Tuesday, April 15, 2014

East Brother Light Station


 
Sitting in San Francisco Bay, at the junction with San Pablo Bay, is tiny  East Brother Island.  And atop that small island, like a fancy cake decoration, is a Victorian era lighthouse. Built in 1873-74 the light aided navigators through the narrow straits and helped keep them off shallow waters, often as little as 2 feet, which mark this area.   This busy shipping channel sees pleasure craft, the passenger ferry to and from Vallejo,  barges, and  huge container ships headed to the inland ports of Sacramento and Stockton and it has done so since the early years of the California Gold Rush.   The light, built just after the Civil War, recognized the ongoing significance of this waterway and the importance it played to shipping.





Our view approaching the island by small boat.  Enlarge the photo and see a mother harbor seal and her young pup on the shoreline, just left of center.



Obviously in 1873 there was no electricity.  The light was lit by an oil lamp inside a Fresnel lens.  Fresnel lenses, developed in France, and used throughout the world, were designed on a system of prisms which magnified the light of the flame so that the beam extended well out to sea, or in this case, well out into the bay.   This one didn't need more distance than a couple of miles and the Fresnel lens was quite small.  When I was a volunteer at the Heceta Lighthouse in Oregon, the Fresnel lens was hug and its light extended 21 miles to sea.

A lightkeeper had to keep the flame going at all times.   To help makes sure he stayed awake, the mechanism that operated a shield which rotated around the light, required rewinding every two hours.   The shield was important.  Each light house had its own unique pattern.   Mariners could check their charts.  If the light flashed every 4 seconds, as it does at East Brothers, they would know that was where they were.   At Heceta, the long and short flashes distinguished  it from other lighthouses along the Oregon Coast.  And that was important as ships, in heavy storms, could be tossed and become totally disoriented.   Once they spotted a light flashing, they could check their charts and know where they were, and of course, most immediately, would have warning to stay off the rocks and promontories close by. 


This is not the original Fresnel lens from East Brothers.  But it
is one of the same size and design. Today it sits inside the
fog horn building
 
Today, LED lights are used
 
The lighthouse was once the residence of two families.  One upstairs, one downstairs with a shared kitchen and eating area within the kitchen. Each level had only one bedroom, making for a very communal situation as the families included wives and many children. However, sitting rooms added to the space.  A school teacher lived on the island.

One of the issues of living on a small, rocky island is water.  And in the case of the light station, water was necessary not only for the people living there, but to run the compressor which set off the fog horns.   To ensure a water supply, the center of the island contains a large cistern.   In order to build the light station, the top of the island was blasted off, leveled, with a hole in the middle.  Then a cistern, brick lined, was built.  I know there was a brickworks in Pt. Richmond but I don't know if it was operating at that point in time.  There were also brickyards across the straits in Marin County.   Above the cistern was a catch basin, a large cement patio sloped towards the cistern to catch the rainfall.   Atop the cistern sits a  a dome-like cover.  In addition to the cistern, there is a large water tank.  Today, ultra violet tubes are used to purify the water.   Even with the catch basin and tank, water is a scarce resource and linens are taken to the mainland for laundering.  Guests, unless they stay more than one night, don't shower.  In fact, the bathrooms have washcloths but no bath towels.   But with an afternoon arrival and late morning departure, this is not an issue.
The fog horn building and maintenance shop is the building on the right.
You can see the large water tower between the fog horn building and the hosts' quarters.  The large cement area
is the catch basin for rainwater and the dome covers access to the cistern.  In the background is a bit of Pt. Molate, a section of Richmond just over the hill from the large Chevron refinery.

The lighthouse also has a fog horn.   It operates from November to April and had just been turned off a few days before our arrival.  The coast guard still maintains the light and horn although both are automated and need only periodic attention.    But Capt. Richard, our host, blasted the horn for us.  He fired up the older, back up system of gas engine which starts the diesel engine, which fires up the compressor to create the steam pressure to fire the fog horn.  And even that system has a back up, with another engine. We got to see why there were backups to backups since his attempt to start one of the engines was not successful.  The diesel and electric motors there date from the 1930' and 1950s.  In the early days, coal  fired the steam boilers providing the power to activate the horns.

