Split Rock Lighthouse

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The photos below are from the National Registry of Historic Places and the Minnesota Historical Society, respectively.

When we decided to skip the historic train ride along the north shore of Lake Superior, my brother offered to drive us along the North Shore Highway. This turned out to be so much better than taking the tourist train. For one thing, I doubt the train would stop at the Split Rock Lighthouse Visitor Center.

It’s highly unlikely, perhaps impossible that I would pass up the chance to tour a lighthouse. So, what would be the chances that I’d pass up a lighthouse that was built in 1909, before there was a road to the location and where the construction crew had to build a derrick powered by a steam hoist to haul 310 tons of material up the cliff side from supply boats 130′ (40m) below. Unfortunately, they stopped using the hoist-derrick in 1916 when the steam engine was blown over during a storm.

The lighthouse was built in response to a storm in 1905 in which the temperature dropped to -13°f (-25°c) and winds measured at 60 mph (97 kph) drove waves on the lake to a height of 30′ (9.1m). Nine ships were destroyed on the rocky north shore and 11 men died. Construction began in June of 1909 and was finished in November. If you’re curious as to the time lag between the storm in 1905 and the operation in 1909 – the lighthouse was authorized by Congress.

The lighthouse was known as a bearing light station, designed to help ship crews determine their location. The original oil-vapor lamp itself, when first lit, was the brightest navigational signal on the Great Lakes. It was officially visible from 22 mi (35 km) away. The oil-vapor lamp was replaced with a 1,000-watt electric lamp in 1940. During the day, the lighthouse’s distinctive yellow brick and black roof were its “day-markers.”

The main reason the light was required on the west end of Lake Superior was that the cargoes of high-grade iron ore coupled with the iron ore deposits in the lake basin caused the compass needle to deflect greatly from true-north. This deviation from true north caused more than one ship, relying on the compass reading and not knowing where they were, to run aground in the shallows of the rocky coast.

National Registry of Historic Places nomination form

A bit of interesting trivia, the oil lamp remained stationary. The signal was created by a rotating lens. The lens floated on a pool of 250 pounds of liquid mercury in a near frictionless operation. I doubt such a solution would be acceptable today.

After the steam engine was damaged, the derrick was replaced by a fixed tram. The tram carried goods from a dock at the lake to the top of the station. The tram remained in use until 1934, when the light station crew was issued a truck.

The lighthouse was originally under the administration of the U.S. Bureau of Lighthouses. The U.S. Coast Guard took over in 1939. As of 1969, the Coast Guard had determined that the lighthouse was surplus to their needs (ships on the lake all had radar and other unmanned navigational aids had been installed). The property was turned over to U.S. Government Services Administration (GSA) for disposal. Today, the lighthouse is maintained as a historic site by the Minnesota Historical Society. It is one of the most popular lighthouses in the United States.

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    • Thanks Sofia. As long as there were men traveling the seas, there was a need to warn them about the rocks along the edge. I am glad they preserved this one in such a wonderful fashion.

      You brought an interesting door and some things to think about today. Thanks!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I try to imagine living in such a place, and I can’t. I’d sure want to be miles away from those foghorns — and on dry land! But what a fascinating place to visit. I loved your line about authorization from Congress.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I was trying to imagine living from supply ship to supply ship. Once there, there was no way out for the keeper and his crew (or family). It would be like camping, forever. And camping in a place where the temperature isn’t afraid to go well below zero! The fog horns might have been fun to listen to the first few times, but…

      When I read that the lighthouse was constructed between June and November, I was trying to figure out why it took from 1905 until 1909 – yep, Congress.

      I hope you have a great day!

      Liked by 1 person

    • There have been some lighthouses sold to private parties here in New England. I think there was an episode of This Old House where they turned one into a home. It’s not an easy undertaking, but it would be a cool place to live. I’ll have to settle for visiting the ones like this that have been preserved and are open to the public.

      Great trip through time for yo as well, today. Thanks Tim.

      Liked by 1 person

    • It’s my pleasure, Gwen. I love learning about these things and finding people who appreciate them like I do is the icing on the cake. I hope you’re having a great week.


