Have you ever thought about being a lighthouse keeper? Lee Radzak, who will retire Friday after 36 years at the iconic Split Rock Lighthouse on Lake Superior’s North Shore, could argue there are few jobs that people misconceive more.
Split Rock has been drawing visitors since the 1920s, when Highway 61 opened. People love the lighthouse standing sentinel on the 160-foot cliff. It looks out across the breathtaking expanse of Lake Superior.
Lee Radzak moved there in 1983.
“This was a perfect place,” he said. “My wife and I just got married a couple of months earlier and we were ripe for a change so it worked out great.”
People assume the job is lonely.
“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!’ ” he said. “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.’ “
Split Rock attracts 160,000 visitors every year, about 2,500 a day during the summer. There are far fewer in winter, but they still come, even when the temperature is below zero.
While people often describe him as the lighthouse keeper, his formal title is historic site manager. Radzak trained as an archaeologist. Split Rock attracted him as an opportunity to focus on one historic site and develop it. At the top of the lighthouse is what Radzak calls Split Rock’s crown jewel — a huge Fresnel lens made by French glassworkers.
“Usually the Coast Guard pulls all the working apparatus out of a lighthouse when it is retired,” he said. “But we were fortunate that they knew it would be protected by the state of Minnesota so they left it in place and we still have it here now.”
The keepers lit the lens with a kerosene lamp to warn ships away from the rocky shore. The 252 cut-glass prisms in the lens focused the light into a 7-foot beam visible for 22 miles. On days when they couldn’t see, they sounded the foghorns. Using a gas-powered air compressor the horns could be heard 5 miles away.
Reportedly the horns were so loud up close that they would knock people to their knees if they were foolish enough to walk in front of them.
Radzak thinks lighthouses are popular because they exist on the edge — the edge of land and of water. “And they represent man’s humanity to man and trying to protect the people out on the water, and that still resonates to people,” he said.
“It’s huge shoes to fill for sure, for everybody,” says Karly Fransen, who will fill in as interim manager for the summer season.
The job will be posted in mid-August. Minnesota Historical Society manager Ben Leonard will lead the search for a replacement.
“Yeah, I think that this job will be probably the hardest job to fill in the historical society,” he said. “Because people think about the view, they don’t think about the email or the reports or the HR issues, because they aren’t romantic.”
Leonard says he’s looking for a historian with the patience and skills to manage crowds and to deal with harsh weather — and the occasional bear. But even without a formal posting, the Historical Society is already getting inquiries about the job.