Later Years at East Brother

In 1910 the Lighthouse Board was replaced by the Bureau of Lighthouses which was under the U.S. Commerce Department. Back in 1852, at the time the Lighthouse Board was created, America's lighthouse system was of a size that allowed improvement and management by a committee of men of diverse backgrounds. By 1910, however, the agency had grown so large that the committee approach was abandoned in favor of an administration headed by a single individual. For most of its twenty-nine-year existence the bureau was headed by George Putnam, Commissioner of Lighthouses. Putnam was a civilian, had worked for the Coast Survey, and was a skilled administrator.

The Bureau of Lighthouses was entirely a civilian agency and operated that way until 1939, when its duties were transferred to the U.S. Coast Guard. When the bureau was formed, some of the men who had risen through the ranks as assistants and keepers were promoted to inspectors. They replaced the naval officers who had supervised each lighthouse district under the Lighthouse Board. Civilian engineers, draftsmen, and mechanics were also employed. The Lighthouse Service now relied more than ever on men who had decided to make the service a career. One such man was John P. Kofod.


Keeper John P. Kofod painting the side of the dwelling. (Courtesy Walter Fanning)

 John Kofod became keeper at East Brother July 25, 1914. He had joined the Lighthouse Service in 1899 as third assistant keeper at Point Sur. He then served at Point Reyes and later moved to Yerba Buena Island. With the transfer to East Brother came a promotion to keeper. Kofod and his wife made the move to East Brother with their furniture and belongings on board the lighthouse tender Madroño.

Kofod was born in Copenhagen, Denmark, in the early 1860s and came to the United States as a young man. After arriving in New York, he took a ship to Panama, traveled across the isthmus by railroad, and then sailed up the West Coast to San Francisco. There he met Metha Jorgensen, also a Danish immigrant, whom he married in 1886. Kofod worked as a glazier, specializing in stained-glass windows for churches. It was during a slump in this trade that he decided to join the Lighthouse Service.

Walter Fanning, grandson of John and Metha Kofod, remembers well his visits to the island as a child during and just after World War I. He recalls that, during the war, victory gardens were promoted just as in World War II. "My grandfather hauled soil in five-gallon kerosene tins from the mainland to the island, forming beds between the watershed and the outer fence. He couldn't use the scarce fresh water so he carried bath and wash water to his vegetables." The Kofods also raised chickens which they kept in pens outside the main fence at the island's west end.


Keeper John P. Kofod with his wife, Metha, and grandchildren, Walter and Erma Fanning, 1918.
(Courtesty Walter Fanning)

The keeper liked to go fishing and, of course, did not have far to go. "Striped bass were caught on lures drifted from the wharf on the incoming tide and by trolling from boats," recalls his grandson. The excess bass caught each fall was salted down in wooden casks, providing almost a year-round supply. From the station wharf young Fanning liked to catch rock cod and perch. These his grandfather would cook for dinner.

Fanning also recalls the heavy ship traffic at that time:

The Monticello line between Vallejo and San Francisco passed each way just about hourly. The Delta Queen and the Delta King made a trip a day, and there were many stern-wheeled freight carriers.

Dozens of scow-schooners carried hay and grain from the central valleys to the bay cities. The collision between the Monticello steamers Sehome and General Frisbie just north of the island in December, 1918, was a memorable event. The Sehome sank, and a deck house drifted down to the island and was made fast in the little cove on the west side. It broke away before anything could be done with it.


John and Metha Kofod beside century plant, West Brother in the distance.
(Courtesy Walter Fanning)


John and Metha Kofod on left, with the assistant and his wife. The dog's name is Teddy.
(Courtesy Walter Fanning)


As children Walter Fanning and his sister liked to go into the fog signal building, particularly on cold days. "It was warm from the two boiler furnaces and smelled pleasantly of steam and hot oil." Their grandfather or the assistant kept close watch over the gauges, shoveling in coal when the pressure dropped, raked out coal if the pressure grew too high. The coal was piled in the north room of the signal building beside the winch and tram car. There was also a well-equipped tool room in the building with tools neatly mounted on wall brackets. "They were beautifully maintained and never used," say Fanning. "My grandfather had tools of his own."

