East Brother Island
East Brother Island, Calif. — She turns several switches, yanks on the rope starter, and listens to the bear-sized engine rumble into life. Then more knobs and dials are turned, a gear is slipped into place, and huge belts begin turning a wheel that in turn builds up compressed air in a storage chamber.
Minutes later, after a dial on the wall reaches a pressure of 40, she throws a switch. What happens next is a tumultuous blasting BAARROOOOM! heard all over San Francisco Bay followed by a down-sliding basso profundo BLLAAAHHHH! that you can feel all the way down to your reverberating toes.
This sound is the magnificent diaphone foghorn of East Brother Island, and the woman yanking ropes, turning dials, and warning you of the noise to come is a grinning Patricia Jackson, the lighthouse keeper. Today the big foghorn is seldom used. A modest automated one sounds at regular intervals.
Patricia's special kingdom is a tiny one-acre island about a quarter of a mile off Point San Pablo in the upper reaches of San Francisco Bay.
The lighthouse, the island, and the recently renovated two-story Victorian house wrapped gently around the light's tower have been called a ''Victorian valentine,'' a ''Grandma Moses painting,'' and an ''Iowa farmhouse on an island.''
A white picket fence atop a stone retaining wall circles the island. The house, painted beige with its ample gingerbread painted white, nestles at the western end of the island facing the smaller, lumpy West Brother Island, now a haven for seagulls and other birds. South of the two islands is the distant sparkle of the San Francisco skyline.
But this delightful island world of East Brother was nearly sent into oblivion. After almost 100 years of continuous operation by lighthouse keepers and their families, and later by rotating crews, the US Coast Guard decided to automate the station. A steel tower was to be built with an automated beam. Everything else on East Brother was to be demolished.
Enter a hard-working group of women calling themselves the ''tennis shoe underground'' connected to the Contra Costa Shoreline Park Committee. They ''nagged politicians and generated publicity'' over the plight of the island.
Their fight to save East Brother resulted in the island's being placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1969. It was therefore untouchable without a lot of bureaucratic point and counterpoint.
For the next 10 years the little island's tower sent out an automated beam and considerably muted blasts from its automated foghorn.
The 1873 house and the two other smaller buildings were emptied and boarded up. The picket fence rattled in the wind. The big foghorn was locked in a deep sleep. Sun, neglect, and vandalism began to take their toll. East Brother was still providing a beam of light for modern ships and boats just as it had for whaling ships, full-rigged schooners, stern-wheelers, and scow schooners. But would the crumbling buildings simply slide into the water one day with no one but the seagulls to squawk?
In 1979 the East Brother Light Station Inc. came to the rescue. The group, composed of lighthouse lovers, amateur antiquarians, and professionals from the construction industry, had clear objectives: Save the historic buildings and transform East Brother into a unique bed-and-breakfast experience for the public. Also on their agenda were educational tours, retreats, seminars, picnics , classes, and meetings. In short, make East Brother into a living museum.
What happened next, said Richmond architect Thomas Butt, president of the nonprofit organization, was the quintessential volunteer effort.
Mr. Butt, who has a lifetime of professional restoration behind him, led the way in compiling a thick grant proposal that was submitted to the US Department of the Interior Heritage and Conservation Service. ''We asked for $67,000,'' said Mr. Butt, ''and we got it.''
One of the nearly 500 volunteers who came out to help restore the island was Patricia Jackson. ''I heard about the project from a friend,'' she says as she kneels near the back door of her island home, planting flowers in a small patch of imported earth. ''I came over and painted and scraped and caulked cracks.''
History was brought to life as volunteer bricklayers, plumbers, carpenters, electricians, and mechanics worked side by side with trash-hauling kids and paint-chipping grandfathers. ''We estimated that the dollar value of their work, '' said Mr. Butt, ''was around $200,000.''
For example, members of the California Conservation Corps lived on the island for two weeks and launched an attack on the large crumbling cement area between the dock and the lighthouse. Tons of old cement were hauled away. Then a CETA cement mason pre-apprentice class came to the island and poured cement. Many businesses donated equipment and materials. Period furniture and antiques were donated to restore the bedrooms, living room, and dining room.
Another volunteer who worked on the restoration was Walter Fanning, a retired machine-shop owner whose grandfather, John Peter Kofed, was the East Brother lighthouse keeper from 1914 to 1921.
