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New Exhibit Opens at Split Rock Lighthouse

The new exhibit at Split Rock Lighthouse features a working replica of the Fresnel lens. (Photo credit: Haley Searls)

Split Rock Lighthouse is proud to an­nounce the completion of their most exten­sive programmatic update in a generation. North Shore Community Night, held on May 26th, will be the public’s first opportunity to view this new exhibit, featuring “previously untold stories about how the area’s people have tried to control Lake Superior and their interactions with the water.”

If you go to view the new exhibit, what can you expect to see?

Upon entering the room, your eyes will im­mediately be drawn to the centerpiece of the exhibit: a working replica of the Third Order

Bivalve Fresnel Lens that sits atop Split Rock Lighthouse. Crafted by Dan Spinella of Art­works Florida, the lens includes 252 prisms and weighs in at 650 pounds.

Split Rock’s original lens was crafted in Paris and arrived at Split Rock in 1910. The original lens, a marvel of engineering, is in­stalled at the lighthouse. It weighs over 1,500 pounds and floats in 6.5 quarts of mercury. Its height is about 6 feet, and, like the replica, has 252 individual prisms. Unlike the repli­ca, the original prisms are held in place with brass, not aluminum. The lens rotates com­pletely every 20 seconds. Every beacon has its unique signal patterning, and Split Rock’s sequence is a 0.5 second flash every 9.5 sec­onds. The beacon is 168 feet above Lake Su­perior, and has a range of 22 miles.

A Fresnel lens is a type of composite com­pact lens which reduces the amount of mate­rial required compared to a conventional lens by dividing the lens into a set of concentric annular sections. Split Rock Lighthouse was designed for a second-order lens, like the ones used by other Great Lakes lighthous­es, but when construction went over budget, only enough funding remained for a smaller, third-order lens.

Due to the location of the original lens in the lighthouse tower, it is difficult to view for those with limited mobility. The replica grants accessibility to people who may not be able to climb the tower.

Walking towards the left of the entry, an exhibit details the lives and livelihoods of people who have lived on Lake Superior for thousands of years. Ancient artifacts: a sock­eted spear point, a drill, a projectile point, an utilized flake, and a fragment of a vessel are housed in a glass case with signs explaining how they were likely used. The Dakota peo­ple have lived on the lake since time imme­morial, and used the words Mni Sota Makoce (Land Where the Waters Reflect the Clouds) to describe their homeland. More signage tells the story of the Ojibwe migration around the Great Lakes.

Various industries also sprouted up around the lake, dependent upon the power of the water to sustain their industries. In 1899, the Michigan-based company Merrill and Ring formed the Split Rock Lumber Company, which, at its peak, employed 400 men.

Fishing has been a way of life for people of the lake for ages. The Ojibwe and settlers alike relied on fishing for sustenance, which in turn became a business opportunity. By the 1890s, Minnesota supplied 78% of the country’s herring. Many commercial fisher­ies along the North Shore began as family businesses. Ragnvald and Ragnhild Sve start­ed their family fishing business in the 1920s, and currently Eric and Steve Sve are the third generation to run the fishery.

Mining is a third big industry located by the lake. After World War II, when many iron ore reserves were mostly depleted, the min­ing industry turned to taconite, a lower-grade ore found in the Iron Range. Lake Superior is used to transport the taconite worldwide.

Another display memorializes the Edmund Fitzgerald, whose sinking in 1975 cost the lives of 29 men. Before it sank, it was the biggest ship on the Great Lakes, and worked hauling taconite across Lake Superior to steel mills in Detroit and Toledo.

The new exhibit features the ship wheel of the Madeira as a second focal point. On November 28, 1905, the unpowered schoo­ner-barge crashed on the rocks near Gold Rock Point, a half-mile northeast from where Split Rock Lighthouse would later be built. The Madeira was only one of the 29 ships to sink or be damaged in what came to be known as the Great Storm of 1905.

The Great Storm of 1905 proved to be a catalyst for change in industrial shipping. Industrialists lobbied for a new light station along the North Shore, and in 1907, Congress approved $75,000 for a new lighthouse and fog signal at Split Rock. On July 31, 1910, Split Rock Lighthouse was put into commis­sion when Keeper Orren “Pete” Young lit the beacon.

