Monday, August 25, 2008

East Brother Light Station

I suppose you have heard of Bay area back roads, its a TV program about the back roads in California. They would take you to obscure places located here in the Bay area,This trip was definitely based on one of those back roads. Our destination for pick up, was Point San Pablo Yacht Harbor near Point Molate, in Richmond a real obscure location. Once you turn off the main highway for Point Molate the adventure begins.

Our turn off was just before the San Rafael bridge, the weather was a bit overcast, but the fog was burning off. Eddie was driving, Jamie, Catherine and Jennifer where in the back of Barbara's SUV. Eddie and his family had spent the night at my house in Castro Valley as our trip was going to be one on the East Bay and we wanted to save some time. The morning sky had started out dull and grey, I wondered what it would be like at the Island, would it be windy and foggy, or would we see a clear blue sky and get to enjoy Gods beauty. Normally if Castro Valley is entrenched in fog, the bay is layered heavily in fog.

Everyone on the trip was excited that we where going to an isolated island, we had been to Island lighthouse before, it was Alcatraz, but it was too tourist and overcrowded with people, we also had the hassle of the city and no real scenery there and back. We had loaded up with coffee, fruit, soft drinks, and sandwiches bought at PW's local supermarket in Castro Valley. It was a healthy diet, no junk. No cookies, or potato chips. We are all watching what we eat these days.

It was a nice drive on 580, and quite scenic once we took Point Molate exit. You could see the Naval Supply yard, the San Rafael bridge and some military or navy houses, and ships now abandoned from the past. They had outlived their usefulness. Still unsure of where we where going we trusted the nav system as it led us around a few twists and turns on back country roads. Our instructions from the Internet was to follow posted signs to the harbor, but we where not seeing any signs in our path. We met a few guys on their way to the gunnery range and also looking for a baseball game. They could not help us. Not too many others where travelling this barren road.

We turned up a very narrow road, it led up a steep hill, at the top we had a wonderful view of the bay and we also got our first view of the harbor and the island. The harbor was hidden away in a small cove. Like a lost island, so close to the city and yet so isolated. We continued our descent on this potholed road. Some remnants of industrial pollution remained scattered around us. Huge rusted cisterns loomed atop of these hills. Nature was slowly claiming these eyesores back into her domain. We drove down the hill and the harbor came into full view, it was like something from Gilligan's Island. I mean you had to be there to believe, abandoned vehicles, trucks, tractors, buildings etc. I went into this so called clubhouse and saw one person sitting at the bar drinking. It was like something out of a Humphrey Bogart movie. I enquired about the boat to island and the barkeep said the skipper would find us and gave me a general direction to go in.

We met the the skipper of the boat who was to bring us to the Island, quite pleasant fellow and he did appear to the kind who belongs to urban life. We got aboard his boat, which was small and it was a quick 10 min's to the island. We skipped quickly over the surface of the water. It was refreshing as the spray hit us in the face. We had this lady sitting at the back of the boat with her dog. The would remind of a husky. As the island appeared in view it was very beautiful

We Docked at the harbor of the light station and climbed a ladder up to jetty that brought us on to the Island. This adventure was to be one of our favorites, we had the entire day until departure to roam anywhere on the Island. Only about 12-14 people where scattered about. We had ample amount of time to wander in and out of the building that was home to the lighthouse tower. Climb to the Turret that housed the current lens. We could appreciated the restoration efforts on the stairs, balcony, rooms, and building, how they where brought back to their Victorian style. Some people played horseshoe. We even got a good look and saw how the fog horn system works. The fog signal building had been restored with several systems from the past. Each of the systems where functional and well maintained by the volunteers. The Keepers building now a fully functional lighthouse bed and breakfast, holds around 10 people. It was a pleasure to take in the surrounding scenery and breathtaking views of San Pablo Bay. We had great views of San Francisco city, the Bay, and San Rafael bridge, boats, ships and yachts on the bay.This lighthouse is on my cards for a return visit.


Now for a bit of history behind this light station. 1870's preparation where made to build a lighthouse in San Pablo bay straits. A sum of $20,000 was set aside by congress. East Brother Island was not the first choice for the location of the lighthouse. The original lighthouse was meant for Point San Pablo, but the Landowners tried to milk the government for more money, the courts had decided $4000 was a fair price for 12.8 acres. After a series of debates, arguments, court actions, petitions by sea captions for the lighthouse. The Government found that it had already acquired land on East Brother Island for military purposes, and appeled to the secretary of war at the time. He agreed with a provision that the Island would revert back to the military for fottifications whenever it required it fro that purpose.

