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 East Brother, CA    
Lighthouse best viewed by boat or plane.Lighthouse open for climbing.Interior open or museum on site.Overnight lodging available.
Description: As vessels enter the Golden Gate bound for the Sacramento or San Joaquin Rivers, they first pass through San Francisco Bay, and then head north through San Pablo Strait and into San Pablo Bay. Two-mile-wide San Pablo Strait is defined by Point San Pablo to the southeast and Point San Pedro to the northwest. In 1870, the Lighthouse Board requested that a lighthouse and fog signal be established at or near Point San Pablo to guide the many steamers and sailing vessels passing through the strait. On March 3, 1871, an appropriation of $20,000 was set aside by Congress for the station.

The government attempted to purchase a tract of land on Point San Pablo, but could not come to terms with the landowners. The government’s sole recourse was to file suit in the local courts, and condemnation proceedings began in July of 1831. A jury decided that a sum of $4,000 was a fair price for the desired 12.8 acres on the point, but the landowners were not satisfied and appealed the verdict to the California Supreme Court. When the appeal was delayed, anxious boats captains sent a petition to the lighthouse inspector in San Francisco suggesting that the lighthouse be built on East Brother Island, which was already owned by the government.

The Brothers (East and West Brother Island) lie roughly 1,000 feet off Point San Pablo, and they, along with the Sisters on the opposite side of the strait, had been reserved for military purposes by order of President Andrew Johnson in 1867. The government decided to end the court battle for property on Point San Pablo, as the Secretary of War agreed that East Brother Island could be used for a lighthouse under the proviso “that it shall give way to fortifications whenever it shall be required for that purpose.”

East Brother Lighthouse
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
Starting in May of 1873, the top of the island was blasted away to make room for the light station. The lighthouse plans called for a three-story tower attached to a two-story Victorian dwelling having three rooms per floor. The space between the studs in the outer walls was filled with bricks and mortar, strengthening the structure and providing some insulation from the raucous fog signal. A wharf was built on the north side of the island. Besides the lighthouse, a water tank, fog signal building, storage shed, and a domed cistern surrounded by a large rain catchment basin were eventually built on the island, leaving precious little room for anything else.

Just before sunset on March 1, 1874, the keepers lit the lamp in the revolving fourth-order Fresnel lens sending forth brilliant beams of light across San Pablo Strait. The fog signal made its debut exactly two months later. The keepers would typically fire up the signal whenever Red Rock to the south, Point San Quentin to the west, or The Sisters were obscured.

Two keepers at East Brother Lighthouse, John Stenmark and Willard Miller, logged twenty years of service on the small island, far longer than any other keepers who served there. Born in Sweden, John Stenmark emigrated to the United States at the age of twenty, and joined the Lighthouse Service three years later accepting an assignment aboard the lighthouse tender Madroño. During a visit to Point Conception, Stenmark and other crew members of the Madroño were rowing supplies to shore aboard a smaller boat when a large wave capsized the vessel. The men, including Inspector Thomas Perry, were tossed into the frigid water. Perry was carried away by the heavy seas and was in danger of drowning, when Stenmark, though injured from the mishap, swam to his rescue. Stenmark managed to keep the inspector from drowning until they could be picked up by the Madroño

For his bravery, Stenmark was rewarded with the position of assistant keeper at the Año Nuevo Station in August of 1890. Two years later, he was promoted to head keeper. On August 31, 1894 Stenmark was appointed keeper of the East Brother Lighthouse, so he and his wife Breta moved their few belongings and their three-month-old daughter Annie to their second island home. Although East Brother was much closer to civilization, the keepers were still quite isolated. To pick up mail and any needed supplies, the keepers had to row two and a half miles to Point San Quentin, a journey that Stenmark would have to make at least twice to fetch a doctor to deliver his children.

