DULUTH, Minn. — The 110-year-old Split Rock Lighthouse on Lake Superior’s North Shore is usually only lit once per year to mark the anniversary of the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald in November.
But new site manager Hayes Scriven and the Minnesota Historical Society lit it the evening of April 10 to represent a beacon of hope and togetherness as the world fights against COVID-19, live-streaming it to thousands of people watching on the internet.
“Knowing how many people were going to be either affected by it or watching it put a lot of stress on me just because I wanted to make sure it was going to work ... the whole state was watching,” Scriven said. “So I had a lot of pressure.”
But once the light was on, Scriven and his family sat beside a fire near the lighthouse keeper’s house they’ve called home since January, occasionally going up to the top of the lighthouse for a front-row seat.
“Once it got up and running, and I was able to sit back and watch it,” Scriven said, “that’s when it got really neat. Sitting and watching that beacon flash around, that was really surreal for me."
Jenny Scriven, Hayes’ wife, added: “It was amazing to have it there but have no one to share it with — it was just us.”
Hayes, who took over as site manager last fall, and his family decided to take the opportunity to live on-site.
Hayes, Jenny and their daughter, Aneliese, 12, and son, Devin, 9, have lived in one of the houses just a few steps away from the lighthouse since January. It’s the same place where the lighthouse keepers and their families have lived since the lighthouse was built in 1910.
But since mid-March, and until at least July 1, the gates to the lighthouse area have been closed to the public in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now the Scrivens have the place to themselves, minus a few trespassing drone pilots.
Expectation vs. reality
The Split Rock Lighthouse site, run by the Minnesota Historical Society, sits in Split Rock Lighthouse State Park — up the shore from Two Harbors, between Castle Danger and Beaver Bay — and is operated by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
While the lighthouse site and visitor center remain closed through at least June 30, the surrounding state park remains open to daytime visitors.
Over a recent warm weekend in April, Hayes figured about 50 people had wandered from the park and into the lighthouse site, despite signs and fences explicitly saying that wasn’t allowed, and at least three drones had flown around the lighthouse trying to capture video.
“I don’t know if people don’t realize that people live here and that this is our home,” Jenny said. “You would never walk into your neighbor's backyard … yet they think it’s OK.”
Drones have been an increasing problem at the lighthouse, where they are barred from flying.
Hayes said he jokingly asked about if he’d be allowed to use a shotgun to shoot down flying drones in his interview for the position (the answer was no).
But for the most part, the last three months have been overwhelmingly positive.
“I was told from (former site manager Lee Radzak) and some other people it’s a fishbowl when there’s people around, and even now I’ve seen people all over the place,” Hayes said. “The thing that I still can’t get over, and I knew this too, is, like — you just look at it,” Hayes said, gesturing his arm toward the lighthouse from the beach below. “It’s just frickin’ beautiful, right?”
It’s been a blast for their kids, too.
Every kid’s dream
The Scrivens accelerated their move to the lighthouse keeper’s house at the request of Devin, who wanted to wake up on his ninth birthday at the lighthouse. The family settled in Jan. 22, and the next day Devin celebrated his birthday at his new home.
“I didn’t know where I was,” Devin said of waking up that day.
His favorite part of calling Split Rock home?
“Everything,” Devin said.
After a morning of school work from home on a recent Monday afternoon, Aneliese led the family on a nature walk for her sixth grade science class, looking for and photographing shapes in nature that resemble the letters in the word “earth.”
For Aneliese, the best part about living at Split Rock is the wildlife — the peregrine falcons nesting on the cliffside, the deer that wander through the property and Franklin — a Franklin’s ground squirrel living in their yard.
By the time the family reached the lake, Aneliese had finished her assignment. She and Devin began throwing small rocks into the lake and scrambling over larger rocks to reach the nearby creek.
“Even if we didn’t have the homework assignment, they would probably be down here,” Hayes said. “Devin’s already been down here once today.”
Hayes has also worked as the director of the Northfield (Minnesota) Historical Society, where he hosted the annual "Defeat of Jesse James" reenactment, and, most recently, as the executive director of the Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center in Superior. Each time, Devin and Aneliese tagged along, immersing themselves in the history.
“You got to be cowboys for quite a few years, and then you got to be veterans for quite a few more years,” Jenny said. “And now we’re here.”
“This is just kind of normal for them,” Jenny said. “Maybe someday when they grow up and look back or as they get to talk to more people, they’ll be like, ‘You did what?’”
In 2005, Hayes proposed marriage to Jenny on one of the overlooks of Split Rock, just down the shore from the lighthouse.
They didn’t imagine that 15 years later they’d be raising a family at the lighthouse.
“Not even in the wildest dreams,” Hayes said.
But the couple wanted to live near the North Shore at some point.
“We wanted to get back up here somewhere in the area for jobs, but there was nothing for us at that time,” Jenny said.
After 11 years in Northfield, Hayes in 2017 took the job at the Bong Center, and the family relocated to Two Harbors.
Then there was an opening for the site manager position at Split Rock, Hayes applied and got the job.
Now he and Jenny are raising a family within sight of where they became engaged.
“Now it’s even more amazing,” Hayes said.
Forming plans for reopening
On a typical July day, Split Rock Lighthouse might attract 1,200 guests. Closed through June due to COVID-19, any plans for reopening will require drastically cutting back operations and the number of guests allowed at one time.
To reopen Split Rock, staff need to figure out how to meet social distancing guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommends limiting gatherings to 10 people.
“We’re looking at maybe 160 people per day,” Hayes said. “And so how do you charge somebody for that, how do you give them a good experience? Then what do I tell the other 1,100 people?”
Hayes and his staff are now forming plans for reopening under those social distancing guidelines.
One idea is to modify a new tour the crew was set to launch this summer.
Before the pandemic prompted closures, Hayes said staff were developing a more exclusive tour that would have taken small groups through the site with the chance to see some more exclusive areas and content not shared in a standard tour. By limiting it to 10 people, including the guide, it would fit social distancing guidelines.
In the meantime, the Scriven family will have the place to themselves.
“I was really looking forward to a normal summer with all the people,” Jenny said.
“We’re going to be so spoiled,” Hayes added.