of
Glenn Sandvik

Mounted atop a sheer rock outcropping on Lake Superior’s rugged North Shore, this shining sentinel has guided Great Lakes sailors for more than half a century. In weather both fair and foul mariners have welcomed the sight of this flashing beacon. Tourists, too, have been attracted to this picturesque complex in Minnesota’s northern wilderness. Its unique tower, and neat uniform dwellings pleasantly contrast with the surrounding birch and aspen forests to make this post one of the best known and most often photographed installations of its kind. Yes, this is the famed Split Rock Lighthouse.

The name Split Rock, first given to a small canyon with a river flowing through it, and a rocky point about a mile southwest of the present light, describes a natural rock formation of this area. Most of the exposed bedrock here is a dark gray or black stone known as diabase. But in several places, most notably the cliff upon which the light tower is now perched, a geophysical event occurring as the earth was created has altered the solid black appearance of this bedrock. In these places huge knobs and veins of a near-white stone, anorthosite, are imbedded deep into the diabase. When viewed from the Lake these white areas seem to divide, or split, the surrounding darker stone in much the same manner as the station’s beacon appears to split the blackest skies.

The need for a warning light on the North Shore was noted long before Split Rock’s first beam shown in 1910. In the autumn of 1854 Thomas Clark, a civil engineer and surveyor, was en route from Beaver Bay to Duluth by canoe, sketching, mapping, and describing the coastline. His October 30th records note, among other things, an ideal location for a lighthouse on a high bluff, which is the exact spot where the light station now stands. Just three years later, in 1857, the Minnesota Territorial Legislature sent a request to the U.S. Congress for funds to build a lighthouse on Lake Superior. No government action followed. In 1860 the Minnesota State Legislature sent a similar request to Congress, but again no action was taken. In fact, the Federal Government did not act until 1892 when money was appropriated and a light station was built at Two Harbors.

Meanwhile, Great Lakes shipping was rapidly increasing. The safety of both vessels and men became a topic of growing concern. It became clearly evident that another light was needed on Lake Superior’s North Shore. Added to the ever-present threat of a boat grounding along the rugged coast during the violent northeast winds which often swept the Lake was the fact that a vessel’s compass could not be trusted because of deposits of iron ore scattered across the Lake’s western basin. But neither of these dangers aroused interest or action, even though several vessels were either wrecked or stranded along this shoreline around the turn of the century.

Steamer WILLIAM EDENBORN. Image from Alpena Public Library

Then, in 1905, one late season storm was to erase nearly all public apathy. Between November 27 and 29 the Great Lakes were racked by gale-driven winds, rain and snow. The loss of men, vessels, and shore property was never completely recorded, but two sets of wrecks were of special concern to citizens along the North Shore. The first tragedy occurred to the steamer Lafyette which, with the barge Manila in tow, was stranded at the base of the present Lafayette Bluff. Although the barge was later salvaged, the steamer was a total loss. The second calamity occurred to the steamer William Edenborn and barge Madeira, The vessel was stranded and later salvaged near the mouth of the Split Rock River, but the barge sank north of the present light station and on clear days is still visible from the top of Gold Rock, first promontory northeast of the light.

An awakened and aroused public soon promoted government action. In 1907 Congress appropriated $75,000 for the construction of a fog and light station “at or near Split Rock, near Beaver Bay, Lake Superior.” Once funds were available, little time was wasted in selecting a site, the same one noted by Thomas Clark over sixty years earlier.

Originally part of vast government tracts, the desired parcel of land (Government Lot 1, Section 32, and Government Lot 3, Section 33, Township 55 North, Range 8 West) had been purchased by Orrin T. Higgins of Cattaraugus County, New York, on April 19, 1887. Higgins, who had huge land interests across northern Minnesota and apparently headed the Higgins Land Company, bought the aforementioned lots in one of many parcels for which he paid $1.25 per acre. When Higgins died in 1892 many of his Minnesota holdings, including these two lots, were left to his daughter, Clara A. H. Smith, and his son, Frank W. Higgins. On December 8, 1908, Mrs. Smith, her husband Frank, and Kate C. Higgins, widow of Frank W. Higgins, sold these same lots, comprising approximately 7.63 acres, back to the U. S. Government for $200.