The government provided a live-in teacher to tutor the four Stenmark children, until a road was built to Point San Pablo. When you are raised on an island, dating can be a bit difficult. Fortunately for Stenmark’s oldest daughter Annie, the Standard Oil Refinery was built in Richmond in 1901, and docks for the tankers were built on Point San Pablo just across from the station. Annie caught the eye of Charles Morisette, the foreman at the Standard Oil wharf. Charles soon became quite adept at rowing across the waters to the island to court Annie, and a June wedding was held for the couple in 1914.

Civilization moved closer to the lighthouse when in 1906 the California Wine Association purchased 47 acres at Point Molate, just south of the lighthouse, for its headquarters. The association constructed the red-brick, fort-like Winehaven winery, which still stands today. The winery produced twelve million gallons of wine annually, employing over 400 workers during peak production times. However, with the ushering in of the Prohibition era with the passage of the Volstead Act in 1919, winemaking came to an abrupt halt, except for the production of an occasional “Sacramental wine”.

The great San Francisco earthquake of 1906 did not go unnoticed at the lighthouse. On April 18, Stenmark recorded the following in the station logbook: “A heavy earthquake this morning at 5:15 A.M.. Lenses of the light broken and glassware broke and everything of glass broke. Doors open of themselves and the whole island rocking. All the lenses broke.” The following day, Stenmark added “S.F. burning fearfully at 9 P.M.”

Stenmark retired from East Brother in 1914. The following year, he was traveling north along the coast from San Francisco aboard the steamer City of Topeka when he had “an attack of heart trouble” and died.

Keeper Willard Miller began his twenty-year tenure at the lighthouse late in 1922. During his service, a submarine cable was laid between the island and Point San Pablo, and the station finally had electricity. A fixed, fifth-order Fresnel lens, powered by a 500-watt bulb, replaced a revolving fourth-order lens. The electric light could easily be switched on and off to produce a flashing characteristic. At the same time, the steam fog signal was converted to compressor-driven diaphone.

In November of 1939, the electric cable was disabled by a ship’s anchor. Until repairs could be made, the light was powered by gasoline generators located in the signal building. Keeper Miller was on duty during the early morning of March 4, 1940, and at 2:50 A.M. he took his kerosene lantern down to the dock to retrieve some gasoline from the 50-gallon drums in the boat house. The dock at this time had been moved to the east side of the island, where a winch located in the signal building could be used to haul supplies up from the dock. As Miller was filling a container with gasoline, he steeped back knocking over the kerosene lantern. A flaming film of kerosene spread over the boat house floor as Miller frantically tried to close the spigot on the gasoline drum. Miller burned his right hand while trying to fight the flames, but quickly had to flee up the tramway to the island. During his retreat, the 50-gallon drum exploded with a terrific report, sending a mushroom of fire and smoke into the air.

The explosion awakened assistant keeper Earl Snodgrass and his wife, Lillian, who quickly threw on their coats and ran to the scene. Four more explosions rocked the stations as the remaining drums exploded. Armed with the station’s garden hose, that was gravity fed with water from the station’s storage tanks, the keepers squirted the small stream of water in attempt to fend off the fire that was scorching the fog signal building. The station had lost its telephone line to the outside world when the submarine cable was damaged. Fortunately, a night watchman on the pier at Point San Pablo quickly alerted the Richmond Fire Department, who called the Coast Guard in San Francisco.

A swift crash boat left Pier 43½ at 3:30 a.m. Powered by four airplane engines, the boat reached the island in 35 minutes. The crew of the boat soon had several streams of water on the blaze, but it was an hour before the flames were under control and four hours before the fire was completely extinguished. If the wind had been blowing from the east that morning, the entire station would probably have been lost. As it was, the entire wharf was lost along with the boathouse and four boats.

When the Coast Guard assumed responsibility for the nation’s lighthouses in 1939, Miller decided to remain a civilian keeper rather than join the guard. Miller retired in 1942, and Earl and Lillian left the station the following year.

In the late 1960s the Coast Guard announced plans to automate the station. To save maintenance costs, the lighthouse was to be demolished and replaced by a light on a tower. The Contra Costa Shoreline Parks Committee launched an effort to save the historic structures, and in 1971, the station was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. This move prevented the building from being razed, but neither the Coast Guard nor other public agencies had funds for maintaining or restoring the buildings.

