Arts and Culture

Split Rock Lighthouse to honor Gordon Lightfoot with beacon lighting

Split Rock Lighthouse
The Split Rock Lighthouse beacon, located along the Lake Superior shore near Beaver Bay, Minn., is lit at dusk on Nov. 10 to recognize the 35th anniversary of the sinking of the freighter Edmund Fitzgerald.
Andrew Krueger | Duluth News Tribune via AP 2010

The beacon at Split Rock Lighthouse on the North Shore will be lit Wednesday night from 9 to 11 p.m. to honor the late singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot, who died Monday at the age of 84.

Lightfoot’s song “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” — about the 1975 sinking of the freighter Edmund Fitzgerald in the frigid waters of Lake Superior, killing all 29 crew members — has played an outsized role in the programming and number of people who visit the historic site north of Two Harbors, Minn.

Years ago, former Split Rock Lighthouse site manager Lee Radzak was driving home on Nov. 10 — the anniversary of the sinking — when Lightfoot’s song came on the radio.

Radzak felt so moved by what he heard that he turned on the beacon when he arrived back at the lighthouse, recounted current lighthouse site manager Hayes Scriven.

And that started an annual commemoration of the tragedy every Nov. 10 at the lighthouse.

Every year since 1985, the names of the crew members are read as a ship’s bell tolls 29 times. Then it tolls once more, in memory of all lost mariners, as the lighthouse beacon shines out over the lake.

Lee Radzak is retiring after serving as Split Rock Lighthouse site manager
Lee Radzak looks out over Lake Superior on March 27 at Split Rock Lighthouse. Radzak retired after 36 years as the longest-serving manager of the iconic Minnesota lighthouse.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News 2017

“And it was all because (Radzak) heard Gordon Lightfoot’s song all those years back,” said Scriven. “We thought it would be a fitting tribute to light it in honor of Gordon.”

Scriven said the song has not only had an impact on the historic site’s programming, but also on how many people visit. He estimates that up to 40 percent of people who come to the lighthouse are drawn at least in part by the lore of the shipwreck and Lightfoot’s iconic song.

“In the summer, every few days we’re hearing ‘The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald’ playing on people’s phones as they’re walking through, people humming the tune,” Scriven said.

“That song has had a tremendous impact on our visitors and program, with people coming here to learn more about Great Lakes shipping.”

The historic site and visitor center will be closed during Wednesday night’s beacon lighting. Scriven recommends viewing the beacon from the Lake Superior shoreline in the state park.