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Rare Opening For Lighthouse Keeper At Iconic Lake Superior Site

Apr 12, 2019 08:38PM ● By Editor
The Split Rock Lighthouse, which lights its beacon to commemorate the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, needs a keeper. Photo/Jack Rendulich, File

 By Beth Dalbey, Patch National Staff - April 12, 2019

TWO HARBORS, MN — A job opening in northern Minnesota comes with a killer house, but it's not for just anyone. Split Rock Lighthouse on Lake Superior's North Shore is looking for a lighthouse keeper after Lee Radzak announced his retirement after 36 years.

The Minnesota Historical Society won't post the position — officially, the job title is "historic site manager" — until mid-August, though there already have been plenty of inquiries. An interim manager will take over until a replacement can be found for Radzak, whose retirement became effective Friday.

Radzak, an archaeologist, and his wife moved to the lighthouse, which sits atop a 130-foot cliff looking over Lake Superior, a couple of weeks after their wedding in 1983, according to a report by National Public Radio.

The lighthouse keeper job doesn't offer the isolation and solitude that might be expected. The iconic Split Rock Lighthouse attracts about 160,000 visitors a year, including about 2,500 a day during the summer months, but people still make the trip during the frigid, below-zero winter months, when the lighthouse is covered in ice from storm sprays.

"If my wife and I are sitting on the front porch, they say, 'Do you live here?' Yes. 'Do you live here year-round?' Yes. 'Oh, it must be lonely!' " Radzak told NPR. "And then you want to say, 'Look behind you. There's 50 people standing there listening to you talk, or climbing the steps to the lighthouse.' "

The lighthouse opened in 1910 to help guide ships across the stormy waters of Lake Superior, which American novelist James Oliver Curwood once called "the most dangerous piece of water in the world," according to the Minnesota Historical society

It's construction came after a series of horrific shipwrecks, and one in particular fueled demand for the Split Rock Lighthouse, according to the historical society, which took over management of the lighthouse in 1969 after it was decommissioned by the Coast Guard.

Two men and four ships owned by the Pittsburgh Steamship Company were lost during a blizzard on Nov. 28, 1905. 

The first shipwreck occurred when the 478-foot iron ore carrier William Edenborn lost control of the Madeira, a 436-foot barge it was towing. One of the 10 crew members died when the barge broke in two as it slammed into the craggy rock shores of Gold Island, where the Split Rock Lighthouse currently sits. 

About the same time, pounding winds whipped the Edenborn into the mouth of the Split Rock River. The ship's bow was driven into the wooded shoreline and its stern into the lake, breaking the ship in two. One crew member died.

Two of the Edenborn's sister ships were in trouble at 20 miles southwest. It was dark, and endless sheets of snow made for zero visibility. The captain of the steel steamer Lafayette, which was towing the 436-foot barge Manila, said later he had no idea where they were until he heard breakers hitting the shore on the starboard side. Waves slammed the 454-foot Lafayette into massive rocks 50 feet offshore, and the Manila drove into the Lafayette's storm, breaking it in two. 

There were no casualties but the perilous journey brought an immediate call for a lighthouse.

French glassworkers constructed the 1,000-watt Fresnel lens with 252 cut-glass prisms that sits above the 54-foot lighthouse tower and casts a 7-foot beam that can be seen 22 miles away. Typically, when the Coast Guard decommissions a lighthouse, the working apparatus is removed. But in this case, the light was protected by the Minnesota Historical Society and remains intact today.

Radzak started a tradition in 1985 of lighting the kerosene lantern in a ceremony called "Muster of the Last Watch" every Nov. 10, the anniversary of the sinking of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald in 1975. The huge freighter sank amid gale-force winds and deteriorating weather conditions on Lake Superior, and all 29 crew members were lost.

The search for Radzak's replacement will be led by Minnesota Historical Society manager Ben Leonard, who told NPR the job will probably be difficult to fill "because people think about the view," but " don't think about the email or the reports or the HR issues, because they aren't romantic."

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