By Jim Umhoefer Trails Reporter
Lake County. About 20 miles northeast of Two Harbors on Highway 61. Highway map index: O-9.
The November gale raged for two days on Lake Superior. By the time it abated, 29 vessels were damaged, two of them foundering on the rocky shoals and sharp reefs of the coastline near present-day Split Rock Lighthouse State Park.
After this infamous storm in 1905, pressure for a lighthouse on the isolated rocky headland of Split Rock prompted Congress to authorize money for its construction. The U.S. Lighthouse Service completed the facility in 1910 and operated it until 1939, when the U.S. Coast Guard took over. The station closed in 1969, made obsolete by modern navigation equipment. The lighthouse prevented many tragedies, however. Storms brew quickly and can strike with a vengeance on Lake Superior. Her choppy waves and cold water (40-45 degrees Fahrenheit) are the enemies of sailors in distress. The lighthouse keepers kept watch on the weather and warned vessels of danger with a two-toned fog siren and an oil vapor beacon (electric after 1940).
Some of the wreckage from the 1905 gale is still evident. The steamer Edenborn and her barge, Madiera, were stranded near the mouth of Split Rock River. The barge eventually drifted away and sank several miles to the east. You can see the outline of the submerged barge from the cliff when the lake is calm. The Lafayette and her barge, Manila, were smashed against the rocks near Encampment Island, 12 miles to the southwest. Lake Superior has claimed many other ships from different storms. Besides those along the North Shore, divers will find numerous wrecks around the Apostle Islands of Wisconsin.
The compact station includes the recently renovated brick light tower, a fog-signal building, a trio of identical keepers' dwellings, plus several outbuildings and the ruins of a tramway. Disabled visitors are able to tour the site by way of a paved path.
The Minnesota Historical Society, which administers the site, offers tours of the buildings and grounds at the light station between May 15 and October 15. A modern History Center houses interpretive displays, a gift shop and a theater, where a 20-minute film on the construction of the lighthouse and the life of a lighthouse keeper is shown. The History Center is open daily during the peak season and weekends the rest of the year.
Recent park development has made it easier for more people to get a shoreline perspective of the lighthouse. The lonely landmark on the sheer-walled promontory is one of the most photographed scenes in Minnesota, and is visible from the picnic area just downshore.
The park's trail system has also been expanded. It's now possible to walk near the lakeshore from the lighthouse to the Split Rock River (for which the lighthouse is named), about 2.5 miles to the southwest. Several overlooks throughout the park offer vistas of the shoreline rock formations, Lake Superior and the lighthouse. An all-season trial center serves as a picnic shelter and interpretive display area, cross-country ski trailhead and access point to the Superior Hiking Trail.
The park features a cart-in campground, a pleasant twist on the usual drive-in sites. Visitors park their vehicles in a central lot, then load their camping gear in a large cart provided by the park. Campsites range from 120 feet to a half mild away from the parking lot. About half of the 20 cart-in campsites are spaced along Lake Superior, while the rest are only a short distance from the lake. For those who want a more isolated camping experience, four backpack sites are spread along the lakeshore up to 2.2 miles from the parking lot.
Currently, the closest boat access to Lake Superior is in Beaver Bay, northeast of the park, but a future access could be built near the mouth of the Split Rock River. Lake fishing is good for lake trout, salmon and steelhead. Rainbow, brook and brown trout are taken in Split Rock River.
Little Two Harbors, a small fishing village in the shadow of the lighthouse, was once the home of 12 commercial fishermen. As trout and herring populations declined during the 1950s, the village became deserted and today is marked only by concrete foundations and submerged footings. The trail between the picnic area and the campground follows along the shoreline of Little Two Harbors Bay.
The rocky bluffs along the park's shoreline are formations of anorthosite. At the turn of the century, speculators mistakenly identified this mineral as corundum, one of the hardest substances in the world. Corundum could be sold profitably to eastern manufacturers of grinding wheels.
Three companies started to mine the abrasive along the North Shore: Minnesota Abrasive Company, Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing (3M), and North Shore Abrasives. The latter company located its mine at Corundum Point, just northeast of the Split Rock River. The only company to survive the mistaken identification was 3M.
Eight miles of cross-country ski trails are marked for intermediate and advanced skiers.
Hiking and snowshoeing are allowed throughout the park. Snowmobiling is not permitted at Split Rock Lighthouse State Park, but there are extensive snowmobile trails in the area.
The all-season trail center in the picnic area serves as a warming house for all park visitors. Winter campers can get water in this building and find refuge if the weather becomes too rough.