Ralph Russell Tinkham
Ralph Russell Tinkham enjoyed the challenge of building lighthouses in remote, inaccessible areas. As a junior engineer of the U. S. lighthouse establishment, he was sailing up the North Shore as an assistant on the Rock of Ages Light project off Isle Royale when the ship he was on passed an isolated cliff of anorthrosite rock, poised like a sentinel above the waters of Lake Superior.
He didn't know it at the time, but the construction of Split Rock Light Station at that point would consume almost 1 1/2 years of his life and catapult his career with the newly renamed U.S. Lighthouse Service. He did all the architectural work, figured out material and labor needs, and watched over the construction on site, living in the upstairs of the first storage barn after its completion early in 1909.
By the time of his retirement in 1946, Tinkham had become the chief engineer of the entire U.S. Lighthouse Service, and had planned and watched over the construction of stations in Hawaii and Alaska, among others.
The construction of Split Rock Lighthouse was an engineering feat in an organization already known for building structures in remote locations.
The first challenge in the spring of 1909 was erecting a steam-powered hoist and derrick for lifting supplies off the supply boats on the lake, more than 110 feet below. A construction crew of 35 to 50 men had to be supplied by boat through the entire construction period using this method. Three hundred ten tons of building materials were hoisted over the length of the construction period without a major accident.
The construction workers stayed in canvas tents on the open cliff top as construction proceeded. The construction firm of L. D. Campbell & Son of Duluth supplied all the construction labor necessary - carpenters, brick masons, demolition men for dynamiting the hard rock of the cliff for foundations, and common laborers collected from all over the Great Lakes region —to assemble a light station at one of the most remote places one had ever been built.
By the time Split Rock Light Station was completed in mid summer 1910, workers had spent 13 months on the desolate cliff, with only a break during the worst months of winter. They were exposed to the elements and connected to civilization only by occasional supply boat visits. When the light was first lit on July 31, 1910, it stood as a monument to the will of the men who built it, as much as an aid to navigation.