West Coast Lighthouses

East Brother was one of about seventy lighthouses built on the West Coast of the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Its history is linked to these other beacons in many ways. All were built and maintained by the federal government. All responded to similar changes in our culture and technology. And many were cared for by keepers who had worked at other lighthouses as well. In other respects, however, each lighthouse, including East Brother, has its own unique story to tell.

East Brother Lightstation west-map Lighthouses in Central California, past and present.

Lighthouses help mariners in several ways. Major sea coast lights serve as landfalls for ships arriving from across the ocean. These lighthouses and the smaller lights along the coast and in bays also act as guides for coastal vessels, in some cases warning them of dangerous reefs or shoals. Others mark turning points along the coast or at entrances to bays or harbors.

Most also aid mariners as landmarks visible during the day. They are, however, of little help day or night when there is thick fog. In the past many light stations were equipped with a fog signal such as a bell, steam whistle, or steam siren. Today such devices have given way to electronic fog signals and radio beacons. These modern aids and ship-based radar have frequently made lighthouses of secondary importance in navigation. Nevertheless, there is still nothing quite as reassuring as seeing a light, particularly when steering a vessel near shore to enter a harbor or bay.

Several events shaped the early history of West Coast lighthouses. These in turn set the stage for construction of later stations such as at East Brother Island. First was the acquisition by the United States of Oregon Territory in 1846 and California in 1848. No lighthouses were built in California under Spain or Mexico. Lighthouses would have been of little benefit since so few ships served the small population in Alta California at that time. There is a report that the Spaniards sometimes hung a lantern on a stake at Ballast Point when a ship was expected at San Diego Bay, but this was hardly a lighthouse. Thus the United States started from scratch in planning a system of lighthouses for the Pacific Coast.

Another dramatic event, the discovery of gold in 1848, changed the face of California almost overnight. Hundreds of ships, each filled with hopeful gold-seekers, set sail for the Golden Gate. The gold rush touched off continued immigration which brought growth in agriculture, lumbering, construction and other activities. As cities and towns swelled with activity, so did commerce and shipping. California's population of immigrants grew from less than 15,000 in early 1848 to 223,856 in 1852. By 1870 the state's population had expended to over 560,000.

The third significant event in the early development of West Coast lighthouses was the establishment of the Lighthouse Board. This administrative body took over the duties of the fifth auditor of the Treasury Department, who had supervised the nation's lighthouse system from 1820 to 1852. On August 31, 1852, Congress passed an act requiring the President to appoint three high ranking officers from the Navy, three engineers from the Army, and two civilian scientists to constitute the Lighthouse Board. The Secretary of Treasury served as the board's ex-officio president.

The diverse makeup of the Lighthouse Board enabled it more easily to administer the varied duties of a growing lighthouse establishment, which included maintaining lightships, buoys, fog signals and other navigational aids. The board intended to improve the quality and dependability of United States lighthouses, bringing them up to the level of those in France, England, and Scotland.

The Lighthouse Board held its first meeting October 9, 1852. One of its early tasks was to divide the nation into twelve lighthouse districts. The entire West Coast became the Twelfth District with headquarters in San Francisco. (Later Oregon and Washington were made into the Thirteenth District.) Each district had a Naval officer as an inspector in charge of personnel and daily operations, and an Army engineer to oversee new construction and repairs at the different light stations. The Lighthouse Board planned most of the lighthouses eventually built on the West Coast, but not all. By the time they met, arrangements had already been made to construct the first set of lighthouses here.

Earlier, on April 20, 1852, the government contracted with the firm of Francis A. Gibbons and Francis X. Kelly of Baltimore, Maryland, to build eight lighthouses. These were to be constructed at Point Loma near San Diego, Point Conception, Point Pinos near Monterey, Southeast Farallon Island, Battery Point (Fort Point) and Alcatraz Island on San Francisco Bay, and at Humboldt Harbor-all in California. They were also hired to build a lighthouse at Cape Disappointment at the mouth of the Columbia River in what is now Washington.

Gibbons and Kelly purchased the bark Oriole, gave her new fittings, and loaded the ship with all materials necessary to build the lighthouses with the exception of stone, which would be quarried near each lighthouse site. The shipload of materials with crew and workmen set sail from Baltimore August 12, 1852, and arrived in San Francisco on January 29, 1953. Gibbons and Kelly agreed to build the eight lighthouses for just $136,000-all that Congress had appropriated.

From early on the builders were plagued by unexpected difficulties. Just three months after the Battery Point lighthouse was constructed (but before the lens arrived from France), the Army selected that very site for a fort. The structure was razed before ever being lighted, and eventually a second lighthouse was built. After construction of lighthouses at Battery Point, Alcatraz, Point Pinos, and Southeast Farallon Island, the workmen sailed north to Cape Disappointment. The site was aptly named. Here the Oriole was wrecked and her cargo destroyed. Fortunately, no lives were lost, but work was delayed while replacement materials were purchased. At Point Loma the problems continued. Additional time and materials needed to build a road to the site made the cost nearly double the $15,000 originally budgeted for the job. At Point Conception and Southeast Farallon Island the lighthouses had to be rebuilt because the lenses, when they arrived, were too big to fit. Finally, on June 1, 1854, the Alcatraz Island lighthouse became the first to be lighted on the West Coast. Not until October of 1856 did the last of these first eight lighthouses, Cape Disappointment, go into operation.

Each lighthouse was a simple, rectangular, masonry dwelling known as a Cape Cod structure. Most had a circular tower rising from the center, through at several locations the on-site decision was made to offset the tower or detach it from the dwelling. The design was devised by Ammi B. Young, an architect employed by the Treasury Department.

By the end of the 1850s eight more lighthouses were built on the West Coast. They were similar in design to the first eight, but were built by local contractors and for even less money than the amount paid to Gibbons and Kelly. The second eight were built at Santa Barbara, Point Bonita, and Crescent City in California, at Umpqua River in Oregon, and at Willapa Bay, Cape Flattery, Smith Island, and New Dungeness in Washington.

During the early 1860s, while the nation was preoccupied with the Civil War, no lighthouses were built on the West Coast. In fact, during the war 164 East Coast lights were discontinued and many were badly damaged. By 1866, however, most of these beacons had been repaired and relighted, and the Lighthouse Board again turned its attention to constructing new lighthouses.

In the 1850s and 1860s the Pacific's ragged edge devoured numerous ships. The loss of these vessels, their cargo, and many lives underscored the need for additional lighthouses. In California during the late 1860s and early 1870s twelve more lighthouses, many with fog signals, would be constructed-among these East Brother.

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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