Front Row Seat: Split Rock exhibit turns new lens on lighthouse history

The Minnesota Historical Society will open an exhibit Friday contextualizing the iconic North Shore landmark. The centerpiece is a full-scale replica of the beacon's lens.

A replica lighthouse lens inside of an exhibit hall.
A full-scale replica of the Third Order Fresnel lens that sits atop Split Rock Lighthouse as seen May 12 in the Radzak Family Gallery.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

TWO HARBORS — If you're going to replicate a lens comprising 252 prisms, you want to avoid half-measures.

"It was a big expense," said Hayes Scriven, standing next to a replica of the lens that focuses the beacon at Split Rock Lighthouse, "but we wanted to spend the money to make it right, and make it accessible."

Scriven is site manager at the lighthouse, which is operated as a visitor attraction by the Minnesota Historical Society. The lighthouse was active from 1910-1969, and the beacon is now only lit for special occasions.

"There's an agreement that we have had with the Coast Guard that said, yeah, you can turn it on, but you can't turn it on all the time," said Scriven. "If you did that, then the ships would get used to it."

Thanks to donated funds as well as proceeds from Minnesota's Legacy amendment sales tax, Scriven and his colleagues were able to realize the first major overhaul of Split Rock's exhibit space in 26 years. The new exhibit opens to the public Friday evening.


A video projected onto a wall in front of stools at an exhibit hall.
Footage from a film titled "The Power of the Lake" is projected onto a wall.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

"We wanted to elevate other stories that hadn't been told here at the site before," explained Scriven. "We wanted to tell more of a complete Indigenous story here. We wanted to highlight more of the family side as well, so we wanted to have voices from the keepers' wives, from their kids."

"We have areas that play oral histories of our site from actual people who lived here," Split Rock Program Manager Jeri Bohac told the News Tribune's Dan Williamson. "For example, there's one given by Grace Young that talks about the inspector showing up for the station and having to get her dad ready for the inspector to come, since they had to be in full dress uniform for that."

A woman touching a screen as part of an exhibit.
Jeri Bohac, program manager at Split Rock Lighthouse, presses her fingers against a touch screen that plays oral histories of the site from people who lived there.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

The exhibit also has several displays, including a video wall, exploring the longstanding relationship Anishinaabe community members have had with Lake Superior and its shores. In addition to that video, the exhibit features that will most immediately grab visitors' attention are the lens replica and a wooden steering wheel from a nearby shipwreck that helped inspire the lighthouse's construction.

Gordon Lightfoot, who died Monday at 84, had many hits. It's a 1976 song about a doomed freighter, though, that's drawn thousands to the Lake Superior shore.

The Madeira, an unpowered schooner-barge, went down near Gold Rock Point in a 1905 storm that claimed at least 32 lives (including one on the Madeira) and sank or damaged 29 ships. Two years later, Congress appropriated the funds to build Split Rock Lighthouse.

A recovered wheel from a sunken ship displayed near a video screen inside of an exhibit hall.
The wheel from the Madeira inside a glass case while diving footage plays in the background as seen May 12. The Madeira sank in 1905 a short distance from where Split Rock Lighthouse in Two Harbors now stands. The wheel is on display in the lighthouse's exhibit hall as part of a new attraction.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

At the center of the new exhibit in the Radzak Family Gallery, the lens replica rotates on its stand with a near-hypnotic effect. It's a Third Order Fresnel lens, a type of lens developed in France in the early 19th century. The distinctive concentric prisms of a Fresnel lens give it a scalloped appearance, and serve to focus more light than a standard lens.

The replica "is made up of 252 individual acrylic prisms," said Bohac. "That's probably the major difference between the replica and the original lens. Our original lens is made up of all glass prisms. The reason why we went with the acrylic is number one, it is cheaper to do that, and it also makes it a lot lighter."

A light house on a cliff.
A person stands near a railing at Split Rock Lighthouse.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune
A replica of a lighthouse lens
The new exhibit features a full scale replica of the Third Order Fresnel lens. The lens includes 252 prisms and weighs 650 pounds.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

The replica lens is more accessible than the original both in the respect that you can see it without climbing a winding staircase and also in the sense that you can view it head-on rather than looking up at the lens, as when visiting the lighthouse tower. "You have to crane your neck to see," said Scriven about the original lens, "and you're not as close to it."

Scriven said the exhibit design staff faced the challenge of serving and informing a wide range of visitors. "You get people that are just like, 'Lighthouse!' That's all they want. They want to come, they want to learn as much as they can about the lighthouse and they want the nittiest, grittiest, nerdiest thing that they can find."


Vintage binoculars and a handwritten note on display.
Binoculars from the 1930s and a handwritten note from Illeana Covell-Meyers, the daughter of lighthouse keeper Franklin Covell.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

For those guests, the new exhibit includes original construction documents and replica oil vapor tanks — oil vapor being the beacon's initial light source. For visitors more interested in the lighthouse's human stories, there are artifacts like the hat worn by the light's first keeper and a cap from one of the last Coast Guard members to staff the light in the late 1960s.

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"There's other visitors that want to come here and hear about shipwrecks," continued Scriven. For those guests, there's the wheel and other material relating to the Madeira and a display dedicated to the Edmund Fitzgerald.

Lake Superior's most famous shipwreck has become associated with Split Rock through annual remembrance ceremonies, although that ship went down in 1975, nearly 300 miles to the east. "We get so many questions about it, we have to tell that story," said Scriven.

An exhibit display for a sunken ship.
A display for the Edmund Fitzgerald.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune
Historic footage playing on a video screen.
Footage filmed approximately 100 years ago plays on a screen in the exhibit hall.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

Maybe once the exhibit is open, Scriven will have time to watch a much-discussed recent movie, "The Lighthouse" (2019). In that film, Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson play a pair of keepers on a fictional New England lighthouse. Isolated from the world, they approach the verge of madness.

Split Rock was "pretty remote for its time, but there (were) also three other people here," said Scriven. "The people that were here at Split Rock, they had their families. There (were) issues, but ... they didn't completely go nuts."

Members of the general public will get their first chance to see the new Split Rock exhibit at a free North Shore Community Night on Friday from 6-10 p.m. The event will feature live music, activities and a 9 p.m. beacon lighting. For details, see

more by jay gabler
Readers have submitted two rarely seen photos, including one of young Bobby Zimmerman with three generations of his mother's family.

Arts and entertainment reporter Jay Gabler joined the Duluth News Tribune in 2022. His previous experience includes eight years as a digital producer at The Current (Minnesota Public Radio), four years as theater critic at Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, and six years as arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He's a co-founder of pop culture and creative writing blog The Tangential; he's also a member of the National Book Critics Circle and the Minnesota Film Critics Alliance. You can reach him at or 218-279-5536.
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