Secrets of Split Rock
The original North Shore destination still beckons
Split Rock Lighthouse overlooking Lake Superior
photo by Paul Pluskwik
It was Easter Sunday when I arrived at Split Rock Lighthouse State Park, on the North Shore of Lake Superior, an hour’s drive past Duluth. There were slabs of snow under pines and in ditches where the sun didn’t shine, and almost everything that wasn’t rock was mud. The temperature had dropped nearly 30 degrees during the three-hour trip from Minneapolis, from 63 to 34. When I checked my phone for the overnight weather, it showed what I had already concluded was inevitable: a big fat snowflake.
I would have the place to myself, it seemed. But when I started down the cliffside trail to my campsite, number 13, there were two girls playing at the entrance to the site, and I began to worry that the DNR had pulled a United—overbooked. I was prepared to wrestle.
Campsite 13 is booked every single day this summer until mid-October, and every weekend until November, and by then the water is off, the lighthouse is closed, and the lake—never warm to begin with—is spitting ice. It may be the most popular piece of dirt in Minnesota, perhaps in the country, and if not then it’s a tie. A place can only be so booked.
There are spots like this all around the world, so unique, so in-demand that the norms of vacation planning don’t apply. Bucket-list places in Glacier National Park or the Swiss Alps or wherever Elon Musk is planning to send people in his rocket ships.
photo by susanne von schroeder
Campsite 13 is that place in Minnesota, and the other walk-in campsites in Split Rock aren’t far behind. There are only 20 of them, lined up along the ramparts of Superior like lookouts. If you can get almost everything you want in a wilderness vacation for the price of a big night at Hardee’s, you’ll take it.
The girls and their parents weren’t planning on staying. They had already spent the weekend in campsite 4, which is supposed to be great, and before they left they had just wanted to see how number 13 compared.
There is no comparison. Campsite 13 is bigger than most sites and secluded from the trail, the road, and other campers. Even if it wasn’t all of these things, the crashing of waves on the rocks below would drown any noise. Steps lead down to what’s essentially a private beach. From there, and the site itself, you can look north along the shore to the lighthouse, jutting from an outcropping like a chess piece—the best lighthouse view in the campground.
I wished the family luck in securing the site for their next visit, and when they left I was all alone in the park. It had begun to rain. I threw my food in the bear box and headed to the lighthouse.
I have a complicated history with lighthouses. They were never supposed to be complicated. They were not even supposed to be something that someone like me, an inveterate landlubber, needed to think about. In fact, they were designed to warn people away, to repel. A lonely lighthouse keeper was a good one.
But we’ve come up with all sorts of uses for lighthouses since radar made them obsolete, and the biggest one is nostalgia. And so, when I was a young reporter—though not as young as my actions would suggest—I went to Two Harbors, just south of Split Rock, to write about the little red lighthouse there, an anachronism turned into a romantic bed and breakfast.
There were six or seven of us, staying upstairs in small bedrooms, or, in my case, in the boathouse a short walk away. And in the middle of the night I got hungry, crept into the lighthouse kitchen, and microwaved a bag of popcorn.
My fellow guests had ascended the staircase that night hoping to slip into a spell, to dream of splendid isolation in the wilderness circa 1892. Instead, they were woken by the acrid stench of flaming Pop Secret.
There was a ghost, supposedly, haunting the premises, and when the popcorn ignited, some guests must have wondered. Several came down in their robes and slippers. And there I was, holding the bag, as it were. Except I had taken the blackened sack of incinerated kernels—still smoking—into the driveway and stomped on it. And then, unable to think of better alternatives, thrown it in the trunk of my Honda.
Nostalgia is complicated. The present is always intruding, and the past, in any case, was rarely so pleasant as we’d like to think. The lighthouse at Split Rock was built because too many people had died, a fate as tragic as it was predictable.
The iron ore business had erupted in northern Minnesota around the turn of the century, and the more that came out of the ground the more the men who shipped it across Lake Superior licked their chops. They tied unwieldy barges to boats, to increase capacity, and they pushed the shipping season deeper into November, when the worst storms always seemed to hit.
Finally, the worst storm did hit, on November 27, 1905, with 70-mph winds, 30-foot waves, and snow. Freighters crashed into cliffs all along the North Shore, and in the end 29 ships were lost on Superior and 30 sailors died—“sacrificed on the altar of commerce to appease the wrath of the lake,” as one Duluth newspaper cynically observed.
The shippers, rather than amend their ways, demanded a lighthouse from the federal government. Five years later, they got one.
The story might have ended like this, as just another old-time tableau of greed outrunning common sense, like log jams or the Dust Bowl, if it weren’t for what happened next. In 1924, the first highway opened along the North Shore. The lighthouse—an icon of isolation—was besieged by tourists.
The keepers were caught off guard. They asked the government for guidance, grumbling that they were spending too much time preventing souvenir hunting and not enough time preventing shipwrecks. But by the late 1930s, hundreds of visitors a day were knocking on the lighthouse door and peeking in the windows of the keepers’ homes. Split Rock was billed by the burgeoning tourism industry as “probably the most visited lighthouse in the country.”
