The Stenmark Era

The register of keepers at East Brother kept during the late 1880s reveals that well over half were European immigrants. There were natives of Denmark, Sweden, Norway, England, and several from Ireland. John O. Stenmark, who was appointed keeper in 1894, was a native of Sweden and was assisted at the station until 1901 by another Swedish immigrant, James Anderson. Thanks to old newspaper clippings, photos, and other records kept by Stenmark children and grandchildren, more is known about him than about most of the East Brother keepers.

Stenmark was born in 1865 and emigrated to the United States at age twenty. In 1888 he joined the U.S. Lighthouse Service. His first job was working as a crewman aboard the lighthouse tender Madroño. At that time equipment and supplies for most lighthouses were delivered by ship. The 180-foot-long Madroño had a crew of nineteen and steamed about 10,000 miles each year servicing lighthouses and buoys throughout California. The lighthouse inspector was usually on board to deliver the keepers' pay and to inspect the station. It was while Stenmark was helping unload supplies for the Point Conception lighthouse that he saved the life of Inspector Thomas Perry.

East Brother Lightstation stenmark-1


East Brother Lightstation stenmark-2 The Stenmarks often entertained friends and relatives on the island as shown in these
old photos from their family album. (Courtesy Nels Stenmark)

Point Conception stands out as the most pronounced point along the California coast. Consequently, seas there can be particularly rough. Stenmark and some of his fellow crew members were trying to get a small boatload of supplies to shore from the tender. Suddenly, a rough wave capsized the boat, dumping the men and supplies into the water. Perry was carried helplessly away by the heavy seas and was soon in serious trouble. The other crew members clung fearfully to the capsized boat as young Stenmark, bleeding from a cut on his head caused by a breaking oar, swam towards the inspector. Just as the inspector was about to go under, Stenmark reached him and struggled unsuccessfully to swim to shore, holding the officer's head above water. Both men nearly drowned before finally being rescued by the tender.

John Stenmark was highly commended for his bravery. As a reward, on August 1, 1890, he was appointed assistant keeper at Año Nuevo Island fog signal station. Located forty-five miles south of San Francisco, the island supported a twelve-inch steam fog whistle and a small lens-lantern for a light. Although an improvement over life on the lighthouse tender, conditions on the tiny island were far from ideal. Stenmark and his wife, Breta, shared with the principal keeper a tiny cottage that had been partitioned into two living areas. The island residents could only get to and from the island by rowboat. Navigating through the surf, while trying to avoid the rocks around Año Nuevo Point, always made crossing the half-mile channel dangerous. In 1883 four men, including the keeper and assistant, drowned while trying to make the crossing.

Stenmark must have been an able assistant, for in 1892, when keeper Henry Hall was transferred, Stenmark was appointed keeper at Año Nuevo. He continued helping others, several times rescuing fishermen whose boats capsized near the island. In 1894 the Stenmarks' first daughter, Annie, was born at Año Nuevo. Three months later John Stenmark was transferred to East Brother and the young family set up housekeeping on San Francisco Bay. The island was smaller, but the house was bigger, and bay waters usually calmer. The Stenmarks quickly grew to like their new home and stayed almost twenty years.

East Brother Lightstation stenmark-3

Mariner's view of East Brother, about 1908. (National Archives)

Mr. and Mrs. Stenmark made the most of the small piece of land. They bought soil from the mainland and grew vegetables in a tiny garden in front of the lighthouse. In pens they raised goats, pigs, rabbits, and chickens. During his first few years as keeper, Stenmark, like his predecessors, rowed the 2 miles to Point San Quentin to do shopping and get mail. Prior to the birth of each of his two sons he rowed all the way to San Quentin and back to fetch the doctor.

The Stenmarks had four children: Annie, Ruby, Phillip, and Folke. For several years when the children were young the government paid for a teacher to live at East Brother part of each year and tutor the children. Later, when a road was built from Point San Pablo to the town of Point Richmond, the children attended school there. By that time, mail and provisions were picked up at Point Richmond instead of Point San Quentin.

