Shipwrecks from a mighty 1905 November gale prompted this rugged landmark’s construction. Completed by the U.S. Lighthouse Service in 1910, Split Rock Light Station soon became one of Minnesota’s best-known landmarks.
The Need for a Lighthouse
In the early years of the 20th century, iron ore shipments on Lake Superior doubled and the doubled again. With 112 steel freighters in 1901, U.S. Steel Corporation bulk ore carriers became "the greatest exclusive freight-carrying fleet sailing under one ownership in the world." 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 U.S. Steel fleet. Two of these carriers foundered on this rocky coastline, which American novelist James Oliver Curwood 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.
Originally known as Stony Point, the name Split Rock was used when the shipowners lobbied in Washington for the establishment of a light, and the name stuck. The U.S. Lighthouse Service completed construction of 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 U.S. Highway 61, built in 1924, had made it "the most visited lighthouse in the United States."
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. The USLHS had its roots in the federalization of all lighthouses. Beginning in 1789 it was a branch of the Commerce Department which had jurisdiction over all 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 LORAN (Long Range Navigation), radar and GPS (Global Positioning System).
A New Era Begins
The station closed in 1969, when modern navigational equipment made the light station obsolete. The State of Minnesota obtained the historic and scenic landmark in 1971, transferring administrative responsibility for the 25-acre Split Rock Lighthouse Historic Site to the Minnesota Historical Society in 1976. The historic site has been restored to its early 1920s appearance – a time when the isolated light station was accessible only by water. Each year, thousands of visitors stop at the lighthouse and visitor center to learn about the history of this Minnesota icon and take in the beauty of the Lake Superior shoreline. In 2011 Split Rock Light Station was designated as a National Historic Landmark.