As each name is called out, the bell rings, echoing across the lake. In some ways it should be strange to be a part of such a solemn memorial at one of Minnesota’s most popular tourist destinations, but than Split Rock has always been different.
Standing on top of the cliff, the wind has been picking up all afternoon as the temperature drops from slightly chilly to bone shaking. As cold as it is, the small area outside the lighthouse and the grass below is completely filled with people who have traveled a long way to be a part of Split Rock Lighthouse’s annual commemoration of the Edmund Fitzgerald.
When the last name is spoken, the bell is tolled one more time for everyone who’s been lost in the big lake as a quartet sings the Naval Hymn. As the last note falls, the lamp above is lit, and a bright white light spills through the early winter dusk. There’s a moment in the crowd, where you can tell people want to cheer the light coming on, but catch themselves remembering why they’re there.
You can’t go anywhere in Minnesota without seeing Split Rock Lighthouse. There are pictures of it on T-shirts, coffee cups, placemats, and tchotchkes of all shapes and sizes. Go to any art fair in Minnesota, and you’ll see the lighthouse perched on top of the cliff in three-quarters profile as if its sole purpose was to inspire painters and photographers.
Of course, that’s not why it was built. The lighthouse was commissioned after the Mataafa storm of 1905 ravaged the Great Lakes, sinking almost 30 ships. After the storm, the novelist James Oliver Curwood referred to the North Shore of Lake Superior as “the most dangerous piece of water in the world.”
Originally constructed to fill a gap in navigational aids, Split Rock’s location was so remote that all of the building materials had to be brought across the water and hauled up 130-foot cliffs.
Over time civilization caught up to the lighthouse. The construction of Lake Superior International Highway along the North Shore in 1924 made the lighthouse and the area North of Duluth easily accessible to summer travelers from the Twin Cities and beyond. For many people, Split Rock became a regular stop when they were traveling along the North Shore. By the 1930s the lighthouse was drawing 5,000 visitors a year or five times as many as any other lighthouse in the service.
As ships started to gain access to new navigational technologies, such as GPS and LORAN radar, the need for lighthouses as navigational aids diminished, causing Split Rock’s closure in 1969.
Eventually, the Minnesota Historical Society restored the lighthouse and the grounds to the way they looked in the 1920s when the lighthouse was only accessible by water. Today the entire area is a part of Split Rock State Park and is open to the public year round.
The lighthouse continues to draw thousands of people a year from around the world. It’s hard to say what brings them to the lighthouse, for some it’s a quick stop on a long drive, for others it’s a chance to spend time imagining life as a lighthouse keeper, and for others it might be a chance to learn about the history of Great Lakes or just to see something beautiful.
A Fitting Tribute
What people don’t see when they come to the lighthouse is the light cutting through the darkness that hangs over the lake. The light is only turned on occasionally for maintenance and special ceremonies throughout the year. November 10th is the one time a year that people can plan on seeing the lighthouse illuminated.
In many ways, the lighting ceremony is a fitting tribute to commemorate the loss of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Split Rock and the Fitzgerald both play an outsized role in the mythology of the Great Lakes. When the Fitzgerald sank on November 10th, 1975 with all hands on board it was international news, long before Gordon Lightfoot penned his famous tribute.
The loss of the Fitzgerald in a November storm with twenty-five to thirty-foot waves still speaks to the romance and danger of sailing on the Great Lakes. Standing at the lighthouse and hearing the names read out it’s hard not think about the ship’s final transmission “We are holding our own” echoing through the night and what it would be like to be on a ship out on the lonely waters of Lake Superior fighting your way through the wind and ice of a cold November gale.
Seeing the lighthouse in November is different than seeing it in July. In November, when the lake is dark and grey and the wind cuts right through you, it’s a lot easier to appreciate Split Rock, to understand why the lighthouses were built around the lake and the dangers the sailors faced as they sailed across them and the solace they found in their lights.