A Light Station for East Brother

San Francisco Bay ranks among the world's great natural harbors. Though the Golden Gate at its narrowest point is but a mile wide, it opens into a bay covering nearly 450 square miles. The bay has not none harbor but dozens along its one hundred miles of meandering shoreline.

San Francisco Bay proper stretches from Alviso near San Jose in the south to points San Pablo and San Pedro in the north. Between these two points lies San Pablo Strait. The two islands called The Brothers mark the east side of the strait, a quarter mile off point San Pablo. On the west side are two similar islands named The Sisters. It is not known who named these two sets of islands or mountains in this way. Two islands also called The Brothers lie just south of Cape Mendocino in Humboldt County. The names for the San Francisco Bay islands became official in 1851 when the U.S. Coast Survey used them in preparing the first accurate map of the bay.

East Brother Lightstation light-plans These early plans for a light station on East Brother were drafted by Assistant Lighthouse Engineer E.J.Molera and were never used. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Besides providing shelter for boats, San Francisco and San Pablo bays also link the vast Sacramento and San Joaquin river systems to the Pacific Ocean. Much of the river water comes from melted snow in the Sierra Nevada, and some of it flows as much as four hundred miles before reaching the ocean. During the Gold Rush, the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers were important transportation routes, helping link San Francisco with the Sierra. In the 1850s and 1860s dozens of boats regularly ferried mail, passengers, and freight between San Francisco and inland ports as far north as Red Bluff and nearly as far south as Fresno. By the 1870s railroads started taking much of the business away from the river boats, but even today freighters unload and pick up cargo at Sacramento-a hundred miles inland from the sea.

In 1854, when the federal government established a Navy shipyard at Mare Island near Vallejo, ship traffic through San Pablo Strait further increased. By 1866 the Mare Island fleet numbered nearly 700 ships.

In response to the continued growth of the San Francisco Bay area, three sites overlooking the bay waters were recognized in the early 1870s as needing lighthouses and fog signals. These were Yerba Buena Island between San Francisco and Oakland, the east side of San Pablo Strait, and the southern tip of Mare Island.

Previously, in 1851, the Coast Survey had anchored a marker buoy over Invincible Rock, a submerged hazard about one half mile southwest of The Brothers. By the early 1870s other buoys marked hazards bordering the strait, but ship captains who regularly navigated these waters needed a better guide at night and during fog. On March 3, 1871, Congress appropriated $20,000 for construction of a lighthouse and fog signal for this purpose.

After passage of the bill, lighthouse engineers examined land at Point San Pablo and tried to negotiate with the land owners for purchase of a suitable site on the mainland. The owners, however, refused to sell. This left the government with no choice other than to file suit against them for condemnation of the land. In July, 1871, at a special proceeding of the state Fifteenth District Court, the jury awarded the land owners $4,000 for the 12.8 acres wanted by the government. The Lighthouse Board thought that this judgment of the land's value was excessive, but being anxious to begin lighthouse construction, accepted the ruling. The owners of the land apparently thought this was not enough, so they appealed the case to the California Supreme Court.

In March of 1872 Paul J. Pelz, chief draftsman for the Lighthouse Board, went ahead and executed drawings for the proposed Point San Pablo lighthouse. He prepared them under the direction of Major George Elliot, engineering secretary of the board. In the meantime, litigation dragged on over the Point San Pablo site. The final hearing in the case was scheduled for October, but the defendants succeeded in delaying matters still further.

Soon two years had passed since plans were first made for a lighthouse along San Pablo Strait, and mariners who regularly traveled this route were growing impatient with the delays. In January, 1873, a number of captains from steamers and other vessels presented a petition to the lighthouse inspector in San Francisco urging that the lighthouse be built instead on nearby East Brother Island since the federal government already owned this property. The inspector agreed and on January 28 forwarded the petition to the Lighthouse Board for consideration.

The Lighthouse Board responded enthusiastically to the new site proposal. Besides avoiding the legal problems, having the light on the island would increase its arc of useful visibility and place it closer to shipping lanes. The primary disadvantages of the site would be the lack of fresh water for household use and operation of a steam-powered fog signal, the necessity of providing boat transportation, and the lack of adequate space for a keepers' garden.

The Brothers and The Sisters had been reserved for military purposes by President Andrew Johnson in 1867. At that time the islands were still unclaimed. Johnson had been advised that it might someday be necessary to erect batteries on these islands in the event enemy ships tried to reach Mare Island Navy Yard during a war.

The Treasury Secretary wrote to the Secretary of War requesting permission to build a light and fog signal station on East Brother. The Secretary of War granted a fifty-year lease under the condition that the station "shall give way to fortifications whenever it shall be required for that purpose." He added, however, that it was not likely that these islands would be needed as sites for batteries for many years, if at all.*

In January, 1873, Twelfth District Assistant Lighthouse Engineer E. J. Molera landed on East Brother to draw a detailed map of the island to forward to the board. Molera saw that there would indeed be a problem getting enough fresh water to operate a steam engine for a fog whistle. Water would have to be shipped in or rainwater captured. This inspired Molera to propose to the Lighthouse Board his own design of a fog signal powered by compressed air instead of steam.

His plan called for excavating a 50-by-100-foot seawater reservoir in the middle of the island. A brass trumpet would then be fastened on top of a wooden platform above the reservoir. Seawater would be pumped into the reservoir by means of a "wave ram," a "tide mill," and an ordinary windmill. Exactly how all this would work is not clear, but the basic principle was that rising water level in the reservoir would compress air in a chamber to blow the trumpet.