John Kofod moonlighted for a short time during the war, working in the Standard Oil Refinery a few days each week. The government permitted keepers to have a spare-time job so long as it did not interfere with their lighthouse work. Kofod was transferred to Yerba Buena Island as keeper in 1921. He retired from the Lighthouse Service in 1929.

In 1922 Willard Miller was appointed keeper at East Brother. He served on the island for over nineteen years-nearly as long as John Stenmark. He was a quiet, modest man whose calm demeanor belied the daring experiences of his younger years.

The story of Miller's background comes mostly from Jack Lewis, nephew of Earl Snodgrass (Assistant Keeper, 1936-1943). Mr. Lewis helped his uncle and the keeper with chores around the light station as a young man and knew both men well.

Willard Miller was born in Nova Scotia in 1877 and was the son of a shipbuilder. When he was only fourteen, he stowed away on one of his father's ships. He was at sea for quite some time, was shipwrecked, and had to survive on an island for several weeks until rescued.

Miller joined the U.S. Navy in 1898 and was sent to Cuba to fight in the Spanish-American War. He was placed in command of a crew aboard a small steam launch dispatched from the U.S.S. Nashville. Their assignment was to cut a marine telegraph cable at the port of Cienfuegos, Cuba. He displayed extraordinary bravery and coolness throughout the mission, despite heavy fire from shore batteries. The following year he was awarded the congressional Medal of Honor for his bravery. The keeper was not one to brag, as revealed by Jack Lewis's recollections many years later. "I stumbled onto the fact that he held the medal and the deed behind it by accident, and I had to wring the story out of him."

Miller left the Navy in December, 1908, and joined the Lighthouse Service the following year. Before coming to East Brother he served at the Los Angeles Harbor lighthouse located at the end of the San Pedro breakwater, and later at Roe Island in Suisun Bay.

For the first dozen years that Keeper Willard Miller was in charge of East Brother, the station operated much as before. The keeper and his assistant kept the oil vapor lamp burning each night from sunset to sunrise and fired up the steam whistle when the fog came in. As an economy measure, use of the steam whistle was discontinued annually from April 1 to September 30 beginning in 1925 (there being little fog during those months). When fog did occur during this period, the bell was rung automatically every fifteen seconds with a hammer powered by clockwork.

The most significant changes at East Brother while Willard Miller was keeper came in 1934 with electrification. In March of that year electricians arrived to wire the lighthouse for both domestic and navigational lighting. Over the next four months crews of workmen installed a new light and lens, replaced the steam fog signal with a diaphone, laid a concrete floor in the fog signal building, and installed an underwater electric cable between the island and Point San Pablo.

During the 1920s and 1930s all but the most remote of this nation's lighthouses were converted to electricity. At East Brother the rotating fourth-order lens and I.O.V. lamp were replaced by a fifth-order fixed lens with a 500-watt light bulb. The new outfit was rated at 13,000 candlepower. An electric timer turned the light on and off, producing two flashes of two-second duration every ten seconds. The device substantially reduced the keepers' nightly chore. Though few people probably realized it at the time, this was a major turning point in the station's history and one that would someday lead to complete automation.


From left to right: Keeper Willard Miller, Sea Scout Jack Lewis and First Assistant Earl Snodfrass in front of the lighthouse, late 1930 's.
(Courtesy Jack Lewis)

The diaphone fog signal was put into commission June 20, 1934. A Canadian invention, the diaphone was first introduced in the United States in 1915 and by the 1930s had come into widespread use here. The two-tone sound was produced by compressed air operating a reciprocating piston. It was superior to the steam whistle in that it was less likely to be mistaken for a ship's whistle. Another advantage was that it only took a few minutes to build up sufficient air pressure to operate. Keepers, of course, liked it because they did not have to shovel coal.

John S. Conway, in his 1923 book The United States Lighthouse Service, described the diaphone sound as ending "with an abrupt roar." Lighthouse Commissioner George Putnam described it as ending with a "distinctive grunt." Visitors to East Brother today can make up their own mind how best to describe it. Everyone agrees on one thing, however: it is loud! Large diaphones have reportedly been heard a distance of twenty-five miles, though their normal range is four or five.

