When suppertime came the old cook came on deck sayin’
“Fellas, it’s too rough t’feed ya.”
At seven p.m. a main hatchway caved in; he said,
“Fellas, it’s bin good t’know ya!”
The captain wired in he had water comin’ in
and the good ship and crew was in peril.
And later that night when `is lights went outta sight
came the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.
Rather, it was another November storm and other shipwrecks that are directly linked to Split Rock Lighthouse. During the early-morning hours of November 28, 1905, the 478-foot William Edenborn was towing the 436-foot barge Madeira along the western shore of Lake Superior in winds of seventy to eighty miles per hour, when the towline parted. The Madeira crashed onto the craggy shores of Gold Island, near present-day Split Rock Lighthouse, and nine of its crew of ten made it safely ashore. The Edenborn was driven into the mouth of Split Rock River, a few miles to the south, where she broke in two and lost one of her crewmembers.
Twenty-nine vessels were destroyed or damaged and thirty-six seamen lost their lives in the storm, which was named Mataffa after a freighter that wrecked near Duluth that day. In January 1907, J.H. Sheadle, vice president of the Lake Carriers’ Association, wrote the Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce, urging the construction of a lighthouse near Split Rock:
A light-house of the second order, with fog-signal attachment, to be erected on the north shore of Lake Superior, in the vicinity of Split Rock, Minnesota, preferably on Carborundum Point, lying about half a mile north of Split Rock. There is at present no light-house on the north shore of Lake Superior between Grand Marais and Two Harbors, and it is extremely difficult to locate Two Harbors in a fog or storm, owing to the uncertain variation of the compass on the north shore of Lake Superior, due to the vast metallic deposits in that vicinity, and also owing to the dangerous character of the coast all along the north shore. During the past two years there have been disasters in this vicinity amounting to over $2,000,000, the total loss of the steamer Lafayette, the barge Madeira, the steamer Spencer, and the barge Pennington, and serious damage to the steamer Edenborn, the barge Manila, the steamer George W. Peavey, and others.
It is the experience and opinion of masters that this is the natural place to make a landfall in approaching the head of Lake Superior, and a good light and a good fog signal at that point would greatly enhance the safety of navigation in all weathers at the head of the lake.
On March 4, 1907, $75,000 was appropriated for a light and fog signal near Split Rock. Interestingly, Congress had appropriated $6,000 in 1856 and $15,000 in 1866 for a lighthouse at Beaver Bay, just a few miles north of Split Rock, but William F. Raynolds visited the site in 1868 and concluded, “The light is not needed for local purposes, nor is it required by the general wants of commerce.”
Split Rock Lighthouse was designed by Ralph Russell Tinkham, and construction of the station, atop the 130-foot cliff, started in June 1909. Excellent progress had been made when work was suspended for the season on November 21. Work resumed on May 1, 1910, and the light was put into commission on July 31, 1910. The station consisted of an octagonal brick tower, built around a steel framework, a brick fog signal house, an oil storage building, and three two-story brick dwellings, each with a small frame barn behind it.
Each keeper’s dwelling had a cistern in its cellar, while its first floor was divided into a hall, living room, dining room, and kitchen, and three bedrooms and a bath where found on the second floor. A derrick and hoisting engine were provided to haul construction material and supplies up the cliff from vessels.
Amazingly, all the material to construct the station had to be brought to the site by water, as the highway that now runs nearby was not constructed until 1924. Still, the total cost for the station came in $2,459 under the allotted $75,000.
The first head keeper at Split Rock was Orrin “Pete”Young, and he was assisted by Edward Sexton and Roy Gill. On October 2, 1910, just over two months after the station was activated, the assistant keepers perished near the station. On the seventh anniversary of this event, First Assistant Keeper Harry Thompson recorded details of the tragedy in the station’s logbook.
The 2 assistants left the station in row boat at 12:20 to go to Split Rock for mail and did not return. Keeper left the station at 8 a.m. to look for the assistants and found the boat about 2 miles from the light afloat bottom up about 20 rodds from shore. That shows that both men drowned.Two men were hastily assigned to fill the roles of assistant keepers at Split Rock.
In 1916, a tramway was constructed to replace the hoisting derrick. A gasoline engine was used to pull a cart up a railway from the landing and boathouse at the base of the cliff to a turntable at the hoist house. The cart would then be disconnected and pushed by hand to the dwellings, barns, or oil storage house. Remains of the tramway’s concrete support piers can be seen adjacent to the stairway that leads down to the water today.
When Keeper Young resigned in 1928, Franklin Covell, who had been serving as the station’s first assistant and had earlier served a stint as second assistant, was promoted to head keeper. Up until 1931, the keepers would vacate the station during the winter months. Ileana Covell-Meyers, daughter of Keeper Covell, recorded her feelings about having to winter elsewhere.
I know one thing that I disliked as a child, and that was closing the light on December 15 and we had to pack and leave the place until April 15. There was always the changing of school twice a year and returning to a cold house that took days to get the frost out of it. It was a joyous year (1931) when they finally consented to letting the keeps stay year-round. Those were the good days. In the winter we had the pot-bellied stove in the front room … and Dad would play his violin and sing for us.
Thunderous waves pounding the caves beneath the cliffs so hard the entire rock quakes. Gale winds driving the spray completely over the promontory, sculpting ice an inch thick on the east windows. Water pipes and inkbottles alike freezing; hot-water heat failing; lightning storms knocking down curtains and making the old fashioned telephone dance in the dining room. Summer nights so idyllically quiet fish could be heard jumping far below in the dark water, or through an open window a hand-wound victrola playing records newly arrived by boat from Chicago. Such were the early contrasts at Split Rock.
As can be understood by those who have visited Split Rock in person, it wasn’t long before road access was provided that people started showing up to see the station’s spectacular setting. In 1935, Keeper Covell received the following direction from his superiors:
This is a show station in the Lighthouse Service and visitors should be encouraged to visit the Lighthouse and see the lens and other mechanism at stated periods which are indicated on the sign placed at the entrance of the station. The office recognizes that the public is not always considerate but many of the visiting public are thoughtful of the rights of the keepers and these should not be penalized in their earnest efforts to see the light stations when on tourist trips or otherwise.
In 1938, 27,591 visitors signed the station’s log, but Keeper Covell insisted that only about a third of the tourists registered. A 1939 issue of the Coast Guard Bulletin stated that Split Rock had become “probably the most visited lighthouse in the United States.” A fourth staff member was assigned to the station during the summer months to help accommodate visitors.
The station’s oil vapor light was replaced with a 1000-watt electric light in 1940, and the station’s other buildings were wired for electricity. The fog signal was discontinued in 1961. By January 1, 1969, the light had been decommissioned, and the station was handed over to the General Services Administration for disposal. The station sat vacant for two years, until the 7.6-acre property was transferred to the State of Minnesota on March 1, 1971. Administration of the site was given to the Minnesota Historical Society in 1976, and they have since restored much of the property to a 1920s appearance.
Replica foghorns were placed atop the fog signal building in 1979, and the following year the dwelling nearest the lighthouse was opened for tours. A visitors’ center was built in 1986, just outside the original station property, and then greatly expanded in 2003. Split Rock Lighthouse is the most popular historic site in Minnesota, receiving approximately 116,000 paying visitors annually. A year after celebrating its centennial, the lighthouse was made a National Historic Landmark in 2011, just the twelfth lighthouse to be so designated.