|Chronicle Covers Lighthouse Keeper Search
November 30, 2008
San Pablo Bay lighthouse needs new keeper
Sunday, November 30, 2008
Recently laid off? Don't despair. The job of a lifetime awaits you on a windswept island lost in time. Or at least lost in the fog.
A Richmond nonprofit is looking for a couple to serve as lighthouse keepers on East Brother Island, a 1-acre rock in San Pablo Bay. The winning applicants will keep tabs on the flashing Fresnel light and a pair of foghorns, and will run the inn housed in the 1874 lighthouse, which still has a functioning Coast Guard light.
"We've loved it out here," said outgoing lighthouse keeper Elan Stewart, 30, who's held the job for the past three years with his wife, Katy, 32. "It's definitely isolated but it's pretty easy to get to the city, so we get the best of both worlds."
The Stewarts, their two dogs and their 11-month-old son plan to move to Tacoma, Wash., to be closer to family.
"We'd probably stay forever if we could figure out how to get a pizza delivered," said Katy. "But it's been great. I love the independence of it. And the view, of course. And the neighbors."
The nearest neighbor is the harbormaster at Point San Pablo Yacht Harbor, a 20-minute boat ride around the point and into the harbor. Nonhuman neighbors include seals, sea lions, pelicans, cormorants, seagulls and the occasional lost turkey.
Life hasn't changed much on East Brother since the first lighthouse keepers moved in 134 years ago. The light flashes. The ships pass. The fog rolls in, and the horn blasts. Twice, boats have rammed the island. Once, Elan rescued a flailing swimmer.
Power comes from a mix of solar panels, propane and an underwater electric cable from the shore. A tiny septic system handles waste. Water comes from a 70,000-gallon cistern that collects rainfall. Supplies are so scarce that guests - even those paying $415 a night - are not allowed showers unless they stay a second night.
Four afternoons a week, guests arrive, enjoy Champagne and a four-course dinner, then spend the night in the picturesque, three-story Victorian lighthouse. The Stewarts spend most of their time cooking, cleaning and handling the inn's paperwork.
But when the guests are gone, life on East Brother quickly reverts to a timeless tranquility. With no television reception and limited electrical power, the only sounds are the squawking gulls, waves slapping the rocky shore and the foghorn, which beeps every 20 seconds, 24 hours a day, from Oct. 1 through April 1.
"You can get there quickly, but once you're there, you're in a different world," said Richmond City Councilman Tom Butt, president of the East Brother Light Station board. "It's just the birds, boats, ships and fog. You just get transported to another era."
The lighthouse was built by the U.S. Lighthouse Service to guide boats between San Francisco Bay and Mare Island and the delta. All the original structures are still in use: the lighthouse, a cottage for the innkeepers and a small building that houses the original foghorn, a deafening, low-pitched diaphone powered by an air compressor.
After the U.S. Coast Guard, which absorbed the Lighthouse Service in the 1930s, automated the light and installed a modern foghorn around 1970, the island had no need for lighthouse keepers. East Brother sat uninhabited for about a decade, except for periodic visits from carousing teenagers.
In 1980, a group of preservationists got permission from the Coast Guard, which owns the island, to renovate the lighthouse and take over its maintenance. The group was led by Oakland mechanical engineer Walter Fanning, whose grandparents had been lighthouse keepers on East Brother decades earlier.
Income from the bed-and-breakfast pays for the island maintenance and supports the lighthouse keepers, who earn between $70,000 and $100,000, plus room and board.
The island is now on the state and federal lists of historic places.
Pat Diamond was the first lighthouse keeper after it reopened as a bed-and-breakfast nearly 30 years ago.
"We had some crazy nights out there," said Diamond, who's now a mom of twin 9-year-olds in Los Altos. "Not much is printable. I was single and in my 20s, let me put it that way."
Diamond initially took the job with a boyfriend, "but he went a little haywire" and her next co-keeper was Fanning, who at the time was in his 70s. They made an odd pair but managed to keep the operation afloat, she said.
Then, as now, there's not much to do when the guests are gone. One can watch the birds land on West Brother, a treeless outcropping about 100 yards away, or wave to sailors as they glide by.
Or one can blast the old foghorn. According to local legend, those who enjoy a romantic interlude on the island sound the foghorn to celebrate.
Otherwise, it's just the wind, the seagulls, the fog and history.
"It was like nothing I've experienced before or since," Diamond said. "It was hard work running the inn, and it was hard being so isolated, but I felt very lucky to be able to do it. You really are a part of history."
To apply for the lighthouse keeper job, applicants must have a U.S. Coast Guard commercial boat operator's license. For information, go to www.tombutt.com/pdf/keeper%20application%20package.pdf
Or you may mail a resume and proof of Coast Guard license to Tom Butt, president, East Brother Light Station, 117 Park Place, Richmond, CA 94801, or fax to (510) 232-5325.
For more information about the lighthouse, go to http://ebls.org.
E-mail Carolyn Jones at email@example.com.