The diaphone at East Brother was originally installed with an electric motor to power the air compressor. A timing device triggered three-second blasts every twenty seconds. In case of a power failure, the compressor could be operated with a backup gasoline engine. If the diaphone itself malfunctioned, an electric oscillator was sounded. Both the light and the oscillator could be run by a gasoline-powered electrical generator in the fog signal building. In later years the oscillator was replaced by a duplicate diaphone to be used in the event of breakdown.

The backup systems usually had to be put to use several times each year. Ships sometimes dragged their anchors through the east channel, damaging or severing the power cable. When Miller spotted a ship doing this, he would shout warnings from the station wharf. On several occasions the cable was disconnected while the channel was dredged. One night while the cable was disconnected, the backup generator failed. Miller had to quickly place an emergency gasoline lamp in the lens.

During the last six years Willard Miller was keeper, he was assisted by Earl Snodgrass. Earl and his wife, Lillian, moved to East Brother in November, 1936. Like the keeper, the new assistant came to the job with many years' seafaring experience. He served in the Navy during World War I and afterwards worked on a tug hauling logs in Tillamook Bay, Oregon. He eventually saved up enough money to buy his own boat, the Rustler. He made his living with the Rustler by towing, ferrying passengers, and picking up crabs from commercial fishermen and delivering them to Tillamook markets.

Earl Snodgrass first entered the Lighthouse Service in 1927. As was typical, his first assignment was to a remote station-Southeast Farallon Island. He and his wife stayed there about three years until he was transferred to the lighthouse at Table Bluff, overlooking Humboldt Bay. Snodgrass then quit the Lighthouse Service to accept a more lucrative job piloting boats for the Cogshaw launch and Towboat Company. He stayed with them at Humboldt Bay for several years, finally returning to the Lighthouse Service and accepting the assignment to East Brother Island.


later-cistern Earl Snodgrass on dome of cistern. Note daphone atop roof of signal building (right) and oscillator on the left.
(Courtesy Jack Lewis)

The assistant keeper applied his extensive experience with boats to build the first inboard motorboat used at East Brother. With its powerful Briggs and Stratton engine, it could easily buck the swift currents around the islands. Docking, which was done on the north side of the wharf, was often tricky. In his eight years on the island, Snodgrass erred just once in this regard. The rowboat hit the pilings, was caught by the strong tidal current, and capsized, dumping Snodgrass, his dog McGregor, and the groceries into the drink. McGregor jumped quickly onto the dock and waited patiently for his master, who had to shinny up one of the pilings. The groceries were a total loss but, fortunately, the upside-down boat was held against the wharf by the currents and did not sink.

later-snodgrass-boat Earl Snodgrass with motorboat he built for the station. (Courtesy Jack Lewis)

East Brother Lightstation later-dog Dubbed "Second Assistant" by Earl Snodgrass, McGregor waits patiently for his master to return. (Courtesy Jack Lewis)

In 1973 Jack Lewis wrote down some of his reminiscences and anecdotes of life at East Brother light station while manned by Willard Miller and his uncle:

Every March was painting time. The entire station was painted inside and out, buff and white. You had no choice of décor, but the paint was free, and you used if profusely. Willard liked to paint the tower. He would rig a line from the tower, and when he wanted to come down he would slide down the rope and swing onto the second floor porch

Each fall before the fog season they would "fire up" the horn [diaphone] and give it a couple of blasts. Invariably there would be two or three dead sea gulls in the horns. [During the summer] they would fly in and die. Out they would come when the horn was ready for service.

With the installation of the diaphone, fresh water was no longer needed for steam boilers. Although there was now less difficulty getting enough fresh water for the station, according to Jack Lewis there was the problem of water quality:

Their main supply was from the watershed around the cistern, the concrete slab that covers most of the island. Sea gulls were always a problem. All summer they would fly over, eat, scream, and defecate. Come the rainy season the watershed would have to be thoroughly scrubbed and the cistern cleaned. As long as I was around that was my job. Willard would lower me in a bosun's chair, and I would clean out the debris. They did not treat the water in any way. It was rain water, and if you found a crawly thing in your glass, you just didn't drink all the way to the bottom.

There was a frog in the cistern, should have brought him out. He was an albino, snow white and had no eyes. He lived there for at least five years, used to keep tabs on him. Not Calaveras caliber, but a good-sized frog.