Ralph Tinkman and Family. Image from Minnesota Historical Society

The United States Lighthouse Service, the federal agency responsible for the construction of the complex, next accepted a plan for the light tower designed by C. C. Van Valkenburgh. The building contract was awarded to a Duluth building firm, and Ralph Tinkham, a civil engineer and future Coast Guard captain, was placed in charge of construction. By June 1909, work was ready to begin on the Split Rock Lighthouse.

At this time, however, the building site was surrounded for miles by forests and accessible only from the Lake. All men and material had to be transported from Duluth or Two Harbors by boat. Three vessels, the contractor’s cabin cruiser, a chartered tug and barge, and the weekly ferry between Duluth and Isle Royale, were used for this purpose.

Start of the Split Rock Lighthouse in 1909. Image from Minnesota Historical Society.

Yet, after this location was reached an even greater problem presented itself. A means had to be devised to move the men and materials up the 130-foot height from lake level to the top of the rocky crag. This problem was ingeniously overcome through the use of a hoisting engine and derrick. These machines were landed by the barge at the bottom of a steep slope south of the bluff. Skids were attached to the hoisting engine and through a cable and-tackle system, using trees on the slope as anchor points, it pulled itself to the top. The engine was then used to haul the derrick up the same incline. The derrick was anchored securely to the rock surface just east of the selected lighthouse location, and when coupled with the hoisting engine formed a unique elevator. For years this hoist was a permanent fixture at the station as Lake Superior provided the only practical access to Split Rock.

Even after this major problem was solved, many more were to complicate the erection of the light complex. The tower and fog signal were to be built on a cap of anorthosite fifteen feet above the surrounding ground level. The only way this rock could be penetrated for footings was by repeated dynamite blasting which scattered ominous white chips, a type of stone shrapnel, endangering every living creature in the area.

This was only one reason to discourage men from working at Split Rock. Another negative factor was the physical hardship endured by the laborers. They had to live in a rugged wilderness tent camp, away from the comforts of their homes and families. There were, in fact, practically no favorable conditions to induce men to come to Split Rock. Still, come they did — steel workers, cement masons, bricklayers, carpenters, and general laborers.

By October 1909, construction had been completed. Within five months the men had finished a ten-building complex. The basic station included the fifty-foot high octagonal brick tower, an adjoining service house, and a fog signal building. To the north of these a brick oil-and-storage house was constructed. The complex also included three identical two-story brick dwellings to serve as residences for the lightkeepers. Three wooden barns, later converted to garages, were built for these dwellings. The barn accompanying the most westerly of the homes was built, possibly on purpose, astride the Government’s property line and to this day stands half on federal property and half on private holdings. Also constructed at this time was a raised tramway with a small car to transport goods from the derrick to the oil-and-storage house.

By the spring of 1910 the only work left was the installation of the warning equipment. The fog signal was a compressed air horn with forty pounds air pressure. It sounded for two seconds and was off for eighteen seconds. Its official audio range was listed as five miles, although under varied weather conditions it could be heard from far greater distances. The foghorn was operated from 1910 until 1969 when it was discontinued because of the proximity of horns at Two Harbors and Silver Bay.

The lens for the tower was manufactured in Paris. It was classified as a two-panel, third order lens. Shaped like two large saucers, the glass was six feet high and a maximum of four feet thick. It formed a hollow for the light and was joined by brass fittings. The entire refractor was rotated on a large clock-like mechanism as the light remained stationary. Its flashing beacon shone for one-half second and was off for nine and one-half seconds.

The original beacon was an oral vapor (oil) apparatus lamp capable of producing 450,000 candlepower.  In 1941 this was replaced by an electric 217 1,000-watt C-74 filament light which could produce one-half million candle power. This was again changed in 1961 to a 1,000-watt 2C-5 filament tubular bulb giving 2,500,000 candlepower. Although the light had a luminous range of twenty-seven miles it was only visible, due to the curvature of the earth and its height of 178 feet above the water, for a distance of twenty-three miles. The revolving beacon described an angle of 202½°, making it visible from all points of approach on Lake Superior.

When the installation of this warning equipment was completed, the light station was ready for operation. On August 1, 1910, the Split Rock light was ignited for the first time. The event was noted in the Two Harbours Journal News on July 28, 1910, whose front page headline proclaimed, in part, “New Lighthouse Will Rob the North Shore of its Terrors.” But this heading proved to be untrue. While the light did serve as a definite safety factor and aid to navigation, it could in no way lessen the danger of the powers of nature. Lake shipping was still exposed and fell prey to these powers. On July 5, 1912, for example, the steamer Viking was stranded on the shore close to Split Rock. Again on June 1, 1920, a steamer, the Cygnus, was stranded at Flood Bay several miles southwest, but still well within the range of the beacon.

