July 31, 1910: Split Rock Light burns for the first time

On this day along the Lake Superior North Shore in 1910, keeper Orrin “Pete” Young lit the Split Rock Lighthouse’s incandescent oil vapor lamp, illuminating its bivalve third-order Fresnel lens for the first time. Immigrant workers built Split Rock Lighthouse, a fifty-four-foot octagonal brick tower, between 1909 and 1910. From its position high atop a North Shore cliff, the lighthouse’s lens had a focal plane of 168 feet, the highest of all lights on the Great Lakes. By 1939 it was considered the most visited lighthouse in the U.S. and is still one of the North Shore’s most popular tourist attractions. The lighthouse—as well as Duluth’s North Pier Lighthouse—was built in the wake of the infamous November 1905 “Mataafa” storm, which downed twenty-five ships on Lake Superior and stranded dozens of others. The storm also left two ships foundering on the rocky shoreline near the Split Rock River—then considered “the most dangerous piece of water in the world,” including the Madeira, whose wreck helped plead the case for a lighthouse at Split Rock. The Madeira was under tow of the William Edenborn; the Edenborn’s captain cut the tow line thinking it would be safer for the Madeira. It wasn’t. The ship struck Gold Rock, north of where Split Rock Lighthouse now stands. Crewman Fred Benson grabbed a coil of rope and climbed a sixty-foot cliff while the storm raged about him. He then dropped the rope to the Madeira and saved eight other crew members. Only the first mate perished, pulled down with the ship as he tried to climb the mizzenmast and jump to safety. The need for the lighthouse along that stretch of shoreline was also bolstered by the wrecks of the Lafayette and Manila during the same storm. Following the gale, a local delegation went to Washington, D.C. to state its case, and in 1907 Congress appropriated $75,000 for a lighthouse and fog signal near the Split Rock.

Split Rock Lighthouse, c. 1930s. (Image: Zenith City Press)t

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