The Historic Split Rock Lighthouse

minnesota split rock lighthouse
The historic Split Rock Lighthouse was built in response to the disastrous shipwrecks of 1905.

A November Lake Superior gale that wrecked nearly 30 ships in 1905 prompted the construction of the Split Rock Lighthouse. When the U.S. Lighthouse Service completed Split Rock Light Station in 1910, it soon became one of Minnesota’s best known destinations.

Today, it’s still an iconic spot overlooking the rocky shore of Lake Superior. A visit is worthwhile to learn the historical context and to serve as a spur to learning more about the history of shipping, and the more than 350 shipwrecks that litter the bottom of what was once called “the most dangerous body of water in the world.”

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The visit to the lighthouse is a bit limiting because the building itself is not open to the public. You’ll have to be content with some photos of the mechanics of the huge beacon’s apparatus that you can see displayed by a docent on a table outside the lighthouse. Also, the support building alongside the lighthouse has more information on Lake Superior shipping and the lighthouse’s role in securing it for 59 years until it was supplanted by new marine navigational technology in 1969.

A couple of little tidbits that I found particularly interesting about the workings of the lighthouse: Before it was electrified, the rotation of the huge lens was accomplished by a windup mechanism not unlike that of an old grandfather clock. A 200 pound weight was raised by a hand winch that had to be cranked by the lighthouse keeper every hour and 40 minutes. As the weight slowly descended again it turned gears which rotated the lens.

And, the huge heavy lens was supported on a bed of liquid mercury which permitted nearly frictionless movement. The mercury’s other crucial characteristic was that it operated without any degradation at very low temperatures–which are known to happen on the North Shore of Lake Superior.

minnesota split rock lighthouse homes
The three homes of the lighthouse keepers, which, like the lighthouse, are not open to visitors.

You can get a lot more good information on the history of the Split Rock Lighthouse at the Minnesota Historical Society site.

A view of the lighthouse from the end of one of the hikes at the Split Rock Lighthouse State Park.

The lighthouse is on the grounds of Split Rock Lighthouse State Park. There’s more to do there than tour the lighthouse site itself. For example, some of the hiking trails at the park will give you dramatic views like this one.

You can see all my posts from my latest trip to the North Shore here.

Where to stay on the North Shore

I based my latest exploration of the North Shore from Two Harbors which is just north of Duluth.
There are several nice places to stay in Two Harbors.

More info from MNTrips

See the list of all Minnesota State Parks, including basic permit information. We also have a list of all Minnesota Historical Society sites. We’re adding our commentary for the park and historical sites as we visit them.

When you plan on hiking or biking the Minnesota State Parks, be sure to download the Avenza Maps app to your phone. The app allows you to download the trail maps for almost every state park, and they are invaluable for navigation, especially because many of the parks don’t have as many directional signs as they should.

Also, if you’re planning on camping at Minnesota State Parks, you’ll need a reservation. Here’s the online reservation form.

Check out our recommendations for what to carry in your hiking day pack when you check out the extensive Minnesota State Park and National Park system.

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Tom Bartel
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