This region of Minnesota is a vast, wild territory that, despite a few roads and towns, has changed little since the first French "runners of the woods" paddled their birch-bark canoes across the Great Lakes in the 17th century to begin exploring. It is a landscape in which nature rules supreme, a place where fall storms roar in from the Arctic every October and spring snows linger into May.
It's where the black bears grow to legendary size and the grey wolves go running over the frozen lakes beneath the shimmering northern lights. Residents and visitors alike have observed that nowhere in all that fabled north country is there a site more lovely than Split Rock Light.
The Minnesota coastline along western Lake Superior runs from the Thunder Bay region on the north to the port city of Duluth on the south. For the most part, it is a heavily forested coastline, with rolling hills, steep ridges, and frequent rock outcrops.
Although the lake waters are deep on the northern coast -- ranging to 129 feet near Grand Portage, Minnesota, and Isle Royale, Michigan -- they become quite shallow near the lake's western coast in Minnesota -- down to 20 feet or less. For this reason, a series of coastal lights was needed to warn vessels.
Since the beginning of its modern exploration, Lake Superior -- the largest of the Great Lakes at more than 350 miles long and covering 31,700 square miles -- has seen a great amount of commercial traffic. Products such as timber, fish, wheat, corn, coal, iron ore, copper, and automobiles have traveled along its shipping lanes. The need for coastal lighthouses became more pressing over time.
Like many lighthouses on the Great Lakes, the lighthouse at Split Rock was built fairly late -- 1910. Part of the impetus for placing a station at Split Rock was that the schooner-barge Madeira was lost and the steamer William Edenborn, which had been towing the Madeira, wrecked near the site during a terrible storm in November 1905 -- a storm that sank or damaged more than 30 other boats on Lake Superior as well.
The Split Rock lighthouse was constructed on about seven acres of land roughly 20 miles northeast of Two Harbors, where a lighthouse had been established in 1892 to guide iron-ore freighters and other commercial vessels in the busy Minnesota channel.
The actual task of raising the Split Rock lighthouse was quite difficult, as building materials had to be transported by boat from Duluth, nearly 50 miles to the south, and then hauled up to the top of the 120-foot Split Rock cliffs. The tower and residence cost more than $70,000 in materials and labor, the equivalent of several million dollars in today's currency.
One of the most interesting aspects of the Split Rock lighthouse was the clockwork machinery that turned the giant Fresnel lens and caused the light to flash. Its inner workings resembled those of a grandfather clock.
A cable attached the turntable and various gears to a 200-pound weight, which was slowly lowered down the center of the lighthouse tower. Every few hours, the lighthouse keeper had to use a hand device to winch the weight back to the ceiling so that it could continue to move the heavy lens apparatus.
The lens produced a beam that could be seen from 20 miles out on the lake and remains in place to this day. There is no telling how many lives it saved during its 59 years of service.
Today nearly 200,000 visitors flock to the lighthouse at Split Rock annually. Of all the lighthouses on the Great Lakes, it is perhaps the most scenic. It is certainly one of the most easily viewed, located only about an hour's drive north from Duluth.
The octagonal, yellow-bricked tower is 54 feet high and offers a commanding view of the shoreline and of Lake Superior. Decommissioned in 1969, the Split Rock Light is no longer active, but it does house an important lighthouse and maritime museum.