The keeper of Minnesota's landmark lighthouse says goodbye after 36 years
On warm summer days, when the breeze off Lake Superior was brisk enough to be refreshing, but not so cool as to chase them indoors, Lee Radzak and his family liked to sit on the porch of their blond-brick home, 20 miles past Two Harbors on Minnesota's scenic North Shore.
Without fail, someone would approach the chain-link fence surrounding their yard — the one with the sign that says "Staff Only" and requests that visitors respect the residents' privacy — and ask, "Do you live here?"
"Yes," they'd say, which always prompted the follow-up: "Do you live here year-round?"
An affirmative response often prompted the comment: "Well, it must be lonely."
"Then you want to say, 'Turn around and look at that string of people walking up to the lighthouse,' " said Radzak, the site's longtime manager, referring to the 160,000 annual visitors who come to see the iconic tower a few hundred feet from his home.
Over the past century, Split Rock Lighthouse has become one of Minnesota's most recognized landmarks. It's one of the state's most photographed sites for good reason: The stately, black-hatted beacon caps a crag overlooking Lake Superior, piercing a wide-open sky.
It's been memorialized in calf- and forearm-covering tattoos. Its picturesque surroundings have inspired many a marriage proposal. But for Radzak, 67, who retires in April, it's the place that he and his family have called home for the past 36 years.
Radzak is one of very few public lighthouse managers who live on-site. Although Split Rock's light hasn't been used for navigation since the late 1960s, his presence helps protect the grounds from natural threats (fierce Lake Superior storms) and human ones (vandalism).
In his 24/7 role, Radzak has kept the site shipshape for tourists from all over the world — even when it has required battling gale-force winds or shooing off bobcats and photography drones.
The lighthouse's arrival
Lives lost on the lake — along with lots of money — spurred the construction of Split Rock Lighthouse.
Just after the turn of the 20th century, Minnesota was on its way to becoming the country's largest producer of iron ore. To eke out as much profit as possible, ore-laden barges headed out on the lake into late November, risking the season's notorious gales. In 1905, one terrible storm damaged or destroyed nearly 30 ships and killed dozens of sailors. Shortly thereafter, at the U.S. Steel Corporation's urging, the federal government built a lighthouse on the rocky point.
It wasn't an easy task. No roads reached the site, so workers used a crane-like hoist and derrick to haul 300 tons of building materials up the cliff from boats more than 100 feet below.
When the lighthouse opened in 1910, three resident keepers worked four-hour shifts, ensuring that the beacon sent a flash out on the lake every 10 seconds every night. Once, when the rotation mechanism failed, two keepers had to spin the lens by hand, timing it with a stopwatch.
Visitors, who came by boat, were rare. Although Split Rock's first head lighthouse keeper spent 18 years at the site, his whole family never joined him permanently, likely because it was so remote.
Then, in 1924, Hwy. 61 opened and the once lonely keepers were inundated by vacationers. By the late 1930s, Split Rock attracted nearly 100,000 tourists a year; the U.S. Coast Guard believed it was probably the most visited lighthouse in the country.
Overnight, the world of the keepers and their families transformed from one of quiet isolation to one where visitors peered in the windows and picked their roses.
The longest-serving 'keeper'
Radzak came to Split Rock after starting his career as an archaeologist with the Minnesota Historical Society. (He met his future wife, Jane, doing fieldwork — she was the daughter of a landowner whose property he surveyed.)
In November 1982, a few months after they were married, Radzak started his new job at Split Rock. The couple jumped at the chance to get away from the bustle of the cities, but they weren't sure how long they'd stay.
"When we moved up here, we said, 'Well, let's give it three years and see how that works.' Three years came and went and we said, 'Well, let's give it five years.' And then the kids came along and we raised our kids here, too."
One main function of Radzak's job is to oversee the site's grounds and buildings: his residence, which is one of three identical keepers' cottages, along with the lighthouse, the fog signal building and the visitor center, which he helped create and later expand.
Timothy Harrison, editor and publisher of Lighthouse Digest, calls Split Rock "the best preserved light station in its entirety in the United States." He gives much of the credit to Radzak, who probably has been in his role longer than any other on-site manager of a public lighthouse in the country.
In summer, Split Rock's busiest season, Radzak typically rises with the sun to walk the property and open the gates to the parking lot. He and a crew perform daily maintenance (painting, mowing), but he also oversees long-term renovations, from replacing bricks on the old buildings to installing a new HVAC system in the visitor center. "I've been here long enough that even this building's needing replacement parts," he said.
While Radzak and his staff still ascend the lighthouse tower to wind the weights and polish the lens, just as the original keepers did, his primary role is to preserve the site and interpret it for visitors. "The keepers' focus was out on the lake — that was the 'front yard' and the 'highway' — while our focus is everybody coming in off this highway," he said, referring to Hwy. 61.
