Starting on November 27, 1905, a massive storm, known as the Mataafa Storm, hit the Great Lakes region and caused a total of 29 shipwrecks on Lake Superior during a two day period. One of those ships, the Madeira, sank in an area that is now located between Beaver Bay, MN and Two Harbors, MN. Recognizing a need for a guiding light in that area after the catastrophic storm, the United States Lighthouse Service commissioned the construction of a lighthouse near the mouth of the Split Rock River.
In 1910, the construction of the Split Rock Lighthouse was completed. The lighthouse building itself was just one of 10 buildings originally constructed on the grounds to help service the light. There was a fog signal building, 3 keeper’s homes (for the head lighthouse keeper, two assistants, and their families), an oil house, and storage barns. Most of these buildings still stand today.
The Lighthouse is perched atop a 133-foot cliff and helped guide ships past the rugged Lake Superior Shoreline from 1910 until it was decommissioned in 1969. During it’s time in operation the lighthouse used a beam that would flash each night in 10-second intervals and could be seen up to 20 miles away. Now, it can no longer be used as a navigational tool, but every year on November 10th, Split Rock Lighthouse once again sends out its beam in honor of the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald.
After being decommissioned, the lighthouse was handed over to the Minnesota Historical Society and put on the National Register of Historic Places. Today, over 100,000 visitors a year from all over the world come to learn about the history and walk through the original buildings. Visitors can join a tour or just walk the grounds on their own. The lighthouse building, fog signal building, and one of the keeper’s homes have been restored to how they would have appeared in the 1920s, complete with costumed interpreters. Access to the buildings is open from May-October.
There is also a history center with a museum, theater, and gift shop on site. There are many stories surrounding the lighthouse and the keepers. One of my personal favorites is when the kids of the keepers found a bear cub in the woods and decided to bring it home. For a day or two, they had a pet bear. However, they were wisely not permitted to keep it. A cute story, but I do not recommend approaching baby bears in the woods!
As it turns out, I have my own unique story about the lighthouse.
Growing up on Lake Superior, the Split Rock Lighthouse has always held a special place in my heart. My mom started working as an interpreter and tour guide at the lighthouse when I was a kid. Because of that, I would often visit the lighthouse and I remember it had an almost otherworldly feel to it, like the spirits of those who once dedicated their lives to caring for the light still remained. Of course, there were always ghost stories and rumors told around town that the lighthouse was haunted. Whether many of them are true or not, I cannot say. But those stories were fresh in my mind when I was about 12 and my brother and I went to babysit for the family who lived in the assistant keeper’s home.
This home, not open to the public, houses the present-day site manager and his family. It’s been modernized but some of the historic elements of the home remain, and, of course, the lighthouse looms in the darkness outside. It was about 9 PM and I was walking from the kitchen into the living room when I saw a figure outside of the window. I froze and then backed away slowly back into the kitchen, unsure if the figure was a lost tourist or, perhaps, the spirit of Head Keeper Pete Young or one of his assistants. Cautiously, my brother and I peered around the corner to see if the figure was still there. It was. While debating if we should call the police or just call the parents, we began to realize that it was odd that the figure wasn’t moving. Be it a tourist or a spirit, you’d expect it to move, correct? With caution, we slowly approached the window and peered out, unsure of what we were about to see peering back at us in the darkness…
It was a snowman. Built by the kids after a winter snowstorm a few days prior.
We had a good laugh, and I have a fun story of the lighthouse to share of the day we were haunted at the lighthouse by… a snowman. Wearing a hat.
There are many things to do at Split Rock Lighthouse State Park, the following five should be at the top of everyone’s to-do list:
1. Tour the Lighthouse: The Lighthouse was built after many ships were lost in a fierce storm in November of 1905 and operated from 1910 until 1969. The lighthouse is open seasonally for tours and gives visitors the opportunity to view the lighthouse interior, lighthouse keeper’s home and other outbuildings on the site.
2. Visit the Pebble Beach: Pack a bag with a light lunch or just head down to the beach to skip some rocks. The beach provides excellent views of the lighthouse and is a great place to dip your toes in the water.
3. Bike the Gitchi-Gami State Trail: A four-mile section of the paved Gitchi-Gami State Trail lies within the park. From the trail, you’ll find a great view of the Middle Falls waterfall and will also catch a glimpse of the Upper and Lower Falls.
4. Hike the Split Rock River Loop Trail: With 12 miles of hiking trails within the park, there are many areas to explore. One noteworthy hike is the Split Rock River Loop Trail which has unique red rhyolite rock towers near the boundary of the park and a beautiful overlook of Lake Superior and the river valley on the east side of the trail.
5. Grab Some Binoculars and Go Birding: This is an excellent place for birding, especially in the spring and fall months when many birds migrate along the shore of Lake Superior on what is known as the North Shore Birding Trail. Split Rock State Park has been designated an Audubon Important Bird Area because of the presence of Peregrine Falcon aeries (nests). When you’re at the park, be sure to bring along a copy of the Split Rock State Park Bird Checklist in hopes that you can check off the Peregrine Falcon and many other birds.
Located 20 miles north of Two Harbors on Highway 61 at 3713 Split Rock Lighthouse Rd, Two Harbors. Signs along the highway will direct you to the park entrance. There is a fee to get into the lighthouse area so be sure to stop at the history center to pay before heading in.
Not able to make the trip to see the Lighthouse in person? Worry not! I ran the whole thing to create a 6-minute speed tour of the entire Split Rock Lighthouse grounds. Enjoy!