Early Years at the Lighthouse

The first keeper appointed to East Brother light station was Samuel A. Farran. He served during the early years of the station with First Assistant John Cawley and Second Assistant P. Moran. Altogether eleven men served as principal keepers and twenty-five as assistant keepers (not counting substitutes) between 1874 and 1945. Some stayed only a few months, others for nearly twenty years. Not much is known of East Brother's early keepers, but surviving lighthouse records, instruction manuals, and journals paint a detailed picture of the routine of lighthouse life.

To be qualified for the job, keepers had to be able to read, write, and keep accurate records. They had to have enough physical strength and mechanical ability to maintain the buildings and equipment and make minor repairs. In the case of East Brother Island, they also had to be able to row or sail a boat to and from shore. Their foremost duties were making sure that the light operated each night between sunset and sunrise, and that the fog signal operated in times of fog.

East Brother Lightstation early-lens Cross section of lens showing lard oil lamp and paths of light rays.
(Modified from Instructions and Directions in Guide Light House Keepers....Government Printing Office: 1870)

The nightly routine began at sunset when one of the keepers would fill the lamp reservoir with special high-grade lard oil. He then used a small hand lamp to light the circular wick. The flame was positioned low at first so that the glass chimney would not crack from a quick change of temperature. It took half an hour to bring the flame up to its full height of 1-13/16 inches. On clear nights, the tiny flame could be seen a distance of 13_ nautical miles. This distance was achieved due to the powerful lens which surrounded the lamp and focused the light. The lens was actually made up of over fifty different lenses and prisms set in a brass framework. Although the flame burned continuously, the light appeared to flash because the lens focused the light into several separate beams, radiating outward horizontally like the spokes of a wheel. The lens rotated slowly on a vertical axis, powered by a clockwork mechanism. Mariners would see a flash every thirty seconds when a beam was cast in their direction.

East Brother Lightstation early-lens-2 From 1880 to 1934 East Brother had a fourth-order Freesnel lens similar to this one at Yerba Buena Island.
In 1983 the Coast Guard located a classical Fresnel lens for use again at East Brother. (Photo by Frank Perry)

The light was watched continuously each night, with the work divided equally among keepers. The keepers kept an eye on the light from the small room immediately below the lantern, appropriately called the watch room. Periodically, the keeper on duty cranked up the weight that powered the clockwork. He also had to wipe the glass panes of the lantern room regularly with dry towels to keep the glass free from moisture when the lens was in operation-a demanding chore in misty weather. At sunrise the wick was turned down to extinguish the light and the apparatus readied for the next night.

Keepers took special care of the delicate lens. Early each morning the lens was cleaned with a feather brush to remove dust. It was then wiped with a soft linen cloth. Finally, it was polished with a buff-skin. If oil or grease was spilled on any part of the lens it was wiped off with a linen cloth moistened with "spirits of wine." While working around the lamp and lens, keepers wore linen aprons to reduce dust and to prevent the lens from being scratched by wearing apparel and buttons. During the daytime, curtains were drawn in the lantern room to prevent discoloration of the lens by sunlight.

The type of lens then used at East Brother was called a Fresnel lens (pronounced fr™-nel¢), named after the French physicist Augustin Jean Fresnel. He perfected the lens design in 1822 after being commissioned by the French government to devise a method of improving the lighting apparatus in lighthouses. Up to that time, parabolic reflectors, made of silvered metal, were placed behind lamps to focus the light-but with inadequate results. France quickly capitalized on Fresnel's marvelous invention and had virtually a world-wide monopoly on lighthouse lens manufacture through most of the 1800s.

Fresnel lenses were constructed in seven sizes, the largest being a first-order lens, the smallest being a sixth-order lens. (There was also a three-and-one-half-order optic.) East Brother originally had a revolving fourth-order lens, which measured about thirty-three inches high and twenty-four inches in diameter. Lenses of the fourth-order and smaller were typically used in bays and harbors where a range of ten to fourteen miles visibility on clear nights was sufficient. First-order lenses, about nine feet high and six feet in diameter, were placed in lighthouses on the open coast where more powerful lights were needed. Some of these seacoast lights were designed to have ranges of twenty-five miles or more.

Fresnel's invention makes efficient use of the light by capturing up to eighty-five percent of the light rays that radiate downward or upward from the lamp and focusing them horizontally along a single plane. The lenses are so effective that they remain in use at many lighthouses. In central California, Fresnel lenses have been in use continuously at the Point Pinos, Point Bonita, and Yerba Buena Island lighthouses since they began operation in the 1800s.

Another remarkable feature of these lenses is that they can be used to produce many different characteristics. In 1880, for example, the Lighthouse Board decided to change East Brother's light from flashing to fixed. Workmen replaced the rotating lens with a fixed fourth-order lens which produced a continuous beam of light in all directions. The board said only that "the change was desirable."

