Split Rock Lighthouse was once his home

 by Britt Aamodt
Contributing writer

Mike Roberts lives in St. Cloud on five acres of trees, flowers and lawn, like a lot of people. But that wasn’t always the case. Once upon a time, he and wife, Mary, called one of the most famous Minnesota landmarks home: the Split Rock Lighthouse on the North Shore.

A photo of Split Rock with an evergreen tree on the left that Roberts was asked to take down to give tourists an unobstructed view of the lighthouse.

“Now when I go back to do a book signing, people say, ‘You’re actually the lighthouse keeper from Split Rock?’ like they’re talking to Daniel Boone,” says Roberts. “They’re surprised the guy is still alive.”

The guy is, or was, Roberts. From 1966 to 1969, he kept the light burning so that ships could find their way home and stay off the notoriously rocky shore, which had been the ruination of many proud vessels and men.

In 2010, Roberts collected his Split Rock stories and lighthouse history in the book, “The Last Keeper at Split Rock.”

ISD 728 Community Education is bringing Roberts to Elk River for two dates, Thursday, Nov. 10 and Tuesday, Nov. 15, to narrate the story of a bygone era, of lighthouses, keepers and the terrifying storms that swept ships to their deaths. This two-session talk is part of Community Education’s Third Age Society series.

Roberts will also share his own history as the keeper of Split Rock.

His story begins with the Vietnam War. In 1965, he was a newlywed, expecting any day to hear from the draft board. Like many men, he opted to enlist.

“But the Navy and Air Force had two-year waiting lists,” Roberts says.

So he went to the Coast Guard. They also had a waiting list, but the recruiter told Roberts he had a guy scheduled to leave in April. “If he doesn’t go, you want to take his spot?” He didn’t have to ask Roberts twice.

The young couple arrived December 1966 for what Roberts now calls “one giant big honeymoon. We giggled like crazy because it was such a neat, neat deal.”

For one thing, Roberts didn’t have to conduct search-and-rescue operations, which he’d done at his first duty station in Duluth. For another, he’d get to spend more time at home, because home was work. They occupied a cottage on the grounds.

Mike Roberts reading to his boy.

Roberts’ primary duty was to maintain the light in the lighthouse. Just make sure it never went out. But that first December he got a taste of how difficult that could be.

“We had a storm so powerful it sent spray over the cliff, which was some 100 feet high,” he says. Then the dreaded thing happened; the light went out. “Fortunately, there was a standby generator. But we stayed up all night, tending the generator. The wind was so strong we thought the lighthouse would blow away.”

Most of his memories aren’t quite so dramatic. Once, he and Mary were sitting on their porch when they heard a commotion inside the cottage. Roberts found seven nuns in full habit tromping through the house.

“I said, ‘Sister, what are you doing?’ and she said, ‘We’re taking the tour.’” Roberts explained that the cottage was a private residence. But no hard feelings. He gave the nuns some North Shore agates and they went off to finish their lighthouse tour.

Jan. 1, 1969, Roberts got the call that changed his life. His commander told him the lighthouse had been decommissioned. It was being closed for good.

Technology had made Split Rock and its lighthouse keeper obsolete.

“It was like we were being evicted,” Roberts says.

They left Split Rock in March 1969. But over 40 years later, Roberts returned with his book to celebrate the lighthouse’s centenary.

“It wasn’t an historical landmark when we lived there. It was home. So when I go back now, it does feel like going home,” he says.