Split Rock’s centennial: It’s a season-long birthday bash at lighthouseSplit Rock Lighthouse is celebrating its 100th birthday in 2010. Completed by the U.S. Lighthouse Service in 1910, today it is one of America’s best-preserved lighthouses and a top tourist attraction in the state.
Split Rock Lighthouse is celebrating its 100th birthday in 2010. Completed by the U.S. Lighthouse Service in 1910, today it is one of America’s best-preserved lighthouses and a top tourist attraction in the state.
On the first Friday of each month this season, through November, there will be special evening programs in the visitor center theater at the historic site. In honor of the 100th birthday, the beacon will be lit at sunset each first Friday from May through November. It will also be lit on July 31, the anniversary date of the first beacon lighting, and on Nov. 10, the anniversary of the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald.
The lightings will happen at sunset, with the beacon remaining lit for an hour afterwards. The light house and other buildings will not be open for tours and no admission fee is charged. A state park vehicle permit is required to enter the grounds. The state park and the historic site parking lots close at 10 p.m. Guests are strongly encouraged to bring a flashlight. Due to limited capacity, tickets must be purchased online at www.mnhs.org/firstfridays. Programs will be presented twice, at 6:30 and 7:45 p.m. Visitors can explore the exhibit gallery and museum store which will have extended hours until 9 p.m.
First in a series
The News-Chronicle will highlight the history of Split Rock periodically through November. Today, we look at some of the early history of the lighthouse.
Reason for being
In the early years of the 20th century, iron ore shipments on Lake Superior doubled and redoubled. United States Steel’s bulk ore carriers became “the greatest exclusive freight-carrying fleet sailing under one ownership in the world,” so the demand for a new lighthouse on the lake’s inhospitable North Shore was hardly surprising.
A single storm on Nov. 28, 1905, damaged 29 ships, fully one third of which were the uninsured property of the steel company fleet. Two of these carriers foundered on this rocky coastline, which some called “the most dangerous piece of water in the world.” A delegation led by the steamship company president descended upon Washington, D.C., and in early 1907, Congress appropriated $75,000 for a lighthouse and fog signal in the vicinity of Split Rock.
The U. S. Lighthouse Service completed the 7.6-acre facility in 1910 and operated it until 1939, when the U.S. Coast Guard took command. By that time, Split Rock’s picturesque setting near the North Shore highway, built in 1924, had made it “probably the most visited lighthouse in the United States.”
Who’s in charge?
When Split Rock Light Station was commissioned in 1910, all beacons in the United States were under the authority of the U.S. Lighthouse Service. USLHS had its roots in the federalization of all lighthouses in 1789. It was a branch of the Commerce Department, and had jurisdiction over anything to do with lighthouses.
In 1939, the USLHS was absorbed into the U.S. Coast Guard, which continues to operate all lighted aids to navigation in the United States today. It runs only one manned light station: Little Brewster Island in Boston Harbor, the first lighthouse built on American soil. All other lighthouses in the United States are either automated or decommissioned in the face of new navigational technology such as Long Range Navigation, radar and GPS.
The station closed in 1969 when modern navigational equipment made it obsolete. The state obtained the scenic landmark in 1971. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources operates Split Rock Lighthouse State Park, a 2,200-acre park that offers hiking, picnicking and tent camping to visitors.
In 1976, administrative responsibility for the 25-acre Split Rock Lighthouse Historic Site was given to the Minnesota Historical Society. The Society continues the dual goals of preservation and interpretation of Split Rock Light Station.
Happening upon Split Rock
Ralph Russell Tinkham enjoyed the challenge of building lighthouses in remote, inaccessible areas. As a junior engineer of the U. S. lighthouse establishment, he was sailing up the North Shore as an assistant on the Rock of Ages Light project off Isle Royale when the ship he was on passed an isolated cliff of anorthrosite rock, poised like a sentinel above the waters of Lake Superior.
He didn’t know it at the time, but the construction of Split Rock Light Station at that point would consume almost two years of his life and catapult his career with the newly renamed U.S. Lighthouse Service. He did all the architectural work, figured out material and labor needs, and watched over the construction on site, living in the upstairs of the first storage barn after its completion early in 1909.
By the time of his retirement in 1946, Tinkham had become the chief engineer of the entire U.S. Lighthouse Service, and had planned and watched over the construction of stations in Hawaii and Alaska, among others.
The construction of Split Rock Lighthouse was an engineering feat in an organization already known for building structures in remote locations.
The first challenge in the spring of 1909 was erecting a steam-powered hoist and derrick for lifting supplies off the supply boats on the lake, more than 110 feet below. A construction crew of 35 to 50 men had to be supplied by boat through the construction period using this method. Three hundred ten tons of building materials were hoisted without a major accident.
The construction workers stayed in canvas tents on the open cliff top. The construction firm of L. D. Campbell & Son of Duluth supplied all the construction labor necessary – carpenters, brick masons, demolition men for dynamiting the hard rock of the cliff for foundations, and common laborers collected from all over the Great Lakes region – to assemble a light station at one of the most remote places one had ever been built.
By the time Split Rock Light Station was completed in July 1910, workers had spent 13 months on the desolate cliff, with only a break during the worst months of winter. They were exposed to the elements and connected to civilization only by occasional supply boat visits. When the light was first lit on July 31, it stood as a monument to the will of the men who built it, as much as an aid to navigation.