At the time of the lens change, a new lamp was installed which burned kerosene. In the late 1870s and early 1880s nearly all United States lighthouses were converted from lard oil to kerosene, then termed "mineral oil." Kerosene not only cost less than lard oil, but the kerosene lamps burned longer on a given quantity of fuel. There was considerable expense in making the change, however, since new lamps had to be supplied to each station, and new containers had to be made for storing and transporting the more volatile fuel.

Besides tending the illuminating apparatus, the keepers also maintained the fog signal, located in the building at the east end of the island. The device was a simple steam plant, similar to that of a steamboat or locomotive. It consisted of a boiler with a firebox below where coal was burned. A small pipe supplied water to the boiler from one of the station's freshwater storage tanks. Steam was used to sound the whistle, located on top of the building, and also to power a small piston engine beside the boiler. This engine regulated the timing of the whistle blasts and pumped more water into the boiler. Every twenty-four seconds a rotating cam in the engine alternately triggered blasts of four and eight seconds. Mariners could check the latest issue of the Light List to identify the station from the characteristic of either the light or the fog signal.*


East Brother Lightstation early-signal-building Early view of fog signal building. Steam whistle is immediately to left of large smokestack.
(Courtesy Nels Stenmark)

The whistle was sometimes more important in aiding mariners than the light. In dense fog or heavy rain East Brother's powerful light was virtually useless. The ten-inch whistle, on the other hand, could often be heard from ten or twelve miles away. Through the years many a ship captain groped his way across the misty bay waters guided only by the regular blasts of East Brother's fog signal. It took many years' experience to learn to navigate in this way. Echoes off the surrounding hills could easily deceive the inexperienced ear as to the true direction of the signal.

Steam whistles were used at many United States fog signal stations in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. However, they had some significant disadvantages. The engine needed constant oiling and tinkering, and often major replacement parts. Since the whistle might be put in operation night or day, off-duty keepers had to learn to sleep in spite of the noise. Some keepers apparently got quite good at this. The instruction manual supplied to keepers in 1881 stated explicitly: "Whenever the apparatus is in operation, a keeper must be in the engine-house, in charge, and awake."

It took about forty-five minutes to build up enough steam in the boiler to put the signal in operation. To compensate for this delay, a large bell was installed on East Brother in April, 1878. If the fog came in suddenly, one of the keepers or a family member would strike the bell at fifteen-second intervals until the whistle could be sounded. When the signal was not in use, the firebox was kept loaded with coal, ready for lighting at a moment's notice. Deciding when to start the fog signal required much more judgment on the part of the keeper than when to light the lamp. Sometimes when fog started to come in, the boilers would be fired up, only to have the fog go out again. In general, when Red Rock, Point San Quentin, or The Sisters became obscured by bad weather, it was time to fire up the boiler.


East Brother Lightstation early-boiler Boiler and fireboxes inside the fog signal building. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Coal was used both as fuel for the fog signal boiler and for domestic use. In the latter case wood was also used. Several times each year one of the lighthouse tenders such as the Shubrick, Madroño, Or Manzanita would deliver a supply of coal to the station wharf. The keepers had to haul the ninety-pound sacks of coal up a tramway on a rail car then place them in the coal shed. The tenders often unloaded eight or ten tons, and sometimes even thirty or forty tons of coal at one time. Not surprisingly, keepers spent a good deal of time hauling coal. During fiscal 1900-1901 the signal along consumed about forty tons-enough to operate some 252 hours that year. Actually, that was modest compared to other central California fog signals. Those at Point Montara, Point Bonita, and Point Reyes, often blasted away for over 1,000 hours per year.

The wharf at East Brother, originally located on the north side of the island, became a regular source of frustration. In the spring of 1875, only a year after the station began functioning, the wharf and tramway were badly damaged by heavy waves during a gale. According to keeper Farran, the "sea broke over the island." Temporary repairs were made, and the following September more piles were driven. These were bound together with twelve-inch-square timbers. The wharf was also raised three feet, prompting the Lighthouse Board to boast that it was now "so strengthened as to withstand any ordinary storm."

Apparently the storm of early 1880 was not ordinary. The wharf suffered major damage. Again it was repaired and lasted another five years until February 10, 1885. That morning the crew of the lighthouse tender Manzanita planned to unload fifteen tons of coal for the station. They unloaded ten tons when suddenly the section of wharf supporting the coal gave way, dumping the coal into the bay. The soggy sacks of coal had to be retrieved at low tide. Later in the month a crew of carpenters repaired the damage.

In 1894 the wharf was declared unsafe-this time before it had a chance to collapse. The culprits were teredos-worm-like marine mollusks which bore into wood. A new wharf was built, sixty feet long and twenty feet wide, this time supported by paraffin-coated steel-shod piles driven ten feet into the rock bottom.

Despite the romantic portrayal of lighthouse keeping in novels, poems, and art, the job was monotonous and the Lighthouse Board knew it. Pay was modest and much of the work boring. Nevertheless, the board did its best within budget to provide adequate accommodations and conveniences for keepers. It hoped to attract men of high caliber into the service and encourage them to stay.