This is not to say, however, that the light or its keepers did not function properly. To the contrary, both worked with utmost efficiency and effective ness. Extreme precautions were taken to prevent the light from ever going out. For example, in 1941 commercial electricity was installed for the warning apparatus. To keep the light shining at all times a spare bulb, inserted inside the lens, would turn on automatically if the first bulb burned out. lf the electricity failed a gas-powered generator could be used to light the beacon and rotate the lens. If this also failed, a kerosene lantern would replace the bulb and the refractor would be turned by a hand-wound, clock-like mechanism. Indeed, the light station was definitely well maintained.

In 1915, after five years of routine but well regulated service, two changes were made which had a direct effect on the station at Split Rock. The first event, which led to the abandonment and eventual removal of the unique derrick-elevator on the cliff, was the construction of a raised tramway from the complex to the Lake. Running from a brick car-and-engine house con structed at about the same elevation as the light complex, to a new frame boathouse and dock on the shore, this ramp followed about the same path taken by the hoisting engine in pulling itself to the top six years earlier. lt covered over 110 vertical feet in a horizontal distance of less than 400 feet. Rails between the two buildings were laid on large cement footings, some more than five feet high, many of which are still in position. A small car was attached to the engine at the top and ferried supplies to the light and its keeper

Unknown keeper of Split Rock Light House. Image from Minnesota Historical Society.

. The car also ran on a tramway from the engine house to the oil-and storage house. For several years this served as the main access to the lighthouse.

The other 1915 occurrence was less direct but had more far-reaching consequences for Split Rock. A trail was created along the North Shore between Two Harbors and Beaver Bay. A small pathway was cut from this trail to the light complex and almost immediately tourists began to visit the installation. In 1924 the trail was replaced by a paved highway heading northward from Duluth and the path was enlarged into a gravel road. Although this led to the abandonment and decay of the tramway, it greatly increased the number of visitors to the station. Minor adjustments to accommodate these visitors were required, but procedures at Split Rock remained quite static for many years.

Actually, about the only things which changed besides light bulbs were the lightkeepers themselves. These keepers, beginning with Orlin P. Young in 1910, were all civilians. When supervision of the light changed from the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Lighthouses to the U.S. Coast Guard in 1939, the civilian curators stayed. It was not until 1956, when lightkeepers Robert E. Bennets and Frank W. Johnson were replaced, that Coast Guard personnel first manned the beacon.

The steadily increasing number of visitors to the station had caused the Coast Guard, in 1951, to close the tower to tourists. One reason cited for this closing was that lightkeepers were being overworked because the tower had to be constantly manned and continually cleaned when open to the public. An even bigger factor in the decision to close the beacon was concern for the public’s safety. On clear days the rays of the sun would enter the lens, bounce through its glass prisms, and be reflected out at random points with the intensity and heat of a blow torch. Besides endangering human life, this problem exposed the entire complex and surrounding woodlands to a constant threat of fire. However, this danger was alleviated by the use of shutters on the tower windows which were kept closed during all daylight hours.

Although the Coast Guard closed the tower, visitors were still allowed on the grounds of the complex. In fact, the State and Federal Governments took steps to publicize the station and encourage people to visit Split Rock. Tourists came by the thousands from all parts of the nation and, indeed, from all parts of the world. They still scaled the concrete steps to the tower base to view the Lake in all its grandeur. They could watch lake vessels, and in more recent years oceanbound ships, plying Superior’s western waters.

Then, in late 1968, the inevitable happened. The U. S. Government announced the closing of Split Rock Lighthouse, effective the end of that year. As explained by Lt. George R. Bannon, Duluth District Coast Guard Commander, “The light at Split Rock no longer serves an essential or useful purpose as an aid to Lakes navigation. For this reason . . . the site has been abandoned as a Coast Guard station.” On January 1, 1969, the Coast Guard turned its Split Rock holdings over to the General Services Administration (GSA), the federal agency responsible for the disposal of government property. The GSA established a list of priorities for the purchase of the Split Rock complex. The State of Minnesota was placed atop this list,

The State, however, had shown interest in Split Rock long before this time. In 1945, an official highway wayside had been established south of the station along U.S. Highway 61. The rest area, constructed of stone and mortar and containing a bronze plaque explaining the geology of the area, provided a stunning view of the lighthouse on its rocky perch. In May 1967, the Minnesota Legislature authorized the acquisition of additional private lands to establish the Split Rock State park.

