Pages from the Past

The bound journals kept by the successive keepers at East Brother light station chronicle over seventy years of daily life on the island. For the most part, keepers confined each day's entry to a single line, usually describing the weather and the day's work, but on some occasions elaborating. In reading the hand-written entries across the yellowing pages, one develops a sense of what it was like to live and work at this light station. A surprising amount of information lies in these pages: the accounts of ships in distress; the reports of the endless cleaning, repairing, and painting; the inspections; the arrival of coal and supplies; and the regular trips across the bay for mail and food. One wonders if the keepers ever considered that someone might read all this a hundred years later. We will never know.

Easst Brother Lightstation pages-ship The S.S. Arrow ferry passing East Brother, circa 1904. (National Maritime Museum, San Francisco)

In 1882 Charles F. Winsor was keeper; Joseph Page was first assistant. There are many clues in Winsor's writings about him and his assistant and how they lived. Some of the entries answer questions, others raise them. Many are redundant, but others unusual. Imagine it is July, 1883, and that you are the inspector for the Twelfth Lighthouse District. Examine the journal entries for the past fiscal year and see what you can learn about East Brother light station and the men on duty there:

July 1, 1882: Wind S.W., strong. Cleaned up the engine and about the house.
July 2: Wind S.W., strong. Sunday.
July 5: Wind S.W., light. Mr. Page took quarterly, monthly and annual returns to San Quentin. Laid platform on tank.
July 8: Wind S., light smoky and hazy. General cleaning and washing, etc., etc.
July 10: Wind S., strong, smoky and hazy. But little done.
July 14: Wind S.W., strong. Mr. Page left for San Quentin A.M., capsized off the buoy near the West Brother at 12:15 P.M. Capt. Winsor hailed the Steamer Reform passing up at the time and sent her to his relief. The Reform picked him up _ of a mile N.N.E. of the Light House and landed him and the boat at the dock at 1:15 P.M. Oars, rudder, mail and all the marketing consisting of mutton, cabbages, peas, etc., etc., lost, also milk and can.
July 15: Wind S.W., strong. Fitted rudder temporarily to boat.
August 9: Wind S.W., strong and hazy. Manzanita came at 10:45 A.M. Comd. Coffin and Capt. Payson landed then proceeded to Mare Island to attend the funeral of Rear Admiral McDougal.*
August 14: Wind S.W., strong, cloudy and hazy. Mr. Page repairing sail to boat. L.H. depot boat 76 landed yearly supplies and 6 sacks coal/soft.
August 16: Wind S.W., strong, cloudy and hazy. Mr. Page to Pt. Pablo for drift[wood] on the beach.
August 21: Wind S. W., strong, hazy. Painted rail around top of tower.
August 22: Wind S.W., strong, hazy. Cleaned engine and oiled same, also pump.
August 23: Wind S.W., strong, hazy. Mr. Page went for vegetables and butter to Point Pedro.
August 24: Wind S.W., strong, hazy. Building tables and bunks. Repaired drill.
September 4: Wind S.S.W., smoky and hazy. Waiting for Engineers-Mr. Shaw and 3 men at 2 P.M.
September 5: Wind S.S.W., light, smoky and hazy. At work on watershed.* * Mr. Page gone to San Quentin for a week.
September 6: Wind S.S.W., smoky and hazy. Sch. Cecilia Maria arrived with 40 tons gravel at 2 P.M.
September 12: Wind S.S.W., foggy at 4 A.M. 'till 10 A.M. Men at work on shed. Mr. Page picked up a shift.
September 28: Wind S.W., light, smoky and hazy. Finished watershed and commenced on dome of tank. Manzanita anchored [off] W. Brother.
October 4: Wind N.E., clear. Mr. Page went to San Quentin for Mr. Smith to serve as assistant during his absence.
October 9: Wind N.E., cloudy. Mr. Smith went for boatload of soil Pt. Pablo. Finished steps and repaired fence.
October 11: Wind N.W., clear. Repairing fence and railway track.
October 15: Wind N.W., clear. Sunday. Beautiful day.
October 31: Wind N.W., light, later part strong. Manzanita passed at 9 A.M. and anchored off the sisters to buoy a sunken wreck.
December 14: Wind N.E. Foggy from 4 A.M. to 10 A.M. Mr. Page went to San Quentin for mail, returned as usual, drunk.
December 16: Wind N.E., light. Foggy from 5:50 A.M. to 12 noon. Fog very dense 'till 11 A.M. Cleaned boiler at noon. A large four masted ship ashore about 1/3 dist. from Point Pedro to Marin Islands. Two tugs took her off at 4 o'clock P.M. and proceeded towards S. Francisco.
December 20: Wind N.E., clear. Painted over water spouts around the house. Comd. Coffin and Captain Payson, L.H. Engineer, landed at 10 o'clock P.M. and made an inspection.


Easst Brother Lightstation pages-lighthouse Early view of the lighthouse. (Courtesy Nels Stenmark)

January 2, 1883: Wind S., light, hazy. Mr. Page took the mail over to San Quentin, returned drunk.
January 11: Wind N.E., cold, light, foggy. Mr. Page went for the mail, returned at 2:30 P.M., drunk, mail wet.
January 19: Wind N.N.E., commenced blowing at 2 o'clock A.M. Noon, blowing a gale and a heavy sea running over the wharf at 3 P.M.; washed away the lower portion of steps.
January 22: Wind N.N.E., fresh, very smoky all day. Cold, 40º.
February 7: Wind N.E., light, foggy. Manzanita landed at noon 6 tons H, 4 tons S coal.
February 8: Wind N.E., light, clear. Mr. Page went for mail and stores, drunk, no mail.
February 9: Wind N.E., light, clear. Hauled up the hard coal and stored it away, also the wood, 1 cord.
February 10: Wind N.E., light, clear. Mr. Albert Tippett entered on his duties as assistant (1st) at this station.
February 14: Wind S.W., squally, strong. Employed all day cleaning engine room and lens in lantern.
February 21: Wind N.E., light, clear. Painted lantern and floor, front-hall stairs, back porch and front porch
March 10: Wind S., light, foggy. Kept fires banked 'till 12:30.
April 8: Wind N.W., strong, clear. Sunday. Cleaning and washing lens in tower, badly smoked.
April 12: Wind N.W., strong, squally. Mr. Tippett started for San Quentin and put back, too rough.
April 13: Wind N.E., clear. Between 8 and 9 o'clock P.M. a steamer passed by and sounded three whistles. As no answer was sounded from the bell, I call to Mr. Tippett to reply. But he was not satisfied that the whistle was for the station and the boat was so far away by the time I could satisfy him by explaining, she was beyond hearing.
May 29: Wind S.W., strong, hazy. Mr. Tippett went to S. Quentin to consult the doctor.
June 2: Wind S.W., strong. Manzanita landed supplies for year coming July, 1883. Inspector on board. Delivered Library No. 35.
June 6: Wind N.E., light, clear. Thermometer 95º in the shade.

*David McDougal, former commandant at Mare Island.
**A concrete rainshed was built to replace the original asphalt shed.

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In The News

“You can sit and watch big ships and little seals cruise by, or gaze at the reposing birds or the rushing tide below the dock. There’s a sense of intimacy here and a feeling of remoteness, even though it’s just a short distance to the mainland.”

- Doug McConnell, Bay Area Backroads