The Island sits on the North End of San Francisco Bay on the entrance to San Pablo Bay. It was during the Gold rush period and commercial traffic was making its way up the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, which where major links to the Sierra for supplies. The Straits became a Major supply route for passengers, mail and freight. Later the railroads was to take most business from this main route to the North. In 1854 the Navy built Mare Island a home to 700 ships. By 1870 the need for lighthouses was recognised. San Pablo strait, Yerba Buena Island and Mare Island. Buoys had been used to warn ships of hazards, but ships masters needed some better guidance during fog, night and storms.

Mar 1871, $20,000 was appropriated for construction of the lighthouse. A court case ensued because in San Pablo Strait land owners wanted more money than the government was willing to pay. The courts had decisded that $4000 was a fair price for the 12.8 acres in Point San Pablo, but the landowners apped the decsion. What looked to the mariners, that this was going to be a long drawn out case, and their need was dire. In 1873 a number of sea boat captains who growing weary from the process presented a petition to lighthouse inspector in San Francisco urging the lighthouse be built on East Brother Island since the government already owned the island. This petition was taken up by the Lighthouse board and they accepted it as it avoided legal issues of a long drawn out case. They had to get permission from the War Secretary as the Island was reserved for the military purposes. The Secretary of war granted fifty year lease, under the condition that it would have to give it up if the military needed it for fortifications.

January 1873, Lighthouse Engineer Molera landed on the Island to draw up plans. He saw that the supply of water would be a problem. So he he came up with the idea of having a large cistern to capture rain water and to use compressed air to operate the fog horn instead of steam. His plan was not implemented for the compressed air. Even though it would have meant that things would have been safer and less maintenance required. July the construction was started, the top of the Island was blasted to make way for plans to build the light station. The plans included a two story redwood Victorian Eastlake building, it was attached to a three story tower which contained the fourth order fresnal lens. The building faced east towards the rest of the island. In front of the buildingwas a concrte rain catchment building. Its architecture was in tune with the local building of the time. It wide overhangs,porches and sawn bannister's reminded one of a house on a seaside shore. It was also similar to many of the lighthouses built in the 1870's, Point Fermin is such a one. The Victorian building housed a 48ft tower which had a revoving fourth order Fresnal lens. It was to house 3 keepers with 2 families. The lighthouse was built of wood and bricks. The bricks was used to dampen the noise of the foghorn and protect against the elements of nature. In addition a wharf, cistern, boathouse and a outhouse was built. Mar 1st 1874 the lighthouse was first lit. Its brilliant beam lit its way across San Pablo Bay. May 1st before the foghorn had enough water to go into operation and their was misgivings not using Moleras design.

As integral part of the lighthouse is its keepers, an unusual breed of person. Until automation of the lighthouse they where essential to its running. They had to attend to lamps, fog signals, and other miscellaneous duties, day and night, you could say 7 24, all year long. They had to trim wicks, haul fuel,and keep reflectors clean. They lived in isolated and very difficult conditions. John Stenmark was such a keeper and one of the longest keepers on the Island, he served on the island with his family for 20 years. He had row to the mainland for a doctor to deliver his wife's babies. His family had a live in teacher for the children. At least twice a week he had to row to 2 miles to get the shopping and mail. The family had to like the Island they stayed for 20 years. They raised goats, pigs and chickens and had a vegetable garden. Annie who as a young single woman

1930's a cable was laid in for telephone service. After WWII the coast guard replaced the keepers with their own employees. They continued with their duties of maintenance operating the light, cleaning lens, operating the foghorn and checking the backup system, By 1946 the rain shed disappeared, much of the remodeling robbed the light station of its Victorian charm. 1960's saw budget problems, lighthouse cost had risen dramatically and automation was to replace much of the lighthouse maintenance. 1967 the lighthouse was doomed to demolition, it was to be replaced by a low maintenance concrete block structure. 1968 the Contra Costa Shoreline Parks committee stepped in to save the quaint pristine century old Victorian lighthouse.1969 the Coast Guard put the lighthouse under automated control but left the original lighthouse standing. 1970 the building was registered with the National Register of Historic Places. 1979 after a decade of neglect with decay and weeds taking over, a group of Richmond residents dedicated itself to restoring the lighthouse and making it accessible to the residents. In order to maintain the lighthouse they raised money through grants, donations and turned the lighthouse into a bed and breakfast, they called themselves "East Brother Lighthouse,Inc". In all over 300 people gave their time in restoration and bringing the lighthouse back from the brink of destruction.

Though lighthouse has echoes of the past, today it sits in the present and with the aid of volunteers it will have a future in tomorrow. Its a constant battle with the elements, and yet as you sit on the benches away from the rushing world you are transported in time to another era.

East Brother "History of an Island Light Station"

Western Lighthouses

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