Photography has been a big tourism draw. Early in Radzak's tenure, bad weather would keep visitors away; the family could go several days without seeing anybody. "Now mostly because of digital photography, everybody's a photographer, so there are people here all the time — in storms and full moons — taking pictures," he said.
Photography drones, which are prohibited at the site, have become "a real headache," Radzak said, due to their tour-disrupting high-pitched whine and a couple of near-misses with the lighthouse. While most visitors are gracious guests, Radzak, whose demeanor suggests the unflappable patience of a junior high teacher, is frequently called upon to enforce the rules.
He doesn't regularly lead tours, but when he fills in, he enjoys sharing the site's history. Visitors keep him on his toes with questions such as, "Why was the air compressor powered by a gas engine instead of steam?" or "How did the three keepers' families get along?"
The site has seen a rising number of international travelers, Radzak said, hailing from as far away as Japan, India and Russia. It also draws a cadre of lighthouse devotees whose vacations revolve around visiting beacons all over the world. "We've had people come in here and say, 'This is the 500th lighthouse we've visited,' " Radzak said. "Everybody's kind of nostalgic about lighthouses."
But the job of site manager requires more than just a love of lighthouses. It takes a wide-ranging skill set to oversee the short-term and long-term upkeep of the property, manage six full-time and 35 seasonal staffers, as well as interpret the site's history for current and future visitors. It's a gig for someone who is as comfortable writing reports as keeping thrill-seeking visitors from climbing the cliffs.
"That's what's kept it interesting for 36 years — there's so much variety to it," Radzak said.
After he departs this spring, a veteran staff member will take over the position on an interim basis, while the Minnesota Historical Society, which owns the lighthouse, seeks a new on-site manager. (The job is likely to be posted on mnhs.org this summer.)
When the Radzaks' two children were young, they didn't realize most kids never came home from school to find a bear cub in the yard. Today, Anna and John, who are in their 30s, maintain vivid memories of the picturesque, peaceful place they grew up: ice skating on the frozen lake, exploring the woods of the adjacent state park, taking in countless panoramic sunsets.
"Summer mornings, I'd wake up before the site opened and it was so quiet and beautiful, it felt like that whole area was ours for awhile," Anna said.
The downside was living in a fishbowl. Anna and John would often run inside the house to hide from passing tours — an understandable reaction when some visitors would lean over the fence to take photographs of them. (Who could blame the kids for lobbing a few crabapples at the tourists?)
Occasionally, visitors confusing Split Rock with the Lighthouse Bed and Breakfast in Two Harbors will rap on the Radzaks' door, ready to spend the night. But there is a limit to the site manager's role as consummate host. (Jane has been known to kindly send them off with directions and cookies.)
The Radzak kids mostly found the big storms exciting, even if a downed power line would take out the site's light, heat and water for days. Winds can reach upward of 70 miles per hour and have ripped the storm windows off the house; waves slamming the shore send spray over the top of the cliff, glazing all the buildings with ice.
Once the wind was so powerful that Lee Radzak had to hop on his snowblowing tractor just to make the two-minute commute from his house to the visitor center. So far, he hasn't resorted to a safety method used by one of the early keepers: tying a rope from the house's front doorknob when he had to walk up to the lighthouse, so he'd be able to find his way back.
These days, Radzak shines the 1,000-watt lamp only for maintenance and ceremonial purposes. Each Nov. 10, the site commemorates the anniversary of Lake Superior's most famous shipwreck, the Edmund Fitzgerald, by reading the name of each sailor lost, followed by the toll of a bell. Then, with the flip of a switch, the light shoots out across the dark water, into infinity, as if calling to the souls the freighter couldn't bring home.
A safe harbor
Lighthouses have been cultural icons since antiquity, said Jeff Gales, executive director of the United States Lighthouse Society, and people are drawn to them for many reasons.
Some like the architecture and engineering of the structures themselves. Others want to reach their dramatic, end-of-the-Earth locations, at the tips of narrow peninsulas or huge promontories.
There's also a romance to lighthouses, since their purpose is to save lives. "A lighthouse and the light coming from it represents the best of human nature," Gales said. "It's symbolic of bravery and heroism and selflessness."
Lighthouses can also be a comfort, representing a safe harbor, or home. "It's the first thing a mariner would see after a long voyage," he said. "It's also the last thing you'd see when you depart."
When the Radzaks pack up their belongings and move away from Split Rock, they'll leave by the road — offering a much less dramatic view than those who said their farewells and set out by boat.
But Lee Radzak will look forward to a summer off. The job made him feel tied to the site, like a dairy farmer, so it was hard to get away for long.
That said, there are many things he'll miss. Mostly the lake, and a few of the job's perks that visitors don't experience, such as climbing up to the lighthouse's upper deck and looking out on Superior's massive expanse, as if from the prow of a ship — à la Leonardo DiCaprio in "Titanic," Radzak joked.
"My wife and I have always felt that we're just ordinary people who have an extraordinary place to live."
Rachel Hutton • 612-673-4569