Split Rock Light House North Of Duluth On Minnesota's North Shore During OWAA




Historic Site Manager Talks Isolation & History With Split Rock Lighthouse On Minnesota's North Shore Of Lake Superior

The majesty of the historic lighthouse at Split Rock in Northeastern Minnesota. [Photo Credit: Tim Wassberg]

Living at a lighthouse station is a lost art, especially with digital revolution. But for Lee Radzak, the historic site manager at Split Rock Lighthouse Historic Site on the North Shore of Lake Superior 30 minutes outside Duluth, the experience connects him with the past and helps him appreciate the present. Radzak sat down with The Buzz near the cliffs to discuss life on the peak, the history surrounding it and those who came before him.

The Buzz: You live and breathe Split Rock.

Lee Radzak: A lot of it is, of course, living on site. There's that kind of ego involvement of being able to associate with the early keepers here because it's basically the same life they would have had, and a lot of my job tasks are similar to what they did. And especially after tourism started impacting the site. Of course, my job is more turned around, and I'm looking towards the land side, where they were looking more towards the water side. He had to report to Detroit. That was the district headquarters. I have to report to St. Paul for the Minnesota Historical Society. So a lot of it is kind of being isolated from headquarters, which can have its real positive and negative sides to it.

The Buzz: Could you talk, historically, about the importance of this site, both for commerce but also in the aspect of history in this part of Minnesota?

LR: The reason the lighthouse is on the North Shore of Lake Superior is because of the iron ore industry in the iron ranges in northern Minnesota, which are about 30 miles inland from here. So the lighthouses were built in response to that shipping activity. The iron ore shipping carriers went across Lake Superior right in front of the lighthouse here. That started in the end of the 19th century and continued all through the 20th century. It still continues today with taconite shipping. But a very important part and aspect of the lighthouse here is the location on such a spectacular point of land overlooking Lake Superior on a 130-foot cliff. That’s what a lot of visitors today come here to see. It's their first real interaction with Lake Superior and getting an idea of how much water is out there.

The Buzz: What was involved in the construction of something like this? You’re talking about the winds. You're talking about getting the materials up here.

LR: When the lighthouse/light station was built in 1909, there was no access from the land side. There was no highway up the North Shore. Everything had to come across Lake Superior and be hauled up the 130-foot cliff, so 310 tons of building supplies were hauled up over the cliff. It took a whole year to build the light station, and by middle of 1910, it was ready to go. The lighthouse here, the tower is a steel skeletal tower that's then encased concrete brick with a cast iron lantern put on top of it. Every lighthouse is different. Each lighthouse around the country -- and there's over 400 lighthouses just on the Great Lakes -- they're all custom-built for the location they're on.

The Buzz: This station was first established as part of the lighthouse service, which had a very specific use. Could you talk about that?

LR: The United States Lighthouse Service was the entity that was in chaarge of all lighthouses in the United States in the early 1900s when this light station was built as part of the Department of Commerce. That meant that the keepers were actually civil servants or government employees, but not military. That continued right up through 1939.

Lighthouse keeper and his family at Split Rock circa 1930. [Courtesy: Minnesota Historical Society]
The Lighthouse at Split Rock circa 1930. [Courtesy: Minnesota Historical Society]
Children of the lighthouse at Split Rock circa 1909. [Courtesy: Minnesota Historical Society]

The Buzz: Now what happened in 1939 to switch it over?

LR: In the late 1930s, of course, we were going through the Depression, and Franklin Roosevelt was the President. The decision was made for economic and political reasons I'm sure, to have the United States Coast Guard run all the lighthouses in the country. I don't know how crazy the Coast Guard was about that, but they did assimilate the lighthouse service. The civilian keepers, the ones that were working for the lighthouse service could either have a choice of staying as a lighthouse service employee until they retired, or transferring over to the Coast Guard. About half of them did, and half of them didn't. From that point on, the Coast Guard ran all the lighthouses in the country.

The Buzz: The thing in World War II, they were looking for submarine attacks. It would seem coming through the Great Lakes, you'd get soft and hard targets.

