A Stay at a Light Station

February 10-11, 2019

Dear Family, Friends, and Diary,

A lighthouse, a real lighthouse. This is a long diary of our short stay at the East Brother Light Station. The story is long because I could not stop taking pictures, more than 500 by the end of our 20-hour visit. In between pictures, I will try to tell a story too.mapFAT_SFO wetRoad

We had planned on this excursion for a couple of months and as February 10th approached, we paid more attention to weather, rainy, winter weather. Not good for driving but very bad for the prospect of outdoor photos. As our weekend approached, we prayed for a break.

Leaving Fresno, rain, that was road-closing snow at higher elevations, slowed us a bit but soon the rain stopped and we were greeted with green hills and snow-covered mountains. These are NOT the high Sierras, but rather the low-lying coastal mountains. We had never seen snow here.

coastla PAN


Our plan included a stop in Emeryville. Our first stop was at a giant standard shopping center, not the funky stores we remembered from 25 years ago! Not worth any pictures.

After that, we found San Pablo Ave and the funk we sought. Short of time, we managed only a wander through Omega Salvage (architectural junk) and a genuine German lunch at "Gaumenkitzel". The food was as authentic as we had hoped. We WILL be back.

From Emeryville, we drove north, through Richmond, on a tour of old East Bay industrial sites. Some day this will all be shiny office buildings, I suppose, but for now it is refreshingly rough. We followed signs (and GPS) toward the San Rafael Bridge and turned right at the very last exit before the toll plaza and headed off the beaten path.

Off on our left, we could see our goal: East Brother Light Station (EBLS). From the twisty road, it looked swim-able, except for the traditional cold bay water and fast currents. This rock would be our home for a day.

Lighthouse keepers Jillian and Che Met us at San Pablo boat harbor in their sturdy aluminum skiff, the only transportation over to the light station. On the way out, we joined guests Grace and Nick for the five-minute trip. Thanks to Captain Rodgers (aka: Che) the trip was uneventful. We got off and the boat went back for the six remaining guests.

The East Brothers Light Station was built in the 1880s as an aid to navigation, specifically as a guide into the channel leading through shallow San Pedro Bay and up into the Sacramento River. It is one of the few wooden lighthouses left. Classic circular stone light towers are sturdier and have more frequently stayed standing. EBLS was manned up through about 1942, but after conversion to an electric light and compressed-air horn, the functions could run unattended. For the next twenty years or so, the buildings fell into disrepair and were slated for demolition when the idea arose to charge over night guests to provide funding for reconstruction and maintenance. Thus the EBLS B and B was started.

Today EBLS offers dinner, accommodation, and breakfast four days a week. Two full-time keepers run it all: hospitality, food, cleaning, maintenance (regular and emergency) and daily sounding the old air horn. There are eight guest rooms, a lounge, a game room, a dining room, and, of course, a light tower. And a few bathrooms. Fewer showers (due to water restrictions. All water is rainwater.)

WBtanker ferrytanker Once we had landed and been shown our room, I could not wait to wander around with cameras. Some subjects were predictable. The blue and white ferry boats passed between the island and shore every quarter hour or so. About every hour, large tankers would run in the deep channel on the other side of Brothers Islands.

There were also closer shots: a thistle-like flower or just the white picket fence.

On the far shore, a tumble-down red warehouse glowed in the sunset. These were reportedly molasses storage, or perhaps bootleg whiskey when that was a business?


Part of what makes islands interesting to visit are the birds. While East Brother Island has the light station and SOME birds, West Brother is covered in them. Most abundant, and noisy, are the white gulls. They are everywhere. Jillian and Che claim that two years of residence is more than enough time to learn what they are saying as they squawk incessantly. Maybe. Scattered among the gulls are the black cormorants (I think).

foghorn SanQuintonMany of my pictures were taken facing west, over or past the much-smaller West Brother Island, as far off as the San Quentin prison two miles away. The modern fog-horn is mounted just below the fence on this western side of East Brother. (We will later compare horn technology when we show the process for tooting the old, compressed-air horn.) Of course sunset and night allow the most drama for photography.

LittleBro Sunset blueGlow night

Of course I spent most of my "film" shooting south, toward Oakland, San Francisco, and the two bridges. The San Rafael Bridge is the closest, but the Oakland Bay Bridge was also visible, particularly after dark when its distinctive lighting can be seen.

city tanker ferry
Ebay port nightCity sky streak bridges

Clearly, I HAD to practice my panorama technique.


There are many parts of a EBLS stay that are special, but the most important is the treatment received from the "keepers". First, of course, was safely ferrying us on to the island. Thanks, Che. Next, at a proper 5:00 pm, came champagne and hors d'oeuvres in the lounge. It was a wonderful time to meet the rest of the island captives. At 6:30, a four-course dinner was served downstairs, with enough wine to get everyone talking like old chums who had not seen one another in months. We would all be back here at 9:00 am for breakfast. Jillian and Che noted that it was the kitchen that kept them most busy, with each doing a full share. Their skills as chefs showed in the food and presentation.

The next morning started early, for pictures, but on a more relaxed schedule for most guests. Cameras were clicking at 6:00, coffee was available at 7:00, and breakfast was served at 9:00. The food continued to meet the high standard set by dinner and the conversation was old-friend pleasant. There seemed to be some sort of spell cast by being "trapped" on an island that makes a small group get along. In today's atmosphere, it's a hopeful sign.

ringexplainProperly fed, we had our last all-hands event: the sounding of the old fog horn and bell over at the Walter Fanning building. Keeper Che provided the history lesson of the facilities. Originally, the building held a coal-fired steam boiler, fed with rain water from the cistern. When fog arrived, after a 30-minute startup process, the steam would be released to train-whistle type horns, one blast every 15 seconds.

dualengineadjustingIn the early 20th Century, the steam complex was replaced with compressed air horns, charged by a pair of compressors run by diesel engines. The oldest engine had a small gasoline engine to crank the larger diesel and this was the engine pair Che used for the demonstration. The process of starting the little engine, then the big one, connecting the compressor, and then building up to 30 psi in the large air receivers took about five to seven minutes, not instant but better than the old steam days.
Once the air was available, Che switched on the old clockwork controls and gave us three earth-shaking blasts. That was the reason for the ear protection.
For the last step of our lighthouse operation tour, Jillian took over and explained the massive fog bell out behind the compressor building. This bell dates from the early steam days and would be used during the half-hour period it took for the steam pressure to rise. One of the keeper's family would be charged with hitting the bell with a hammer, precisely every 15 seconds. It still serves as a sort of backup, but the ringer is electric powered.

Lesson over, all the guests headed back to pack up for the return boat trip, but not before a session of photos.

Marianne and I joined Nick and Grace in Che's first drive to shore. We wished the couple well on their upcoming wedding (in Italy!) And I promised to get Che in touch with brother Tom for introduction to the East Bay mandolin scene.

Marianne NickGrace

And that's the end of this part of our four-day trip. From Richmond, we headed north, to Ukiah. But that's another story, John and Marianne