By Lee Radzak with Curt Brown - Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2021
Reviewed By Jack and Tobi Graham
“He watches the movement of the sun, moon, and stars with the calm, steady demeanor of a lighthouse keeper. If that sounds like the first line of a romance novel, so be it.” So writes Jane Radzak in her touching “Forward” to a masterful book chronicling her husband Lee’s almost four decades as site administrator and truly the “keeper” of the iconic Split Rock Lighthouse, one of Minnesota’s, and America’s true maritime treasures.
Lee’s tenure at Split Rock, from 1982 to 2021, comprised about a third of Split Rock’s existence as a station. It went into service in 1910. His service alone surpassed the total of the two longest-serving Split Rock keepers: Orren Young, 1910 to 1928, and Franklin Covell, 1928 to 1944. Few keepers in the history of our American lighthouses served so long at one location.
The Split Rock Lighthouse sits regally on the high cliff escarpment of Lake Superior’s rugged and rocky north shore. Lee’s view is both broad and far, as one would expect from someone looking down from a high place. His love for the Split Rock Light Station, one of the most complete stations in the nation, as well as his love for the family with whom he shared his long tenure there, is apparent in every aspect of the book. Over the years, lighthouse keeping at its best had been a family affair. Lee’s time at Split Rock was every bit as much, as his book mentions often the involvement of his wife Jane and his children, John and Anna, in the daily life of the station. It is a very personal look into the private life of a family growing up in a very public place.
The book is arranged seasonally, which is appropriate to an “up north” location where all aspects of daily life are moderated, if not dictated by the weatherman. The reader breathes a sigh of relief along with the Radzaks when winter’s long and solid hold on life at Split Rock begins to ease.
Interactions with visitors, from those overly-friendly types whom he would find sitting on their porch or picking their flowers, to those less so, who broke in at night to steal lighthouse artifacts, are recurring vignettes of the lighthouse life. He is also a naturalist par excellence, and tales of interactions with the flora and fauna of the north woods, including bobcats in the bird feeders and catching a bear while still in his pajamas (a la Captain Spaulding), are just a few of the adventures in his musings.
In addition to the people, and the wildlife, and all the other aspects of life at Split Rock, it is a lighthouse after all, and Lee doesn’t neglect the details of the technical side of the lighthouse operation. Not only a lighthouse, but a very unique one, it is the only site in all of the U.S. where the Fresnel lens still revolves on a bed of liquid mercury. The revolution of that lens, a huge 3rd order Barbier, Benard, and Turenne (BB&T) bivalve, is still powered by the original weight-driven clockwork. Lee’s description of the mechanics of it all, including periodic cleansing of the mercury, is fascinating.
“The View From Split Rock” is a wonderful book full of beautiful photos with touching insights and recollections. It is outstanding among lighthouse memoirs. Order your copy from www.LighthouseDigest.com/shop or order item #3529 by calling (207)259-2121.
This story appeared in the
May/Jun 2022 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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