Actually, the idea was not so far-fetched. In the 1860s Major Hartman Bache, then inspector for the same district, devised a fog whistle powered by compressed air from a natural blowhole above a sea cave. The signal ran for a number of years on Southeast Farallon Island and brought widespread acclaim to its inventor.


East Brother Lightstation light-notice Notice to mariners. (National Archives)

By 1873 steam whistles similar to those on locomotives and steamboats had come into common use as fog signals. Molera, however, compiled an impressive list of advantages his signal would have over steam whistles in addition to not requiring fresh water. It would not use any fuel and consequently there would also be less danger of fire-particularly hazardous on such a small island. It would require fewer people to operate and could be started instantaneously, unlike steam whistles which required time for the boiler to build up pressure. Also, the trumpet sound would less likely be confused with the whistles used on passing steamers. Molera planned to fix a sounding board and reflector to the device to help give it an intensity "superior to any yet produced." The lighthouse would be located above the trumpet to help focus the sound horizontally. Apparently the impact of this on the keepers was not considered.

Molera waited anxiously for a response to his proposal. In the meantime, on March 3, 1873, Congress appropriated an additional $30,000 for construction of a lighthouse and fog signal for San Pablo Strait. In April the government withdrew its condemnation suit and proceeded with plans to erect the station on East Brother Island. Despite Molera's list of advantages, the Lighthouse Board did not implement his plan. It was untested and the delays in securing the site now left little time for such experimentation. Instead they decided to use the lighthouse plan already drafted (originally intended for Point San Pablo) and construct a steam-powered fog whistle on the island.

In May, 1873, requests were sent out for bids to grade the site and build the lighthouse and fog signal building. On July 24 the firm of Monroe and Burns of San Francisco was hired for the sum of $17,637.65.

The contractors immediately began blasting sandstone from the top of the island. Some of the sandstone was used to build a wall around the island's perimeter. More of the center of the island was then leveled and used to fill in behind the wall, thus creating about one half acre of level ground for the station.

Several changes in the lighthouse plans were made to accommodate the new site. The front of the lighthouse was originally to face west towards the bay. It was made to face east instead, towards the rest of the island. A two-room cellar originally planned was omitted.


East Brother Lightstation light-new-plans South elevation and floor plans for the EastBrother lighthouse drafted in 1872.
(Modified from originals in National Archives)
East Brother Lightstation light-new-plans-2


The design for the lighthouse, rich in gingerbread and scrollwork, was typical of the 1860s and 1870s. the porches, wide overhangs, and sawn banisters were characteristic of the "seaside cottages" illustrated in architectural pattern books widely distributed at that time. The Lighthouse Board's policy was to build simple and substantial dwellings that would be appropriate to the purpose yet in harmony with the prevailing local architecture. As with the first set of lighthouses built on the West Coast, the plans used at East Brother were also used, with modifications, at several other locations. In the early 1870s lighthouses similar in design to East Brother were built at Point Fermin, Point Hueneme, and Mare Island in California, and at Point Adams in Oregon. Of these, only Point Fermin near Los Angeles stands today.

By the fall of 1873 the lighthouse foundation was in place and the walls were going up. It was basically a six-room dwelling, yet was intended as quarters for three keepers-two with families. It was definitely the kind of arrangement that encouraged one to try to get along with the neighbors. A bedroom and living room for the principal keeper were downstairs. Upstairs were another bedroom and living room. A third keeper would live in the garret, above the communal kitchen and dining room. Stairs inside and outside connected the two levels, and both levels had closets and storerooms.

The lighthouse was built of wood, but with an unusual feature. The spaces between the studs on the outside walls were filled with bricks mortared in place. This may have been to help insulate the building from the natural elements, or reduce the noise level inside from the fog signal. The brick may also have been used to increase the mass of the building to make it more stable in high winds.

An additional contractor, E. M. Benjamin, was hired to build a cistern, rain catchment basin, wharf, tramway, boathouse, and outhouses. The lantern room, lens, and oil lamps were furnished and installed by the government. By February the lighthouse was nearly ready to send forth its first flashes. Keepers were hired, and a printed "Notice to Mariners" was distributed announcing that the light would go into operation the evening of March 1, 1874.

East Brother Lightstation light-cross-section This cross section of the lighthouse was included with the architect's original drawings.
Cellar below tower was omitted when the lighthouse was constructed.
(Modified from original in National Archives)

As the time of first lighting approached, one of the Lighthouse Service's lampists, T. L. Winship, came to the island to instruct the keepers on the fine points of lamp care and operation. The apparatus was delicate and the lighthouse authorities wanted to make sure the new keepers knew how to make the many fine adjustments that assured the flame would burn steadily and at maximum brightness throughout each night. On March 1, as sunset approached, Mr. Winship, the keeper, and the two assistant keepers climbed the staircase to the top of the tower. The lampist then lighted the light for the first time, and the long-awaited beacon at last flashed its signal to passing ships.

The fog signal was also ready to operate, but there had not been enough rain to provide water for the boiler. This left the Twelfth District engineer, Lt. Col. R. S. Williamson, with a dilemma: should he postpone operation of the fog signal until the start of the next rainy season, or should fresh water be purchased and delivered to the island? Soon, however, the fog drifted in, giving him no choice but the latter. Perhaps he now had second thoughts about Molera's compressed-air trumpet! By April 9 enough water had been delivered to fire up the boiler and give the whistle a test blast. On May 1 it went into regular operation whenever there was fog.

[*In 1924 title was transferred to the Commerce Department (Bureau of Lighthouses) and later to the Coast Guard.]

Innkeepers Search Closed

The application period for Keepers of East Brother Light Station is now closed.

Find Us On...


Yelp trademark RGB

EBLS Needs Your Help

We need volunteers!
Make friends, gain experience,
help a historical landmark

Click Here For Info

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