Aerial view of Split Rock Lighthouse
photo by jon smithers
There's a painting of the old North Shore at the Minneapolis Institute of Art called Off the Coast (Lake Superior), made in 1886. The sheer palisades appear impenetrable, like the wall of an immense fortress stretching to the horizon, topped with towering black pines like the ragged back of a dragon crouched along the crenellations.
The North Shore was a real wilderness then. The lumberjacks had not yet arrived, and there were still woodland caribou huffing among the old-growth pine all along the shore. The best way around was by boat or dogsled. In the painting, a steamship is snorting its way down the coast within a stone’s throw of the cliffs, a powerful incursion though still overmatched by nature, so near yet so far.
Boats like this one supplied the Split Rock lighthouse when men began to build it in 1909. They anchored beneath the hundred-foot cliff, and everything was pulled up by a hoist engine—including the carpenters, bricklayers, and a French cook (the kind of concession to harsh conditions that a fat cat in spats, back in the city, would conceive for his men). And what about the hoist engine itself? With cables attached to trees, it had pulled itself up the hill.
This was the once-pristine wilderness that tourists came to conjure when the Lake Superior International Highway opened along the shore in 1924. The wilderness had only recently been lost, partly because of the highway, and yet they were already nostalgic for it.
Tourists viewing the lighthouse, 1925
photo courtesy of the Minnesota historical society
This happened all across the West, of course, wherever the frontier gave way. Great “rustic” lodges went up in the loosely interpreted style of the logging camps that had come before: wood and stone, with a moose head above the mantle. Tourists were taking inspiration from the past rather than re-living it (no one wanted to wash in a bucket or sleep in a cramped bunkhouse), making a kind of Pinterest mood board of the frontier, which has proven a durable form of vacation.
On the cover of a 1926 brochure advertising the North Shore, a bus roars up the Lake Superior International Highway toward the Split Rock lighthouse, motorists pull off the road for a better look, and a steamship chugs below. It is the age of speed, of easy travel. The lighthouse, though it was still operating in 1926 and would be until 1969, was already being romanticized as a vestige of a slower, darker past.
Here, as in few other places, nostalgia was tripping on the heels of its own inspiration. People were yearning for a simpler time that in fact had not yet left the stage. There were still Norwegian fishermen bobbing below the lighthouse in rowboats, setting nets for herring. There were still some caribou lingering in the woods. But there were also men with ties and rubber tires, motoring their sweethearts up the shore, picnicking beneath the pines, convinced this would all be gone soon—and they were right.
The caribou did not give the tourists the pleasure of their company for long, as though it were impossible to appear in the same scene together, which, essentially, it was. The fishermen overfished, and other invaders besides tourists—the parasitic, eel-like sea lamprey, especially—cut in, and so the rowboats soon vanished as well. The wilderness faded completely.
We head to Split Rock now not to recall the wild—which was no vacation—but those first tourists. We come to rediscover their sense of discovery, their excitement of sifting through secrets left behind. We are nostalgic for nostalgia itself.
The lighthouse at sunset
photo by gary alan nelson
A trail out of the campground winds up a steep, birch-covered chunk of volcanic rock called Day Hill, as in Frank Day, who owned this area around the turn of the century. He was from Duluth, a partner in real-estate ventures, and, according to local lore, he was in love.
At the top of the hill is a fireplace. Not a pit to roast a few marshmallows in, but a fireplace you’d find indoors. A tall pile of stones with a chimney and a hearth you could sleep inside. And nothing else.
It sits on a bald patch of rock like a non sequitur, the start of something or the end of something, and in fact it might be both. Frank Day, it’s said, had begun to build his dream house up here, for himself and his sweetheart, and then she broke his heart.
The fireplace on Day Hill
photo by christopher bies/dreamstime.com
Tourists discovered it eventually, when they began to swarm the area, because the hill offers one of the best vantages of the lighthouse. Split Rock is the only Minnesota State Park with a visitor map pointing out the best photo opportunities. The map was created by the Minnesota Historical Society, which oversees the lighthouse, and shows seven spots along the shore, with little images of what you, too, can shoot there. The lighthouse may well be, as visitor guides often allege, the most photographed landmark in Minnesota.
Stepping inside the lighthouse can be a bit anti-climactic—the point is to get a shot of it in its dramatic setting, from afar. But it seems impolite not to pay it a visit. And so, after a morning trek on the Superior Hiking Trail just south of the park, where I stood before waterfalls and the rushing Split Rock River, joined by just a handful of fly fishermen, I paid my respects.
The historic buildings—three keepers’ cottages, a fog signal station, and the lighthouse itself—have been restored to the 1920s, that delicate time when the shoreline road was blasted through and tourists first appeared on the scene. But even without the period details—a Victrola, a cast-iron stove—the essential experience would be little changed. Inside the tower is only a staircase,
corkscrewing up to a glass light fixture, seven feet across.
Lighthouse keeper polishing the light lens, 1946
photo courtesy of the minnesota historical society
The light is only turned on once a year now, on the anniversary of Lake Superior’s most famous shipwreck, the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald. So most nights in the campground, the surrounding woods, water, and sky are an undifferentiated black. And in the utter opacity it is possible to recall something of the true wilderness experience, to ache as those early visitors did for a past they never knew.