The Coast Guard, taking over from the Lighthouse Service, operated the station until 1969.  With automation, only occasional servicing was required.  There was no longer a need for housing on the island.  There was talk of tearing the beautiful buildings down, but local people protested. 

Instead, the  beautiful old lighthouse was boarded up.  Seals still gave birth to their pups here.  This island and neighboring West Brothers, an even smaller and lower island, and the waters surrounding them continued to be home to harbor seals, brown pelicans, cormorants, grebes, Canada geese, mallards,  seagulls, oyster catchers and others. 
Harbor seals on West Brother Island, as seen from East Brothers

In 1971 the light station was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.  In 1979, East Brother Light Station, Inc, a non-profit organization dedicated to restoring the light station, was formed by a group of dedicated people.  Through a federal grant, private donations,  and a lot of elbow grease, they prevailed.   I was fortunate to be in attendance at an awards program by the Richmond Recreation and Parks Department, for whom I then worked, honoring Walter Fannon and members of the East Brothers Light Station Inc., for their work.  I also got to visit the lighthouse during the restoration period on a special tour of the Richmond coastline as part of my participation in the planning of the city's new marina development.

The buildings were refurbished and repainted.  The outbuildings were  restored. Today, to help the non-profit group continue to maintain the facility, it is operated as a Bed & Breakfast.  Well, more accurately as a B & B Plus since it includes  arrival hor d'oeuvres with champagne, a superb  multi-course dinner, and a full breakfast.  Lodgings  are in beautifully refurbished rooms.

For Chris's birthday I surprised him with a night at the light station. Since April 11 fell on a Friday,  I picked him up early from work. He knew I had picked a special location to celebrate his birthday and we would be staying overnight.  He just had no idea where.  Last year, he knew we were going to the Nevada Northern Railway in Ely, NV although I did surprise him with lodgings in the bunkhouse, rather than some standard motel, and a morning ride in the engine.(see blog entry from April 2013).  This year's location I kept secret until almost the last minute.   As we started the approach to the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, he figured we were headed somewhere in Marin or Sonoma Counties.  That is, until I made the very last exit before the toll plaza. Then he knew.   We wound around on a narrow, well pitted road to the marina where the Captain met us in a small boat.  Two other couples were with us for the trip, both celebrating wedding anniversaries.  One couple, from Denver, were here for a long weekend and included this as part of the experience.  It is so close to San Francisco, yet a century away in ambiance. 

Our Captain, tour guide on the island, and server at meals was Richard Foregger.  Jude Haukom provided the great repasts, a look at the kitchen, and casual conversation.  They operate the B & B four nights a week,  and do all the shopping and laundry when they return to the mainland and their live aboard boat harbored in Berkeley. 
 



Mother harbor seal with her pup.  They were swimming right below the light station




Cormorants, brown pelicans and sea gulls on West Brother Island, a small
rock visible from our window


A view of our bedroom
another view of our bedroom, with view of tree and Mt. Tam across the Bay.
Dusk on the island


The Victorian era lightkeepers' house with light
at the top is covered in gingerbread woodwork.

With the light flash caught in the photo, the light station marks the
channel taking ships between San Francisco and San Pablo Bays.  The
lights along the distant horizon are the Bay Bridge on the left.  From here
you can see the City skyline and parts of Marin County to the north.
City lights were far enough to see some stars.


California poppies were blooming. The hosts have a
small garden with herbs, rhubarb and some fog hearty
vegetables.



Chris looks out from the light room.  Guests are welcome to go
up in to the tower at any time.   We were given a tour, but also welcome
to explore on our own.




A Fresnel lens similar to the one which once
lit this lighthouse, sits inside the fog horn and
maintenance building.  The water tower and hosts'
lodgings are reflected in the window.

Starting up the engines for the compressor that operates the
fog horn

View of the island and light station, San Rafael-Richmond
Bridge and Marin County in the background.  Photo taken
as we were leaving the island for the approximately 10 minute ride
back to the marina.


With the weekend at the Nevada Northern Railway (look back through the blog postings to April of last year) and the lighthouse this year, I have set high standards for a special birthday experience.  But I already have an idea or two for next year.  There are all kinds of special places out there.

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