Though Richmond and the area around Point San Pablo were growing up, the stretch of water separating East Brother from the mainland still made the island isolated.

Their only communication with the beach was an old hand-cranked phone.* Sometimes the phone worked. If it didn't, you stood out on the wharf and relied on lung power and hoped someone was listening. There was no radio, it was not considered necessary. You took the job and you understood the risks. If there was an emergency, you met it.

Before Willard Miller and Earl and Lillian Snodgrass left East Brother, they faced the most frightening event in the station's annals. The accident involved what every keeper there through the years had feared most: fire.

The morning of March 4, 1940, was one the three island residents would not soon forget. The underwater cable which usually supplied the station with power and a telephone had been disconnected for repairs. The light in the lighthouse was running off the gasoline-powered generator in the signal building. Willard Miller was on duty, keeping an eye on the generator and the light. At 2:50 A.M. the keeper grabbed his kerosene lantern and walked down to the dock to get more gasoline from one of several fifty-gallon drums stored in the boathouse. As he was filling his small container with gasoline, he stepped back and knocked over the lamp with his foot. A pool of flaming kerosene spread over the wooden floor of the boathouse. Miller tried unsuccessfully to turn off the spigot on the gasoline drum, and in so doing burned his hand and arm. He discharged the fire extinguisher, but it was too late. Almost immediately the boathouse did become a raging furnace. The keeper scrambled across the wharf and up the tramway to the island. Just as he reached the top, the first of the gasoline drums exploded, sending flames 100 feet into the air.


later-boathouse Boathouse that was destroyed in the 1940 fire. (Courtesy Jack Lewis)

The explosion awakened Earl and Lillian Snodgrass who, peering from their upstairs window, saw the flames reaching skyward from behind the fog signal building. They threw on some clothes and raced downstairs. By then the fire had ignited the picket fence and was soon licking at the east side of the signal building. More explosions shook the island as the fire reached the other gasoline drums. The two men sprayed the roof and side of the signal building with the garden hose but were hampered by low water pressure. With the boats gone, the telephone line out, and a wall of flames between them and Point San Pablo, all the three could do was hope that they could keep the flames from spreading across the island.

Fortunately, a night watchman on the pier at Point San Pablo spotted the blaze. He notified the Richmond Fire Department, but they had no boats to reach the island. A fireman called the Coast Guard headquarters in San Francisco which immediately dispatched a boat with five men. The cutter roared across the bay at full throttle, taking thirty-five minutes to reach East Brother. By the time help arrived, the three island residents had battled the fire for an hour. Even with the aid of the cutter's water pump, another hour passed before the fire was finally out.

With the light of dawn, the full extent of the damage became apparent. The wharf, tramway, boathouse, and four boats lay in charred ruins. Luckily, the fog signal building, though badly scorched, survived. Had that building caught fire, the lighthouse and other structures might soon have followed. As it was, cost estimates for the damage ranged from $15,000 to $20,000, and rebuilding was not finished until June.

During World War II East Brother light station continued to perform an important role guiding ships through San Pablo Strait, particularly with the increased ship traffic to and from Mare Island Navy Yard. To the south, the Richmond shipyards cranked out Liberty Ships in record time to help win the war.

East Brother Lightstation later-WWII One half of the island's arsenal. During World War II the station was supplied with
two rifles with bayonets, and two belts of ammunition in case of enemy attack.
(Courtesy Jack Lewis)

Willard Miller stayed on as keeper until the end of June, 1942, when he retired at age sixty-five. When the Coast Guard took charge of lighthouses in 1939, he and other keepers were given the option of joining the Coast Guard and being assigned a military rank or remaining as a civilian keeper. Miller chose the latter, as did about half of the keepers around the nation. Indeed, as late as the 1970s there were still a few civilian keepers working for the Coast Guard, mostly on the East Coast.

Earl Snodgrass remained assistant at the station until 1943 when a bronchial condition forced him to move to a drier climate. Earl and Lillian Snodgrass planted the eucalyptus trees which still stand on the island, swaying in the bay breeze, quiet reminders of lighthouse life in the 1930s and early 1940s.

* Installed in 1936.

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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