“I can think of no other edifice constructed by man as altruistic as a lighthouse. They were built only to serve.”
~George Bernard Shaw
The narrow road to Point San Pablo Harbor winds its way through a small forest of gnarled trees, the fallen brown leaves of late October scattered along the drive. We pass a neighborhood of abandoned houses with boarded up windows, rusted mailboxes and rotted wooden staircases lined up like ghosts of a place that time has forgotten. As the road spills into the harbor’s parking lot, there are goats in a fenced-in farmyard and larger-than-life sculptures of a feathery-haired bug, a prowling dinosaur and a gigantic gramophone decorating the landscape.
We had only exited the highway some mere moments earlier, but it seemed as if we had landed in another world.
Herb and I were traveling to East Brother Light Station, an 1873 Victorian dinner-bed-and-breakfast inn on a one-acre island nestled between San Francisco Bay and San Pablo Bay. We would be picked up by boat from Point San Pablo Harbor for an overnight adventure of spending the night in a lighthouse. Before we left home, my friend Jennifer texted that a lighthouse sounded fun, “but maybe a little scary for Halloween time.” After our drive to get here, I was beginning to think she might know something that I didn’t.
East Brother Light Station is currently run by Bryan and Stephanie Wesolek, who are on their second tour of lighthouse keeping duties and will be moving back to their sailboat in the spring. Both are desk-job early retirees – Bryan was a chemist and Stephanie a paralegal – who followed their dream of living full-time on their boat. Every so often they look for an interesting land job, and after serving as keepers at East Brother, they were called back after the pandemic to reopen the lighthouse.
Bryan and Stephanie greet us at the dock for the short ride to the East Brother. They’re warm and friendly and make us feel instantly at ease. Bryan exudes a laid-back vibe, and Stephanie brims with enthusiasm and a big smile. We reach the lighthouse landing, where the boat bobs in the water as we hand Stephanie our backpacks, climb the boat’s ladder and head up a ramp to our home for the night.
The term light station refers to all buildings on the property, including the lighthouse. East Brother features four lighthouse guest rooms – two on the second floor with en suite bathrooms and two with a shared bath on the first floor – all decorated in the Victorian style. A guest room in the separate Fog Signal Building rounds out the light station’s ten-guest capacity. Because water is a precious resource on the island, a shower is available only for guests who stay more than one night.
Dinner and breakfast are served at a rectangular ten-person table in the first-floor dining room, its walls painted a cheerful shade of yellow and the table set with red linens. Stephanie creates the constantly changing menus, which are listed on a board in the dining room, and prepares a four-course dinner and full breakfast served at set times. Late in the afternoon, Bryan invites everyone for champagne cocktails, wine and hors d’oeuvres on the patio.
Views from the Tower
Before dinner, Herb and I climb the winding staircase that leads from the second floor sitting room to the lighthouse tower. The LED light sits in a windowed room, continually flashing a signal. We squeeze through a small door no more than three feet high and reach the walkway surrounding the light. The day’s clouds have been moving out, offering beautiful views of San Francisco, the hills of Marin County and the uninhabited islands dotting the bays.
Sunrise, A Little History and the Foghorn
It’s still dark outside when Herb and I head to the dining room the next morning for coffee and tea. The lighthouse is quiet as we make our way to the tower to watch the sunrise. The air is surprisingly still and warm, and the only sounds surrounding us are from seabirds soaring to and from a large boulder in the bay.
After breakfast, Brian holds court on the patio, regaling us with lighthouse stories and history before his eagerly awaited foghorn demonstration. East Brother, he tells us, was manned by keepers and their families from 1874 until 1939, when the Coast Guard took over keeping duties. The early keepers’ job was to make sure the light’s wick stayed lit throughout the night; years later, they were charged with maintaining the light’s Fresnel lens and the foghorns.
In 1969, East Brother became automated with a modern beacon and an electric fog signal that required little maintenance. Keepers were no longer needed, and the light station buildings stood vacant. The Coast Guard planned to demolish the buildings, but the following year a committee was formed to save the lighthouse and gain its placement on the National Register of Historic Places. A non-profit corporation was formed in 1979 to preserve and restore East Brother and make it available for public use.
We walk across the patio to the Fog Signal Building, where two foghorns known as diaphones are perched on the rooftop. Brian takes us inside for a demonstration, where he starts one of the diesel engines by pulling a cord, similar to starting a lawn mower. Once started, the diesel engine powers an enormous air compressor. It takes a few minutes for the system to work its magic.
Before we head outside, Bryan hands each of us safety headphones to protect our ears from the loud blast. “Fair warning…it is very loud!” he tells us. These foghorns were run only during foggy weather; today the Coast Guard turns on an automatic foghorn that typically runs from October to April.
I took this video of the process, from turning on the diesel engine to the blast of the foghorn. The sound reminded me of a ship’s horn during foggy weather, although being this close made it a much louder experience. I literally jumped when it came on, resulting in a bit of a jerky movement in the video!
At 11am, it’s time to return to the mainland. Stephanie prepares for the next group of guests, while Bryan gets the boat ready to take us to the harbor. As we sail away, he steers the boat around the entire island, offering views of East Brother from every direction.
At Point San Pedro, we say our good-byes and walk back to our car, past the dinosaur and the bug and the gramophone that had captured our curiosity a day earlier. I loved our brief sojourn at the lighthouse. It’s a romantic sort of place, with the memory of the wistful sound of the foghorn, the light shining out over a sea of darkness and the feeling of being in a remote little cocoon.
All the while knowing that the world we left behind is only a ten-minute boat ride away.