  2. I am lovin’ the lighthouse! But this line had me laughing – so self explanatory!! “If you’re curious as to the time lag between the storm in 1905 and the operation in 1909 – the lighthouse was authorized by Congress.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • The technology of the day fascinates me, but I also find the life of the lighthouse crews interesting. I’ll be visiting the Lightkeeper’s house in the near future.

      Thanks for sharing a look into a different aspect of our past. Your post is wonderful.


  3. If I recall correctly quite a few of the lighthouses around Britain’s coastline used the mercury method in the past. Can you imagine what the health and safety Gestapo would make of that nowadays! Mercury was also used in hat making – hence the ‘Mad Hatter’ from Alice in Wonderland as long term exposure could cause all kinds of ailments e.g. mad hatter disease and mad hatter syndrome.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I wouldn’t be surprised to find that method had been used in England. The original lens was made in France. Here in Connecticut, US, we have a history of the “Danbury Shakes” or the Danbury tremor or hatter’s shakes. Danbury, CT is known as the Hat City. Of course, up the road from there is Waterbury, CT and the story of the Waterbury’s Radium Girls – the women who painted watch and clock faces with radioactive paint.

      Thanks for your contribution today!

      Liked by 1 person

    • You’d have to zoom in quite a bit to read the poster, but the hoisting engine was put on skids and it pulled itself up the side of the cliff. These people were nothing if not resourceful. I love reading stories about engineering feats from this era.

      I enjoyed your post today. Great history and a wonderful way to learn about it.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Terrific post Dan. I have a fascination with lighthouses. They are not only functional structures, but they seem to hold such mystery. The stories they could tell. The Split Rock Lighthouse, however, with its rich history, makes it unique from all the others.

    This one should have received a Medal of Honor for its contribution through two wars! Really interesting history Dan. Thank you for sharing it with us.

    And thanks to everyone over the years who have preserved this beauty so magnificently. I’m glad you had the opportunity to visit. You must’ve been like a kid in a candy shop!

    Aren’t you glad Congress didn’t have to approve your garage/workshop or new railing along ramp! 🤗

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s funny you mention Congress approving the garage and ramp, Ginger. When we first proposed adding the porch and ramp, the Building Inspector pointed out that, because of the limited frontage, we would normally need a variance. However, since the porch would bring our entrance “in compliance with the modern Building Code for ingress and egress” he was able to approve it. The ramp isn’t required, but a level walkway from the door stepping back at least 42″ is. We didn’t have that before I built the porch.

      In that storm in 1905, several ore boats owned (and uninsured) by US Steel sunk, and many crewmen perished. The transport of iron ore through the Great Lakes was essential to the war effort and our economy in peacetime. The merchants and shipping companies had been asking for a lighthouse since the late 1800’s.

      I am so glad the historical society took over shortly after the Coast Guard deemed the lighthouse as surplus. They have preserved it almost exactly as it was at the time. One can only wonder how the GSA might have “disposed” of the “asset” if they hadn’t stepped in. I also give credit to the people who so rapidly worked to add this to the Registry of Historic Places. The nomination form is dated 1969, the same year the Coast Guard left.

      I’m glad you enjoyed this post, and I hope you have a great weekend.


    • Sorry about the lack of facilities (but it’s always a welcome comment on this blog ;) – I love touring lighthouses, and this one was a special thrill. The service of this light directly helped the region I grew up in to grow and prosper. Without the ability to move iron ore across the Great Lakes, Pittsburgh, PA would never have become the Steel City.

      As always, I appreciate (and am a little jealous) of the rich history you bring us for this challenge. Thanks Manja.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Oh, Congress… I had to laugh about that. Funny but not, you know? That tunnel to get to the lighthouse…we have no tunnels in my town but when we go to Alabama, we always to through the old tunnel there. I love it. That lighthouse has quite a wonderful history. And that fog horn house–I’ve never seen one of those! A really good post, Dan.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Lois. I love tunnels. I have toured numerous lighthouses, but I’ve never seen a fog horn building like that. That must have been great to listen to all night. The part about Congress is funny and, as you say, not funny.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Oh you know how I love lighthouses! How many steps? It seems quite shorter than most but very beautiful. I think the early 1900’s was a red letter time for big storms. 1900 was the year Galveston was nearly wiped from the map.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I knew you would love this, Cheryl. Speaking of Galveston, have you ever read “Isaac’s Storm?” I got that book for Christmas about 15 years ago and I read it straight through.