For almost ten years, the East Brother Lighthouse received little attention, and the neglect started to take its toll as the wood rotted, the paint peeled, and the iron rusted. A non-profit group, East Brother Light Station, Inc., was formed in 1979 to restore the landmark and make it accessible to the public. Through government grants, private donations, and countless hours of volunteer labor, the structures on the island were restored. Today, day use fees and funds received through the operation of the lighthouse as a bed and breakfast are used to maintain the facilities.

Four rooms are available for guests in the lighthouse itself, with one additional room in the Walter Fanning fog signal building. Walter Fanning is the grandson of keeper John Kofod, who served as keeper of the lighthouse from 1914 to 1921. Fanning frequently visited his grandparents on the island, and played a key role in the restoration efforts. The island's sole supply of water remains the rainwater captured in the station’s cistern and pumped into the storage tanks. A modern foghorn is operated 24 hours a day between October 1 and April 1, but a good pair of earplugs should block the minor nuisance. If you visit the island, make sure you get a chance to hear the historic diaphone fog signal. The two-tone bass signal echoes off the surrounding hills and ends in a distinctive grunt. Click here to view Keeper Lucien fire off the signal. A fourth-order Fresnel lens, not used at East Brother, is on display in the fog signal building.

Head Keepers: Samuel M. Farran (1876 – 1880), George B. Koons (1880), Charles F. Windsor (1880 – 1887), P. J. Quinlan (1887 – 1894), John O. Stenmark (1894 – 1914) , John P. Kofod (1914 – 1921), Herbert Luff (1921), J. Dunn (1921 – 1922), Willard Miller (1922 – 1942), J. S. McGrath (1942 – 1944), E. P. Perry (1944), Mickey Edward Thurman (1944 – 1947).

Photo Gallery: 1 2 3 4

References

  1. Umbrella Guide to California Lighthouses, Ted and Sharlene Nelson, 1993.
  2. East Brother, History of an Island Light Station, Frank Perry, 1984.

Location: Located on East Brother Island in San Pablo Strait, two miles north of Interstate 580's Richmond-San Rafael Bridge.
Latitude: 37.96325
Longitude: -122.43343

For a larger map of East Brother Lighthouse, click the lighthouse in the above map or get a map from: Mapquest.


Travel Instructions: East Brother Lighthouse operates as a bed and breakfast, and guests are transported to the island by boat from the Point San Pablo Yacht Harbor. A day trip to the lighthouse is possible on Saturdays during the summer. Call (510) 233-2385 to make reservations. Once on the island, visitors are allowed to climb the tower.

The lighthouse can also be viewed from land by following these directions to the Point San Pablo Yacht Harbor: From Interstate 80, take the San Rafael exit to Interstate 580 and go west towards the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge. Just before the toll plaza, take Point Molate exit and go north on Western Drive. The lighthouse can be seen from various points along the road to the Point San Pablo Yacht Harbor. If your coming from Marin, there is no Point Molate exit for east bound traffic, so take the first exit after the toll plaza, get back on I-580 going west and follow the directions above.

You can also get a good view of the lighthouse by taking the ferry between Vallejo and San Francisco. The best views come on the San Francisco to Vallejo run.

The lighthouse is owned by the Coast Guard and managed by East Brother Light Station, Inc.. Grounds/dwelling/tower open to guests.

Find the closest hotels to East Brother Lighthouse

Notes from a friend:

Kraig writes:
Visiting the lighthouse for an overnight stay or day trip is a great escape. Although you can see San Francisco in the distance, there is an invigorating sense of isolation on the island. This may be diminished in the future if the plans to build a casino at Winehaven are successful.

I was concerned that the fog horn might disrupt my sleep, but I didn't even notice it. There aren't too many places to explore on the island, but by the time you visit with the other guests during the meals, do some reading, and perhaps pitch some horseshoes, your short sojourn on the island is over much too soon.


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