If one were to describe the "typical" lighthouse, it would probably be a tall, white, circular tower, made of brick or stone, with black trim and a few slender windows. It would be located on the open coast, warning ships of treacherous surf or dangerous rocks. Indeed, some of America's best known beacons fit this description: Cape Hatteras in North Carolina, Portland Head in Maine, and Pigeon Point on the central coast of California. Based on these criteria, East Brother light station would not be considered typical. Its lighthouse is a rectangular, wooden building, painted buff color with white trim. It is not especially tall, and it overlooks a bay instead of an ocean.
In reality, though, East Brother was not at all an unusual lighthouse during its heyday in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Several other lighthouses were built on the West Coast in the late 1800s using similar plans. It was also one of about a dozen lighthouses built on greater San Francisco Bay. Like other United States lighthouses, it was constructed and operated by the federal government, primarily as a nighttime aid to navigation.
Today, East Brother is unusual in that much of it has been restored to its early-day appearance and function. A giant cistern still stores rainwater for use on the island. Victorian-style trim decorates the outside of the dwelling and tower. And the mighty diaphone fog signal, installed in 1934, roars back to life to the thrill of visitors. Guests can even stay overnight, dining and sleeping where the different light-keepers lived for nearly one hundred years. Today, as a living museum, East Brother light station preserves an almost forgotten, yet important, part of America's maritime history.
East Brother Island is one of two tiny islands on the east side of San Pablo Strait, a two-mile-wide waterway connecting San Francisco Bay with San Pablo Bay. The island covers just three quarters of an acre. Neighboring West Brother, only a stone's throw away, is even smaller. The only inhabitants on West Brother are the flocks of gulls, cormorants, and pelicans that perch on its rounded, rocky crest. East Brother had similar inhabitants and a similar shape until 1873 when the federal government hired contractors to blast off the top of the island and begin constructing a light station.
The captains who guided ships through San Pablo Strait badly needed a lighthouse. The strait connects the Golden Gate, San Francisco, and other San Francisco Bay ports with inland ports such as Stockton and Sacramento. Ships traveling to and from the Mare Island Navy Yard must also pass through these waters. Vessels that stray off course at night or in fog could easily collide with the numerous rocky islands and nearby shoals.
The lighthouse, originally a six-room dwelling with an attached tower for the light, was built at the west end of the island. The government also had the workers construct a fog signal building, workshop, wharf, boathouse, water tanks, cistern, and rain catchment basin. Since the station was only accessible by boat, it was equipped so that the keepers could meet most any sudden demand, be it high winds, storm waves, or unexpected equipment failures.
About three dozen different men served at East Brother through the years as keepers and assistants. They faithfully kept the light burning each night, guiding ships across the bay waters. Many of the keepers lived there with their families, who in later years recalled with nostalgia their days on the island. It was a peaceful life, away from the mainland rush, yet a life with a special sense of duty and fulfillment.
Though the station was in many ways isolated from the mainland, the world did not pass it by. As technology and the lighthouse administration changed, so did operation of East Brother. In 1934 electricity replaced kerosene as energy for the light. That same year compressed air replaced steam as power for the fog signal. In later years rotating crews of Coast Guardsmen replaced the keepers of the old U.S. Lighthouse Service.
In the late 1960s technology brought what was nearly the final chapter in the station's history. The Coast Guard decided to automate East Brother. To save on salaries and maintenance costs, an automatic rotating beacon was installed in the lighthouse, and the last resident personnel said goodbye to their island home. Coast Guard officials had announced that the old buildings would eventually be demolished and a light placed on a steel or concrete tower. This, they said, would be easier to maintain and less prone to vandalism. The announcement angered many local citizens; they dearly loved the quaint old landmark and vowed to save it.
In 1971, primarily through the efforts of the Contra Costa Shoreline Parks Committee, the station was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. This protected it from being razed, but neither the Coast Guard nor other public agencies had funds for maintaining or restoring the buildings. For ten years the birds and natural elements reclaimed the island. The only people who regularly visited it were Coast Guard service crews who periodically checked the light and electronic fog signal. In the meantime the paint peeled, the iron rusted, and the wood rotted.
In 1979 East Brother Light Station, Inc., a non-profit citizens' group, was formed with the goal of restoring the landmark and making it available for public use. The organization successfully applied for a Maritime Preservation Matching Grant from the U.S. Department of the Interior. The Coast Guard enthusiastically supported the project and gave the organization a license to occupy the island. With the help of private donations and hundreds of volunteers, the lighthouse and other island structures were restored and rehabilitated. The equivalent of $300,000 was put into the project, which was completed in 1980. Today, day use fees, operation as a bed and breakfast inn, and continued volunteer help make upkeep and further restoration possible.
Unfortunately, many of California's lighthouses have not been so lucky. Of the nearly fifty lighthouses that were built to watch over California's seacoast and bays, fully a third either no longer exist or have been so altered as to spoil much of their aesthetic and historical value. This gives added importance to East Brother, where not only the lighthouse but the entire station is preserved. Several relatives and descendants of early keepers have shared their remembrances of life on the island. The station journals have also survived, giving virtually a daily record of events at the station from first lighting in 1874 through 1945. All this makes the story of East Brother light station an unusually rich, well documented, and personal history.