Last at the lightWhen Coast Guard member Mike Roberts was assigned to duty at Split Rock Lighthouse in November of 1966, he had no idea he would be the last keeper to serve there.
By: Sonja Peterson, Lake County News Chronicle
When Coast Guard member Mike Roberts was assigned to duty at Split Rock Lighthouse in November of 1966, he had no idea he would be the last keeper to serve there.
Nearly three years later he got a phone call. “Someone called me up and said, ‘Split Rock’s closed.’ I said, ‘I know it’s closed,’ because we closed after shipping season in the winter. But they said, ‘You don’t get it, it’s decommissioned, you’re going to be transferred.’”
It was a shock for Roberts and his family, and a sad goodbye. “We were bumped out of our nice cozy home. . . . As we drove away I remember having this lonely, sinking feeling,” Roberts said.
Now, 41 years after leaving the lighthouse, Roberts is publishing a memoir of his experiences there. “The Last Keeper at Split Rock” includes stories of the rest of his time in the Coast Guard and working winter jobs in Lake County.
“My wife and three boys for years have told me, you really had an interesting service time, you ought to write about it,” Roberts said.
Eventually he took their advice. “I would write a little bit, put it away, write a little bit more, put it away again.”
“As I was working on these stories I ran across a class called How to Publish Your Book,” Roberts said. A few years later, he began looking at publishing options. The book was published this month by North Star Press of St. Cloud.
It will be available for purchase at Barnes & Noble stores, Amazon.com, and at gift shops from Duluth to Grand Marais. Roberts is planning to do a book signing at Barnes & Noble this spring.
Roberts writes of his lucky break in getting into the Coast Guard just before being drafted into the Marines, which likely would have sent him to Vietnam “right out of boot camp.” Instead, he got into the Coast Guard, taking the spot of a recruit who backed out.
After a few months stationed at the Duluth Lifeboat Station, he was reassigned to Split Rock. Only married men were assigned there, and he and his wife had a baby on the way. That qualification and a bit of luck landed him the post.
Working at Split Rock meant he could be with his family every night and weekend. Plus, the Coast Guard gave them a house, paid the bills, and even gave them money for food. “We thought we’d died and gone to heaven,” he wrote in his book.
“All the people who asked me what I did during my time in the service have said, ‘How did you ever get on to something like that?’ I tell them that it was all pure luck and happenstance.”
His book is divided into chapters organized by subject. The first two detail the events that led him to Split Rock, the next seven focus on different aspects of life there, and the last two recount a few of his adventures on the North Shore after the lighthouse was decommissioned. The book is composed of short vignettes and also contains photos from his time in the service and at the lighthouse.
He’s been back to visit Split Rock a couple times since. He now lives in St. Cloud. It’s strange for him to see parking lots where there used to be little but forest. The only accommodation for tourists in the 1960s was a small gift shop on Highway 61. “The original station is still there, but there’s a lot of stuff there that has changed. They put in the interpretative center, the book store, the parking lots.”
He’s glad to see the place buzzing with visitors and caretakers again and not neglected.
The book’s publication coincides nicely with the Split Rock’s centennial celebration. Roberts didn’t realize it was the lighthouse anniversary until his brother-in-law vacationing on the North Shore commented that there was a big celebration happening at Split Rock this summer.
His family is encouraging him to continue his writing. If he does, he’ll continue to write memoirs. After leaving the Coast Guard, he worked as a guide in the BWCA, at Reserve Mining, in various industrial jobs, and finally as a plumbing instructor at technical colleges.
“Writing is enjoyable because I’m not making it up,” he said.
The birthday party continues
Enjoy First Friday programs and other events this summer and fall as Split Rock celebrates its 100th birthday. Reservations are required for the events to ensure seating. First Friday presentations take place at the visitor center theater at 6:30 and 7:45 p.m. Make reservations online at www.mnhs.org/firstfridays or call Split Rock at (218) 226-6372.
- Cathy Wurzer, host of Twin Cities Public Television’s “Almanac” and MPR “Morning Edition” on the radio, presents gems from her research on Highway 61 history, accumulated for her book, “Tales of the Road: Highway 61.” Her illustrated talk will be filled with fascinating stories about the historical features found along the highway.
- Lee Murdock, music for Split Rock Dedicated to preserving, performing and promoting the music of the Great Lakes, Chicago-area folk master Lee Murdock delivers both classic and new songs of sailors, ships, lighthouses, storms and life ashore in a style reminiscent of folk greats Stan Rogers and Burl Ives.
- Thom Holden, Tales of Two Storms
Director of the Lake Superior Maritime Visitor Center in Duluth presents an illustrated talk on two great storms on the lake and the ships that were lost: the November 1905 “Mataafa Blow” that saw the loss of or damage to 29 ships and, 70 years later, the “Edmund Fitzgerald Storm.” Holden is a recognized authority and lecturer on shipwrecks.
- Mark Seeley, Great Minnesota November Storms. A look back at weather that made history including the 1975 “Edmund Fitzgerald Storm.”