In 1874 the keeper at East Brother earned $800 per year-paid quarterly. The first assistant earned $600, the second assistant $550. Actually this was reasonable pay at the time, especially considering that the job came with a place to live. However, salaries were not increased for nearly forty years.

East Brother Lightstation early-madrono Lighthouse tender Madrono. Photo taken from East Brother, early 1900;s. (U.S. Coast Guard)

For the intellectual benefit of keepers, the Lighthouse Board in the 1880s assembled portable lending libraries which circulated from station to station. Each came in its own combination bookcase and shipping crate and contained about fifty books. Included were novels, poetry, books on history and science, a Bible, and a prayer book. After several months, the library could be exchanged for another when the lighthouse tender came.

During the 1870s the keepers and their families at East Brother were provided with rations. These were delivered periodically by tender as was standard practice at many remote stations. In 1880 the Lighthouse Board decided East Brother was not sufficiently remote to warrant continuing this service. The keepers then had to row or sail to Point San Quentin or Point San Pedro to do marketing. This may have been for the best. The annual allowance per man for 1881 was:

Pork 200 pounds
Beef 100 pounds
Flour 2 barrels
Rice 50 pounds
Brown sugar 50 pounds
Coffee (green grain) 24 pounds
Beans or peas 10 gallons
Vinegar 4 gallons
Potatoes 2 barrels

Not exactly the makings of a gourmet dinner! Keepers were instructed that the quantities could be changed, so long as the total cost of the rations was not thereby made greater. In the 1890s and early 1900s rations were again supplied to the island residents by the government, mostly as a supplement comprised of potatoes and onions.

Keepers had to be jacks-of-all-trades. Besides tending the light and steam whistle, they also cleaned the cistern and rainshed; repaired fences, windows and minor storm damage; built cupboards and tables as needed; and kept the boats in good repair. There was also painting-always painting-whether it was painting the tower, lantern room fog signal building, boat, boathouse, their living quarters, or whatever. Many of the keepers liked to paint. Things always looked so much better with a fresh coat of paint, and applying it required neither great physical strain nor too much thought. In fact, by 1894 keepers at East Brother and other Twelfth District stations were apparently doing too much painting. Inspector Henry Nichols, annoyed by the "excessive unnecessary use of paint at some stations," ordered that henceforth no painting of any kind be done without his prior approval. At least for awhile after that, keepers had to make written requests for paint including a statement of the work to be done, the amount of paint on hand, the estimated quantity of paint needed, and when the job was last done.

Such thrift was typical of the Lighthouse Service. Nothing was wasted. The coal sacks, once emptied, were rolled up and returned to the tender for reuse. Oil cans and other containers were likewise used over and over. Before a new tool or container would be issued to a keeper, the old one had to be turned in, otherwise its cost would be deducted from his salary.

The keepers at East Brother were given a manual of instructions which told in great detail everything they needed to know to run the station. It included diagrams of the lamp and fog signal with all the parts labeled. It covered instructions for mixing paint, cleaning brushes, and a recipe for whitewash. Lest they have any doubt when the lamp was to be lighted or extinguished, they were provided with a booklet of tables showing the exact times of sunset and sunrise for each day of the year.

The principal keeper had the added chore of keeping records. Each month he submitted a report on the condition of the station to both the inspector and engineer; he also had to turn in a fog signal report and an absence report. Quarterly, he accounted for expenditures of oil and submitted vouchers for salaries. When necessary, the keeper filed returns for receipt of supplies delivered, any damage to the station, any unusual occurrence, and a shipwreck report. The keeper also maintained a daily journal of events at the station.

The keepers' workload increased even more in the 1890s when several other government agencies requested assistance from the Lighthouse Service. The Census Bureau asked that keepers send in reports on fish and fishing observed in the area of their station. Soon keepers were also asked to file reports on earthquakes and to record rainfall.

Besides the routine jobs, the men also had to be prepared for the unexpected. They kept a close watch for vessels in distress and several times rescued people from boats that capsized. When storms hit, East Brother's residents often had problems of their own. On a number of occasions one of the station's two boats was torn from its mooring and damaged or destroyed. Indeed there were times when nobody could get on or off the island because of rough water. On April 1, 1892, Keeper P. J. Quinlan left on what was intended to be a one day trip to San Francisco. However, high winds and rough waters prevented his return for three days. On another occasion the same keeper returned to the island at 11:30 at night only to find the light out! The assistant, Martin Haave, had left the station in the other boat and capsized. He managed to stay afloat, but could not return to the lighthouse in time to light the lamp. This excuse must have satisfied the inspector, for the assistant stayed on for three more years.

Throughout East Brother's early history there were no major shipwrecks in the area-a tribute both to the men who designed and built the station's equipment and to the keepers who so carefully maintained it.

*The Light List, published annually by the government since the mid 1800s, lists lighthouses and other navigational aids.

Innkeepers Search Closed

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

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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