Dark day at Split Rock: Two keepers drowned in 1910

·5 min read

As Split Rock Lighthouse's first head keeper from 1910 to 1928, Orren "Pete" Young cautioned countless sailors from his cliff-top perch overlooking Lake Superior, 50 miles up the shore from Duluth.

But one of his warnings went unheeded, leaving two assistant lighthouse keepers dead in the very first year that the federal government beacon began to shine.

Young was 52 in 1910, an experienced keeper with lake smarts who "could sail anything that would float," his son Clarence later recalled. Some 130 feet down the cliff face from the lighthouse, the Split Rock keepers had a wooden rowboat they called "Clinker" — a 16-footer pointed at the bow and stern with two sets of oars.

Young rigged a sail for the little boat, which he navigated with one hand on the rudder and the other grasping the end of the sail's line. If Lake Superior unleashed one of its wind gusts, he would simply drop the line to avoid tipping the boat.

His two assistant keepers, Ed Sexton and Roy Gill, used Clinker to fetch the mail from Split Rock Lumber Co. a couple of miles down the shore. One day, Young caught one of them using the boat with the sail line tied to the seat.

"Never, never tie the sail down, as a quick puff of wind would tip the boat over," he scolded, according to his son.

On Sunday, Oct. 2, 1910, Young asked Sexton and Gill to pick up the mail. They left at 12:30 p.m. "and did not return," according to the Split Rock logbook.

Young worried as darkness fell, but he had to keep the light burning all night — filling the kerosene and keeping the weights wound to rotate the lens. The crew typically divided the night into three watches, but Young worked alone until sunrise.

No doubt exhausted, he left the lighthouse on foot at 8 a.m. that Monday and spotted the overturned boat a couple miles down the rocky coastline, "about 20 rods from shore," he jotted in his log. "That showed that both men drowned."

After recovering the boat, Young found the sail tied off to the seat. The bodies of Sexton and Gill were never found.

Over the years, Split Rock keepers suffered smallpox, ladder mishaps and an exploding oil compressor. There were two suicides at the site. But Sexton and Gill were the only employees who died while working at the lighthouse during its 59 years of service, from 1910 until it closed in 1969.

I learned about the tragic day at Split Rock from Lee Radzak, who served as the Minnesota Historical Society's lighthouse site manager from 1982 until he retired in 2019. I helped Radzak chronicle his decades at Split Rock in his new memoir, "The View From Split Rock: A Lighthouse Keeper's Life," just released by the Minnesota Historical Society Press.

The photo-filled book details Radzak's unique workplace, raising two kids with his wife, Jane, while living in the middle of three keepers' cliff-top dwellings. The 1910 double drowning is among the book's historical flashbacks (tinyurl.com/Split­Rockmemoir).

Not much is known about keeper Gill, but Sexton had lighthouses in his blood. His father, Joseph Sexton, began working for the U.S. Lighthouse Service in 1886 as an assistant at the Outer Island lighthouse in Wisconsin's Apostle Islands. Joe and his wife, Mary Elizabeth, had four children, including Edward in 1884. Ed was a second-assistant keeper at Devils Island in the Apostles before he was moved to Split Rock in 1910. He was 26.

Joe Sexton was working as the head keeper at a lighthouse about 40 miles across the lake, near Ashland, Wis., when he heard rumors about his son's drowning. Two days later, on Oct. 4, his logbook entry reads: "Worked on the walk. Heard today that Ed Sexton was drowned. Hope not."

Sexton's pregnant wife, Scottish-born Jane Michie, 23, was at Split Rock when her husband's rowboat disappeared. "It's hard to imagine the heartache this woman suffered," Radzak writes, "waiting for her husband to return."

The Oct. 6 log recorded that a gasoline launch came to take Jane to Duluth, and a 1913 city directory shows her living as a widow in Superior. Records show she had a son named Myrton three years before Ed's death and more kids after marrying railroad boilermaker Ray Ward. His obituary mentions a child named Joseph Sexton, the possible progeny of her pregnancy in 1910.

William Gill, Ray's brother, arrived at Split Rock 10 days after the drownings, according to the logbook, and searched for the bodies until he left 11 days later. He found no sign of either man.

I'll join Radzak at 7 p.m. Thursday for a virtual book launch live on the Split Rock Lighthouse Facebook page and the Minnesota Historical Society's YouTube channel (mnhs.org/event/8614).

And Radzak will return to his longtime home at Split Rock Lighthouse to sign his new book from 1 to 6 p.m. on June 19. He knows more about Split Rock history than anyone — including that dark day 111 years ago when two keepers ignored their boss' advice and tied the sail to the rowboat seat.

Curt Brown's tales about Minnesota's history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at mnhistory@startribune.com. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: strib.mn/MN1918.

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