Laughing off jokes about the ill-fated S.S. Minnow, we set out across the water on a balmy, shirt-sleeve-weather Saturday afternoon. Our destination? The historic light station on East Brother Island where we were to spend the night. Bobbing along on the bright sea we met our ship’s caption and host for the evening as well as our fellow guests –- eight other adventurous souls.
Located in the strait separating San Francisco and San Pablo Bays, East Brother Island has been home to the light station for more than 133 years. Curious sorts may have noticed the island at one time or other while eastbound on the Richmond San Rafael Bridge. It sits off to the left of the bridge, adjacent to West Brother Island – two rocky knobs in the Bay, one complete with a fabulous restored Victorian lighthouse.
While expertly piloting our vessel, Captain Richard became a wealth of information, giving us a brief history lesson as we docked at the island, hoisted ourselves from the boat and were met by Jude, his wife and co-host. The delightful couple run the show at EBLS, welcoming guests, giving tours, cooking meals all while keeping the vibrant spirit (and generators) of the island alive.
Built in 1873, the light station today is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and operates as a non-profit corporation thanks to the tireless efforts of a group of volunteers who worked to keep it from being torn down, an automated lighted beacon its only very sad replacement. Without this group, East Brother Light Station would have gone the way of so many other dilapidated yet well-loved structures. Luckily, money, time, patience and hard work came together to save this important piece of history.
Back on the island, Jude promptly gave us the extended tour of the grounds and the historic home and light station — one in the same. The house today contains four bedrooms with parlors, dining room, etc. (In its previous life when multiple families lived as keepers of the lighthouse, the house had a different configuration. But I’ll save those details for when you make your own visit.) Our room – the San Francisco room – had an incredible view of the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge and the city beyond. Beautiful by day, enchanting by moonlit night.
Jude continued her tour, arriving at the pièce de résistance – the third floor lighthouse. A spiral staircase leads up to the lens contained in a top-floor cupola of sorts. An exterior widow’s walk highlights the Bay with breathtaking views in every direction. Jude left us with an invitation to explore and we scouted nooks and crannies while listening to the bark of sea lions, the squawk of seabirds and the recurring honk of the foghorn. A champagne toast and convivial family style dinner were served in short order — both thoroughly enjoyable and delicious — allowing us to learn more island lore from Richard as well as getting to know the other guests; an interesting mix of people from the Bay Area as well as from as far away as Cape Cod.
In the morning, post breakfast, no amount of persuasion was necessary for us to visit the fog signal building where Richard ramped up the generators and gave a hands-on demonstration of the original fog horn. Everyone was given a job to do and the resulting honk of its resonant signal was both earth shattering and ear-holding and brought an immediate and delighted smile to all, even those passing by on the waters of the Bay.
After hugs all around — we were all fast friends by now — our stay thus came to an end and we were piloted back across the Bay by Richard and deposited once again on terra firma. All and all it was a fabulous mini-vacation. Truly a time away – from land, from the rigors of regular life, from the modern world.
Learn more at Ebls.org.