Highway 61 had not yet been constructed when work began on the lighthouse in the spring of 1909. Signs and a display tell the story of the “engineering feat” of the light­house. The only way to reach the site was via boat, and a steam-powered hoisting engine hauled supplies up the cliff face. On display are original Split Rock Light Station draw­ings and estimates, done by Walter Beyers, assistant engineer with the US Lighthouse Service.

“We worked 10 hours a day and were paid 35 cents an hour,” a quote by Peter Sund­strom reads. “We lived in tents and a French­man and his family cooked for us.” Sund­strom was one of the carpenters who built Split Rock Lighthouse. An immigrant from Sweden, Sundstrom was 22 years old when the lighthouse was built.

Mike Roberts was a Coast Guard Seaman stationed at Split Rock Lighthouse from 1966-69. He recalls, “Well, the light was on when the shipping season started, which was usually somewhere around April. You had to turn the light on every night, half an hour be­fore sunset, and then every morning, half an hour after the sunrise, we would shut it off. And that started your day. We would paint. We would sweep. We would answer 10,000 questions a day.”

When the lighthouse first opened, water was pumped a quarter mile up the hill – from the lake to the keepers’ homes. But Minne­sota weather isn’t always favorable to water pipes, and the pipes carrying water often froze by late fall, making it necessary to haul water up from the lake. In 1939, the first wells were dug onsite, making the water pipe obsolete. A section of it is on display in the new exhibit.

Until 1924, the only way to reach Split Rock Lighthouse was the lake, and it could take weeks for supplies to arrive. In 1931, the road from Highway 61 to the lighthouse was completed, and keepers were given permis­sion to live at the lighthouse year-round with their families.

A display is devoted to sharing the stories of the families who lived at the lighthouse. In 1925, Beulah Covell Myers visited her fa­ther, Assistant Keeper Frank Covell. “I was in fourth grade and my older sister put me on the America and sent me up here. Dad came to get me in the lighthouse launch. It was rough. I was just petrified,” she recalls.

Ileana Covell was only nine years old in 1928, when her father Frank Covell became head keeper. She grew up at the lighthouse, and was an amateur photographer. Split Rock Lighthouse has many of her photos, granting a glimpse into the early years of the light­house.

By the late 1930s, Split Rock advertised it­self as “probably the most visited lighthouse in the United States.”

Major funding for the exhibit was provid­ed by the Haugen Family. Additional funding was provided by the Arts and Cultural Heri­tage Fund.

On May 26, the exhibit will be open to the community free of charge from 6-10 p.m. Other festivities will include live music by Minnesota-based artists Adam Moe and Na­than Frazer. Food trucks will be at the event, as well as beverages and yard games. At 9 p.m. the evening will conclude with a beacon lighting at the lighthouse. Guests are encour­aged to bring a headlamp and dress for the weather. Visitors may need to park at the state park, which may require a Minnesota State Parks sticker.

Haley Searls
Haley Searls
Hello! My name is Haley Searls. I’ve loved writing from an early age, though my nonfiction writing at five years old consisted mainly of weather and gardening reports. I still have some of those early articles: “It’s sunny.” “It’s still sunny.” “It’s raining.” I’m glad to say my writing has improved since then. I wrote a guest post for the Silver Bay Public Library blog, and was the writer/editor of the newsletter for my American Heritage Girls troop. I have been writing for the North Shore Journal since June 2022. Besides writing, I love reading, drawing, photography, music, and spending time with family and friends. Two books that have really influenced my writing are Reforming Journalism by Marvin Olasky and Writer to Writer by Bodie and Brock Thoene. As a journalist, I want to share positive community interactions and inspire people to make lasting connections. Article topics that interest me are ones which show community activities and involvement. Such articles include community events, youth accomplishments, library programming, small businesses, local history, local artists and authors, art programs, and cultural events such as theater and dance. If you have an article idea, email the North Shore Journal with my name in the subject line! I look forward to hearing from you!
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