On July 24, 1970, the state of Minnesota purchased the portions of Government Lots 1 and 3 not owned by the Federal Government, plus forty adjoining acres (the Northeast Quarter of the Southeast Quarter of Section 32, Township 55 North, Range 8 West) from Mr. and Mrs. Maurice D. Francis and Mr. and Mrs. Marvin D. Kellogg to expand its new park. For this 112.57 acres the State paid $101,750, about thirty-five times more per acre than the Federal Government paid for its Split Rock holdings in 1908. On February 23, 1971, the GSA, operating under the National Historical Monument program, donated the Split Rock complex, land, buildings, and light, to the State of Minnesota. The State repaired minor damages caused by vandals, and sought a permit from the Coast Guard to reactivate the light. Split Rock State Park was opened on May 2, 1971.

James Ulland, Minnesota State Representative, whose district includes the Split Rock area, said that the station would be maintained and operated much like it was in 1910. He also announced long-range plans to purchase an additional one thousand acres near the park to be developed into a harbor, marina, and possibly a museum of commercial fishing.

But Split Rock has already gained its spot in Great Lakes history. Its fame, if only in terms of photography, is widespread. Moreover, even if the station were completely abandoned, its practical design and sturdy brick construction would keep it standing for many years. The Split Rock Lighthouse will long remain a monument to the great Lake Superior and Minnesota’s rugged North Shore.


Coonin, Lt. (jg) R. A., U.S. Coast Guard Reserve, Public Information Officer, Ninth Coast Guard District, Cleveland, Ohio. Personal letter, March 21, 1969.

Davis, Jessie C. Beaver Bay—Original North Shore Village. Duluth: St. Louis County Historical Society, 1968.

Duluth Herald, July 9, 1951; February 24, 1971.

Fowler, W. Lorne, President, Lake County Historical Society, Two Harbors, Minnesota. Personal interviews, August 1968; March 1969. Great Lakes Light List: United States and Canada, (Vol. IV). Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1968.

Journal News (Two Harbors, Minnesota). July 28, 1910. Lake County Deed Record, V, 107; LXIII, 285.

Lake County Miscellaneous Record, Vol. A, p. 187.

Session Laws of the 1967 Minnesota Legislate, chapt. 787. St. Paul: 1967. Sparks, September, 1955. Magazine clipping in St. Louis County Historical Society, Duluth, Minnesota.


“The Split Rock Light,” Gopher Historian, Fall 1964, Vol. 19, No. 1. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society.

“Split Rock Lighthouse.” Cleveland: Ninth Coast Guard District, September, 1962.

“Split Rock Light Station—Improvement of Water Supply and Sewage Disposal System.” Coast Guard drawing 1459-S, sheet 4 of 8. Cleveland: Civil Engineering Division, Ninth Coast Guard District, April 23, 1960.

“Split Rock Light Sta., Minn.” Drawing 8761S, sheet 4. Drawing provided courtesy Ninth Coast Guard District, Cleveland, Ohio.

“Split Rock Light Station—Plans for New Tramway.” Drawing 10387S. Detroit: Office of the Eleventh District Lighthouse inspector, July 31, 1915. Drawing provided courtesy Ninth Coast Guard District, Cleve land, Ohio.

Two Harbors (Minnesota) Chronicle & Times January 9, 1969. Vacation, June 10, 1926. Magazine clipping in St. Louis County Historical Society, Duluth, Minnesota.

Wolff, Dr. Julius F., Jr., Professor of Political Science, University of Minnesota, Duluth, Minnesota, Personal letter, February 12, 1969.


Read More of Inland Seas Online

About the Author: Mr. Glenn Sandvik is a student of journalism at the University of Minne sota, Duluth. A native of Two Harbors, Minnesota, he developed an interest in Split Rock Lighhouse several years ago as a high school research project, Urged by Mr. Lyle Northey and Mr. Loren Fowler of the Lake County His torical Society, Two Harbors, to continue his study, Mr. Sandvik decided to pursue his historical research, a summary of which is published here. His complete work will be available to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Division of Parks and Recreation, for visitor orientation at the new Split Rock State Park.

Learn more about our award-winning Inland Seas© journal and become an Inland Seas member