As a boy Mr. Fanning spent many weekends on the island. Old photos of him and his grandparents taken on the island now hang on the walls of the restored house and were used to authenticate restoration details.
''There was always plenty to do,'' says the soft-spoken Mr. Fanning. He leans on a shovel to talk while he helps Patricia with the flower planting. ''We fished a lot, and I can remember the wind blowing us from one side of the island to another on roller skates.''
At night he and his sister would sit at the kitchen table and read or play games by the light of a kerosene lamp while the wind howled outside.
He remembers the heavy flow of maritime traffic by the island in those days. ''Much of the cargo hauled by the island on scow schooners and stern-wheelers to San Francisco is hauled by trucks now,'' he says, ''but I remember the Delta King and Queen going by.''
He confesses that today he is so used to hearing the sedate electrical foghorn that bleeps at short intervals he sometimes finds himself stopping to listen for it. ''It's wonderful that this small piece of history could be saved for everyone.'' he says. ''My boyhood weekends were happy times.''
When the restoration was completed nearly a year later, some innovations had been added to East Brother in keeping with the tradition of island self-sufficiency. On the south side of the acre several solar panels were added to help heat the water, and a clivus multrum compost toilet system now takes care of waste disposal. The 50,000-gallon dome-shaped cistern in the center of the island was fully restored and a 20,000-gallon redwood tank was added. Inside the house, wood-burning stoves were installed to provide space heat.
Today the East Brother Light Station Inc. has a 20-year renewable license from the Coast Guard for educational, scientific, and recreational purposes. When word got out that they needed a lighthouse keeper, over 150 people applied. Patricia Jackson was selected and today the former social worker and graduate of the University of California at Berkeley , has taken over all the island's reponsibilities of lighthouse keeper, chef, mechanic, tour guide, boat captain, foghorn demonstrator, maid, gardener, and all-around fireball.
In late November 1980 East Brother was officially opened to the public. The publicity generated by the island was extraordinary. Reservations for the three overnight rooms were quickly booked months in advance. ''People are so appreciative of the island,'' says Patricia Jackson, ''that everybody feels very protective. They are astonished when I tell them all this was going to be demolished.''
A visit to the island begins in the late afternoon at dock No. 6 at nearby Point San Pablo. At the helm of the 17-foot Boston Whaler stands Patricia in jeans and jacket with her blond hair tucked under a wool cap. She loads the luggage, makes sure all the life jackets are tied, and pilots the boat around the point to the island, a windy eight-minute ride.
At the island pier one climbs a 10-foot ladder, then up a series of wooden steps past the island's three small eucalyptus trees on the right. On the left is a low building that houses a machine shop and a short tramway connected to a 100-year-old winch used to haul heavy objects up from the pier.
Walk around the corner of the building and there, about 40 yards away, looms the picture-perfect house and the lighthouse above it.
It's a delightful contrast to be on a tiny island in a house that looks as if it had been picked out of a row of Victorians from a crowded San Francisco neighborhood and dropped here.
The guest rooms upstairs and in the adjacent cliffside cottage have brass beds, polished floors, and views that take your breath away. After a short tour of the island and the lighthouse, the guests will be treated to a meal of beef stroganoff, carrots, green beans, croissants, a beverage, and chocolate cake. Patricia will serve it herself in the dining room upstairs, and to the couple staying in the cottage.
''We're still seeking donations,'' Patricia says as she stirs the stroganoff on the kitchen stove, ''and we're trying to find new ways to raise money. We owe
Overnight guests with reservations are welcome on the island Thursday through Sunday nights. The fee is $150 a night per couple, and Patricia is quick to point out that ''this includes transportation to and from the island and two specially prepared meals.'' The day-use fee for the island is $5 a person for a group of 12 people.
An 8- to 10-page tabloid sized newspaper is being prepared about the island and will be used to launch a fund drive with $25 memberships. ''This project has caught the imagination of so many people,'' says Mr. Butt. ''We've had weddings on the island, parties, meetings, and a series of lectures about islands. We hope we can wipe out the deficit this year.''
With the stroganoff steaming and ready to serve, Patricia pauses and says, ''I want people to leave here feeling that they have stepped back a little in time, that their stay was easy and relaxed, and they appreciate what we have done for East Brother.''
East Brother Light Station Inc., 117 Park Place, Point Richmond, Calif., 94801. Tel. (415) 233-2385.