The “north shore” of Lake Superior, the area along MN 61, is a beautiful area filled with state parks and lovely little towns trying to make a living off tourism. Last week we took a trip down 61 to check out a few of the state parks that we had not yet visited. One of them was Split Rock Lighthouse State Park.
Split Rock Lighthouse State Park is located two hours southwest of Grand Portage and an hour northeast of Duluth. Although the park has lots of hiking and some nice camping, its primary claim to fame is the gorgeous Split Rock Lighthouse.
Split Rock Lighthouse is one of the most photographed lighthouses along the Great Lakes. It is now owned and operated by the Minnesota Historical Society which operates a really nice museum, gift shop, and gives tours of the lighthouse every 20 minutes. The lighthouse was built after a November storm in 1905 which caused damage to 29 ships, many of them carrying iron ore to steel mills along the Great Lakes. This prompted Congress to set aside the money for the Split Rock Lighthouse.
Because there was no land access to the lighthouse site, all the building materials had to be brought in by ship and lifted via a derrick up the cliffs to the place where the lighthouse would be built. The lighthouse was completed in two seasons and came in under budget. The lighthouse keeper and two assistants manned the station during the shipping season, generally April through November. The station ran from 1910 until 1969 when it was closed.
Everything had to be brought in by boat and lifted to the station (including the people) until a road was completed along the north shore in 1924. The road allowed the station to be kept open year-round and it also allowed tourists to visit. As early as 1927, thousands of tourists visited the lighthouse ever summer. The lighthouse keepers not only maintained the lighthouse, fog horn, and lighthouse lens, they also acted as tour guides.
We took the 20 minute tour, hearing some of the history of the lighthouse, and then walking up the stairs to the stunning Fresnel lens. We also checked out the fog signal room and the lighthouse keeper’s home, restored to its 1924 condition. We talked to the costumed interpreters who were cooking on the wood stove in the house. We also watched an iron ore freighter move across the lake into Two Harbors. One of the interpreters had a list of the ships that would be seen that day and told us what ship it was, where it was from, where it was going, and what time it would get there.
Split Rock Lighthouse was a great place to spend a few hours and learn an interesting part of Great Lakes history. The motto of the lighthouse is “Repels ships – attracts people.” It is doing this today as effectively as it always has.