The Brothers, consisting of East Brother Island 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 costly 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.”
Starting in May 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 a 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, alternately sounding eight and four-second blasts, separated by twenty-four seconds of silence. The keepers would typically fire up the signal whenever Red Rock to the south, Point San Quentin to the west, or The Sisters was obscured.
Jan. 2, 1883: Wind S. light, hazy. Mr. Page took the mail over to San Quentin, returned drunk.The difficulties Windsor had with Page soon ended, as Page resigned on March 1, 1883.
Jan. 11: Wind N.E., cold foggy. Mr. Page went for the mail, returned at 2:30 p.m., mail wet.
Feb. 8: Wind N.E., clear. Mr. Page went for mail, drunk, no mail.
The characteristic of East Brother Light was changed from flashing to fixed in 1878 through the installation of a new fourth-order lens, and the illuminant was changed at the same time from lard oil to mineral oil. Yet another lens was installed in 1912, along with an incandescent oil-vapor lamp. This lens had three panels with prisms and one blank panel, and the entire lens revolved every ten second to produce seven-and-a-half seconds of light followed by two-and-a-half seconds of darkness.
Two head 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 Año Nuevo Lighthouse in August 1890. Two years later, he was promoted to head keeper. On August 31, 1894, Stenmark was appointed head keeper of 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.
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 in 1934, and the station finally had electricity. A fixed, fifth-order Fresnel lens, powered by a 500-watt bulb, replaced the station’s revolving fourth-order lens with electrification, and the electric light was switched on and off to produce a flashing characteristic. At the same time, the steam fog signal was converted to a compressor-driven diaphone.
In November 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 fifty-gallon drums in the boat house. By this time, the dock 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 stepped back knocking over the kerosene lantern. A flaming film of kerosene spread over the boathouse floor as Miller frantically tried to close the spigot on the gasoline drum. Miller burned his right hand while attempting to fight the flames, but quickly had to flee up the tramway to the island. During his retreat, the fifty-gallon drum exploded with a terrific report, sending a mushroom of fire and smoke into the air.
A swift crash boat left Pier 43 at 3:30 a.m., and with its four powerful airplane engines, it reached the island in thirty-five 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 wharf was destroyed 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 Snodgrass 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, 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. East Brother Light Station, Inc., a non-profit group, 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 lovingly 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 overnight guests in the lighthouse itself (Two Sisters, West Brother, Marin, and San Francisco, with one additional room (Walter’s Quarters)in the Walter Fanning fog signal building. Walter Fanning is the grandson of keeper John Kofod, who served as head 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 twenty-four 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. In 2012, an LED marine beacon was placed in the lantern room, replacing a revolving beacon that is now on display in the fog signal building.