      Only 32 steps, but it’s 130′ above the lake so it had a head start. Visible for 22 miles. I was just as happy not to have to climb like I did in St. Augustine. You moved before I had a chance to tour the lighthouse in Daytona. I hope to get back there at some point.


  7. That’s so cool, Dan. On our two family road trips around Lake Superior, I don’t remember stopping for a lighthouse, so thanks for the photos and history. It seems to me that I need to learn history about the Great Lakes (since I’m so close to two of them) and what’s available for visitors to reflect upon. Maybe a road trip or two?

    Liked by 1 person

    • It was still in operation until 1969, Mary. I don’t know when you went on those trips, but maybe it wasn’t yet a tourist destination. The Great Lakes region is fascinating. I don’t think I know nearly enough about it. I do think more road trips are in order.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I think I was young enough to have seen it in operation, if we had stopped. Many years ago, the ex and I took a bike trip that took us through Canada on a roundabout way to Lake Erie and Put-in-Bay off Sandusky, Ohio. It’s a tourist island, but at the time, it boasted the world’s longest bar. The things you come across while exploring…

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Lighthouses are always fun. Except sometimes that last step / crawl up to the top of the platform. And of course the reverse maneuver and exercise to safely return to the steps for the trip back down. Happy Thursday Dan.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. One is not able to visit a lighthouse from the inside (that I know of) in Europe. My therapist colleague had a collection of light houses on display in his room, so enjoyed the therapy sessions in his room, if mine was occupied:) This is a beautiful one, Dan. I especially like the top down view of the stairs:)


    Liked by 1 person

    • Superior is the largest of the Great Lakes. By some measures, I think it’s the largest lake on the planet. It was interesting to visit the western tip and to see the vast expanse of even that narrow portion. The shore certainly is rocky.

      I enjoyed the tour of the castle. It’s always amazing to me when I read about how much farther back European history goes than our meager 350 or so years.


  10. Very impressive and I’d definitely visit, too. That was a lot of mercury!! Now “they” freak out over what’s in an old-fashioned thermometer although what’s in the “good” light bulbs doesn’t seem to raise an eyebrow. :-) Anyway, let’s go to the beach and relax in the sun a bit or walk along The Strand and go door-hunting.

    Beach doors


    Liked by 1 person

    • Several years ago, a mercury barometer was broken in a school hallway in a nearby town. They closed the school, cleaned the spill including replacing the concrete floor! I remember playing with the little balls of mercury when those thermometers broke. The repairman who replaced the thermostat in my parent’s house gave me the mercury switch from the old one to play with.

      You found some very nice doors. The gate is quite a bit nicer than the one in my back yard ;-)

      Liked by 1 person

    • Going down is harder on the knees. This was nice because there were only 32 steps. There was a woman with two adult children who took a very long time. She apologized, but I told her it gave me more time to study the mechanism.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Ok….you know I would really love this post considering my fascination (like yours) with lighthouses!! Great background on the lighthouse and I’m so glad it has been preserved!! Love the pictures….great post!! Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. What a fascinating post, Dan! I was surprised at how short and different the lighthouse is, albeit a lovely work of architecture. I must be too used to New England lighthouses. I can’t imagine hauling everything to Split Tock back in the day. And all that mercury? Wow. Did you climb the spiral stairway?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I did climb the stairs, Jennie. There were only 32. A lot of New England lighthouses are build with a base that isn’t elevated as much as this on. Sitting 130’ above the lake gave this lighthouse a big head start. They say the light could be seen for 22 miles.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Stunning pictures, Dan. Just wow! I loved the history lesson you included as well and your words stayed with me as I viewed each picture. So many aspects of this world I do not know about and to think I am learning through posts like yours is a wonder to me. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

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