In 1870, preparations began to establish a lighthouse to aid
vessels navigating the passage between San Francisco Bay and
the San Pablo Bay. Just north of Point San Pablo are a pair
of small islands known as The Brothers. (Two islands on the
north side of the strait are referred to as The Sisters.)
The Lighthouse Board had originally planned to build a
lighthouse at Point San Pablo, but the existing landowners
contested the Lighthouse Board's claim. To expedite
construction, East Brother Island was leveled, and the
lighthouse built there instead. The station was first lit in
1874. The Victorian structure housed a fourth-order Fresnel
lens in a 37 foot tower. A steam whistle, water cistern, oil
house, water house, coal house, and small dock were also
Travelling to and from East Brother to the nearby mainland
could be difficult. In 1882, the station boat carrying
Assistant Keeper Joseph Page capsized. Page was rescued,
but as Head Keeper Charles Winsor reported, "Oars, rudder,
mail and all of the marketing consisting of mutton, cabbages,
peas, etc. etc. lost, also, milk and can." (Nelson, pp.
130) A similar accident befell Assistant Keeper Earl
Snodgrass many year later. Like Page, Snodgrass survived,
but the groceries were lost.
The station was often buffeted by heavy weather. In the
first year of operation, storms damaged the wharf, tramway to
the fog signal, the fences, and the coal house foundation.
Chickens which the families kept had to be well fenced in, or
they would be blown away!
Several wrecks occurred in the vicinity of East Brother over
the years. In 1907, the steamer Leader, under tow,
hit the wharf of East Brother Light. The crew of the
Leader admitted to Keeper Charles Stenmark that they
were asleep while in tow. In 1918, in heavy fog, the
commuter ferry General Frisbie rammed the ferry
Sehome. No lives were lost, and the two ships were held
together and towed to shallower waters. While in tow, a tug
emerged from the fog and struck the ferries. The
Sehome sank immediately. Fortunately, all passengers
had transferred to the General Frisbie, and no lives
were lost. (Shanks, pp. 191-193) In 1953, a tugboat hit
the island. The operators claimed the fog horn was not
operating, but Coast Guard recording devices showed the
signal was operating. The tug had apparently hit a "dead
spot" in which the fog signal was inaudible. (Shanks, p.
Over time, the mainland became more accessible to the
lighthouse. A live-in teacher was no longer needed when a
road was built from Richmond to Point San Pablo. In the
1930's a cable was laid across the channel from Richmond to
allow telephone service to the island. Unfortunately, this
cable was sometimes cut by vessels dragging anchor. After
the Coast Guard took possession of the lighthouse, the
station was equipped with wireless radio and a power boat.
Water was brought out by the Navy, so the keepers did not
need to rely on water from the cistern, which was often
difficult to keep clean.
Jack Lewis, nephew of Assistant Keeper Snodgrass, wrote that he
was often given the assignment of cleaning the cistern.
"Sea gulls were always a problem."
The cistern had another resident - a frog. "He was an albino,
snow white and had no eyes. He lived there for at least
five years...Not Calaveras caliber, but a good-sized frog."
(Perry, pp. 77-78)
In 1969, the station was automated and unmanned. The Coast
Guard had intended to tear down the structure and replace it
with an automatic light. However, local protests rescued the
lighthouse. In the early 1970's, several groups including the
Contra Costa Shoreline Parks Committee
worked together to save the lighthouse.
The station was entered into the National Register of Historic
Places on February 12, 1971. This served not only to recognize
the historical importance of the station, but also kept the
station from potential demolition. Several agencies expressed
an interest in managing the station, but none could afford to
In 1979, East Brother Light Station, Inc. was formed and
leased the station from the Coast Guard for use as a bed and
breakfast. From 1979-1980 over 300 volunteers worked
restored the lighthouse to its original appearance.
The first guests arrived in November 1980. Today, the lighthouse
remains a bed and breakfast, with the proceeds going to preserve
One of the key contributors in preserving East Brother
(as well as the lightship WLV 605)
is Walter Fanning - grandson of Keeper John Kofod.
Today, a life preserver and guest room at the station
bear his name.
East Brother - History of an Island Light Station, Perry pp. 77-78, 86-91
Guardians of the Golden Gate, Shanks pp. 183-199
Umbrella Guide to California Lighthouses (2nd ed.), Nelson pp. 128-132
The Keeper's Log Winter 2004, Fall 2004, Winter 2005