Daughter Annie lived for the first twenty years of her life on the island until she met and married Charles Morisette. Morisette worked a short distance from the lighthouse at the Standard Oil refinery. "My hubby, Charlie, used to come courting to the island," she recalled fondly in later years. "He couldn't row very good at first, but we soon taught him." When the couple got married in June, 1914, the newspaper announced "Cupid Ends Lighthouse Romance":

A romance that had its beginning beneath the tall, gray tower of the Brothers Lighthouse, located [off] Point Orient, culminated in a happy marriage at Oakland yesterday when Charles Morisette, a foreman at the Standard Oil wharf, claimed Miss Annie E. Stenmark as his bride.

Miss Stenmark is the daughter of John O. Stenmark, lighthouse keeper [off] that point, and it was while assisting her father about his duties of caring for the great white light that flashes across the treacherous waters of the upper San Pablo bay that she became acquainted with Morisette.

Despite living on an island, the Stenmarks had many friends in the surrounding bay area. They sometimes entertained as many as fifty friends and relatives at the lighthouse. On the occasion of their nineteenth wedding anniversary, the local newspaper described the gathering:

The guests were carried across to the light house from Bailey's wharf in row boats, and as the bay was calm everyone enjoyed the trip immensely.

The rooms were very prettily decorated for the occasion and the evening was spent with music and dancing. Dainty refreshments were served at the proper time, after which hearty congratulations and best wishes were extended to the host and hostess

John Stenmark retired as keeper of East Brother in July, 1914. The family moved to Richmond, where they owned and operated the Stenmark Hotel on Fifteenth Street. Stenmark died only a year later in 1915 while on board the steamer, City of Topeka, traveling up the coast from San Francisco.

East Brother light station benefited from numerous improvements during the two decades Stenmark served as keeper. The lighthouse and fog signal gained renewed importance following construction of the Standard Oil refinery in Richmond in 1901. Docks for tankers were built along the San Pablo shoreline only a few hundred yards from the station. In 1909 the California Wine Association also established its huge aging and bottling plant just south of Point San Pablo. The plant had a storage capacity of 12 million gallons and a 1,800-foot wharf where grapes were unloaded and barrels of wine shipped out. With these and other developments, the town of Richmond ballooned in population from 200 in 1901 to 23,000 by 1917.

One of the first improvements to East Brother during this era was erection of a 25,000-gallon freshwater storage tank in April, 1896. Later, two more tanks were built: a 20,000-gallon tank in 1903 and an 8,000-gallon tank in 1910. Using the steam engine from the fog signal, and an array of pipes, Stenmark could pump water from the cistern up into the tanks or vice versa. This was particularly helpful in September when he had to drain the cistern for annual cleaning.

Rainwater was not only collected from the concrete rainshed in the middle of the island, but also from the roofs of all the buildings. The system was (and is) extremely effective, capturing 5,000 gallons from a single inch of rain. Coming from the sky, the water should have been pure and clean. At that time, however, the roofs of the buildings at East Brother and other light stations were painted with red lead paint. This prompted the Lighthouse Board to include the following caution in its Instructions to Light-Keepers:

Water contaminated with chloride of lead does not lose its poisonous qualities either by boiling or by exposure to the air.

To purify this water, and render it perfectly fit for all culinary and domestic purposes, it will only be necessary to put some powdered chalk or whiting into each cistern in which such rain water is collected, and to stir it up well, occasionally, after rain has fallen.

In July of 1903 a new wharf was built since the existing wharf had again become unstable. Instead of tearing down the wharf on the island's north side, it was simply abandoned and a new wharf was built on the east side of the island where the landing is located today. The new wharf included a derrick, boathouse, two staircases down to the water, and a tramway up to the island. This location enabled use of a steam-powered winch in the fog signal building to haul up shipments of coal and other supplies from the dock.

The new winch was soon put to good use. In February and March, 1906, workmen built a new concrete rainshed to replace the one laid in 1882. It was a huge task. Tons and tons of sand, gravel, and cement had to be hauled to the island by ship, unloaded onto the wharf, and winched up the tramway on a small railcar. The rainshed took a month to complete, but when it was finished Stenmark concluded it was the "best cement job ever laid."