LR: There was concern about sabotage, especially because of the iron ore industry, and all the shipbuilding that was going on in Superior Harbor. The keepers on all the Great Lakes light stations were asked to keep an eye open for any kind of strange activities, any sabotage, or any concerns they'd have. There was even a submarine watch, of sorts. There was a thought that possibly the Germans would have developed some small, submersible subs that they could attach to the steel hulls of the ore carriers, bring them in through the locks, and then cause damage when they got here.

The Buzz: Can you talk about the topography here? It’s very stark and it’s something that most people don’t think of in Minnesota first:  rocky shoreline. It's something that's more attributed to the Pacific Northwest.

LR: Northeastern Minnesota. It’s called the Arrowhead of Minnesota, because it's that pointy little part of that's up by Lake Superior. It's part of the Boreal Forest. It's also very rocky here. It's not good farmland. For those reasons, there's a lot of forest. A lot of people that come to the North Shore and to Split Rock, say that it reminds them of the Acadia National Park [in Maine] in the main shoreline.

The Buzz: Could you talk about the lens, specifically, that's up in this lighthouse? Because it's very rare to still see an original lens in a lighthouse.

LR: When the Coast Guard left, we were fortunate that they knew that this was going to be preserved as a historic site. When they walked away, they left the third order bivalve Fresnel lens and the lens assembly in place, so we've got-- as far as I know -- the only lens assembly in the United States that operates totally originally, that it's all mechanical, where our staff are keepers that are interpreting the light. They crank up the weights - it's like a giant cuckoo clock -- and then as those weights drop, that rote revolves the lens. When the Coast Guard decommissions a light, they usually pull all the equipment out because it is so susceptible to vandalism.

Stairs leading down tramway path to the former dock at Split Rock. [Photo Credit: Tim Wassberg]
Historic Site Manager Lee Resnak standing at the vantage of the Split Rock Lighthouse. [Photo Credit: Tim Wassberg]
Rocks stacked at the base of the former dock looking up at Split Rock Lighthouse. [Photo Credit: Tim Wassberg]

The Buzz: But this is also not just a lighthouse. There's so much else here. If you go around, you can see where tram way was.

LR: We want to talk about more than just the technical aspect of what the keepers did. We have one lightkeeper's home that's totally restored to the 1920's, so we talk about the social life of the keepers. There were 35 keepers, and their families, and their children that lived here over the 59 years of the history of the station. Plus we're also surrounded by a state park, a 22,000-acre state park, and there's eight miles of hiking trails that go along the shore.  Part of being at places where history actually happened, is you can experience, in so many different ways. We have a lot of older visitors who go into the restored keeper's house and they remember living like that. They remembered not having electricity, of having a wood stove kitchen stove, baking on a wood stove.

The Buzz: You obviously have a very visceral connection to this place.

LR: Living here, it does impact the job hugely to be here through all the seasons. For people that come here in July and August, the lake is calm. But come back in November during a storm, there's 20 or 30' high waves out there breaking over the cliff. But raising a family here and being here year round, there's a lot of it that feels very much like it would have been for the keepers, and them raising their families here.

The Buzz: Do you see parallels in relation?

LR: There are a lot of parallels. When our daughter was very young we sat on our front porch with Beulah Covell, who was in her 80's and the daughter of the first keeper here. We interviewed her and talked to her, and there's a real connection there with, of course, my wife living in the same house that she lived in, and us doing a lot of the same things. And when the power goes out here during a storm, it feels a real lot like it did in the 1920's (laughing).  But anytime we've had descendants of the keepers back here, especially back when I started in the 1980's and 90's and they were young enough to get around, they came back and you could tell they really appreciated being here again…that was the high point of their lives to have lived at a light station growing up as children.

Tim Wassberg

A graduate of New York University's Tisch School Of The Arts with degrees in Film/TV Production & Film Criticism, Tim has written for magazines such as Moviemaker, Moving Pictures, Conde Nast Traveler UK and Casino Player. He enjoys traveling and distinct craft beers among other things.

Gooseberry Falls State Park

Make Sure To Stay At:

Gooseberry Falls State Park, which is the gateway to the North Shore. It is known for its spectacular waterfalls, river gorge, Lake Superior shoreline, and stone structures, and north woods wildlife. Watch for waves, ships, or the moon rise on Lake Superior from an ancient lava flow known as the Picnic Flow.

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