Less than a month later the new concrete work and all the island structures were tested by the most infamous earthquake in California history. On April 18 John Stenmark wrote in the journal: "A heavy earthquake this morning at 5:15 A.M. Lenses of the light broken and glassware broke and everything of glass broke. Doors open of themselves and the whole island rocking. All the lenses broke." There were no reports of significant structural damage to the station but extensive repairs had to be made to the Fresnel lens. Over the next two days the Stenmarks gazed across the bay as fire consumed San Francisco. During the day billows of black smoke rose from the southern sky. At night the sky turned orange as the flames devoured block after block. "S.F. burning fearfully at 9 P.M.," Stenmark wrote on the evening of April 19. The following night he and the others on the island could see the fire move toward Black Point.

A little over a year later the station was again shaken, this time by a ship. At half past two o'clock on the morning of June 13, 1907, the steamer A. C. Freese approached the quarter-mile-wide channel east of the lighthouse. It came from the north, towing another steamer, the Leader, and two barges. As the A. C. Freese steamed through the channel the Leader was caught by the currents, drifted toward the island, and struck the wharf. The steamer knocked the entire wharf askew, snapping piles, and knocking the boathouse off its foundation. On impact the two five-inch tow ropes snapped like pieces of string. Stenmark, hearing the collision, raced down to the wharf and boarded the vessel. The only crewman on board admitted that he and the man on one of the barges had been asleep when the boat struck. The frustrated keeper was unable to find out the man's name, but recorded the names of the boats. They were owned by the California Navigation and Improvement Company of San Francisco which was eventually held responsible. In July the Thompson Bridge Company was hired to build a new wharf at a cost of $1,600.


East Brother Lightstation stenmark-wreck Damage to wharf after being struck by the steamer Leader. (U.S. Coast Guard)

At the time of the Leader collision several more improvements were being made on the island. To reduce the danger of fire, a small oilhouse was built to store kerosene. It was constructed of concrete and located just east of the storage building. A new walkway was also constructed to the signal building.

Late the following year the lighthouse was extensively remodeled. A crew of workmen spent three months painting, plastering, fixing gutters, replacing part of the foundation, and raising the roof of the room over the kitchen. The inside stairway was removed to create an additional room for the assistant keeper, and the outside stairway was relocated to the front of the lighthouse.

Ever since the lighthouse first cast its rays upon San Francisco and San Pablo bays, the light had come from oil wick lamps, first burning lard oil and then kerosene. In June, 1912, the wick lamp at East Brother was replaced by an incandescent oil vapor lamp (abbreviated I.O.V.). This lamp was also fueled by kerosene, but the kerosene was forced under pressure into a vapor chamber. There it vaporized and passed upward to the mantle where it was ignited, burning as a brilliant ball of glowing gas. It worked much like the Coleman lamps used today by campers.

An I.O.V. lamp was first introduced at a lighthouse in France in 1898. The first installation at a U.S. Lighthouse was in New Jersey in 1904. Proving to be much more powerful than wick lamps, this type of lamp was soon installed at most of the important United States lighthouses. By 1912 East Brother was one of twenty-seven lighthouses in California utilizing the new device.

When the new lamp was installed the characteristic of the light was changed from fixed to occulting so that it would less likely be confused with lights on shore. The light was termed occulting rather than flashing because the period of light was longer than the period of dark-in this case, light, 7_ seconds; dark, 2_ seconds. To produce the new characteristic yet avoid the high cost of new lens, lighthouse engineers cleverly modified the old lens by replacing one of its four lens panels with an opaque screen and remounting the lens so that it would rotate on its axis. A clockwork mechanism similar to that used earlier in the station's history powered the lens, rotating it once every ten seconds. The screen blocked out the light for a quarter of the ten-second rotation.

The new lamp and lens combination produced a light rated at 2,900 candlepower as compared to only 520 candlepower before. Another benefit of the I.O.V. lamp was that it used less fuel. The only disadvantage was that it was often temperamental. After the lamp was installed, it took Keeper Stenmark several days to get it to function properly. After that it still seemed that some part of the apparatus had to be fixed nearly once a week.

East Brother Lightstation stenmark-mrs Mrs. Stenmark poses beside bell which was struck by hand every fifteen seconds until
there was sufficient steam pressure to run the fog whistle. This could take forty-five minutes.
In 1907 this chore was eliminated when a mechanical striking apparatus was installed.
(Stenmark collection, Richmond City Museum)

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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