A Night in A Lighthouse in the San Francisco Bay

Sometimes you have to try out a travel experience because..well, just because it’s there. So it was for me spending a night at the East Brother Light Station, perched on a rock where the San Pablo Bay spills into the San Francisco Bay. Last year, we had spent two nights on a tugboat in Port Alberni, BC (you can read about that here), and, not being a boater, I found it magical to wake up surrounded by water. From the East Brother Light Station, you can peer in the distance to the Richmond Bridge and, if the fog has lifted, see the towers of San Francisco. To the west is Mount Tam and San Quentin (what a pair) and to the east, the rough and tumble old port in Richmond. But you feel, for the moment distant and apart. You have a night with a group of strangers, perhaps, and who knows what will transpire.

The Victorian homestead and lighthouse with a widow’s walk on top. Most of the rooms for the B&B are in this building
Fog hovering over San Francisco

The light station has been a B&B since 1980, lovingly cared for by a group of volunteers and a paid innkeeper. But for the hundred years before that it was a workhorse lighthouse and foghorn and the home to the lighthouse keeper and his family. One lighthouse keeper had so many children living there that one of the outbuildings served as a schoolhouse.

the engine and foghorn room named after the lighthouse keeper with the longest tenure. Our room was in a corner of this building.

The stay isn’t for everyone. First you have to find the old San Pablo dock in Richmond. Which isn’t as easy as it sounds because Google Maps takes you to a Chevron plant with abandoned and boarded up worker housing which does not welcome visitors. The right place is a rickety marina with a restaurant and a sign telling us where to wait for the motorboat that would take us to the light station.

It’s a quick boat ride over to the Light Station dock. But there, Dre and Charity, the innkeepers, had to winch up the boat so we could climb up a ten foot ladder to the dock. Naturally a little easier at high tide.

Charity and Dre helping to hoist up our luggage

We had arrived to spend the evening and morning with eight strangers. We were a mixed lot– some retired folks like us, a couple with teenage boys at home, and a 30-something couple who had left their 6-week old baby with grandparents for the first time. All but my husband and I lived in California and were treating the stay as a celebratory night out. We were blessed with unusually pleasant April weather — allowing for introductory champagne and hors d’oevres out on the patio, watching the fog lifting over the city and the seagulls swooping overhead, eyeing our food.

An evening with strangers can go both ways. The asshole in the group can ruin that fantasy night out. This night, however, we were blessed with companions who honored some unspoken commandment to be convivial — and to avoid all discussion of politics and religion. My husband Pete, who has not lived in California for 50 years, quickly started sharing stories as if he still lived up at Lake Berryessa, swapping tales of camping and fishing in the Sierras, recounting the history of his father’s migration to California during the Depression, and how they worked in the Pittsburg steel mills during the war. It’s as if someone had written “Add water, and your childhood emerges.”

West Brother with Mt Tam in the distance

East Brother Light Station is on an island called, not surprisingly, East Brother. “Island” is a bit of a stretch. It’s a giant rock that like its brother shown above, looks like a marooned humpback whale. In the 1870’s the Coast Guard decided they needed a lighthouse and foghorn in this part of the Bay and blasted off the top of the East Brother Rock and created this outpost. West Brother seems to simply collect guano and provide a refuge for sea lions which were sunning themselves the afternoon we arrived.

the engine that powers the foghorn looks like it might date from 1870

When East Brother Light Station was closed as a light station in the 1970s, the volunteers took it over, formed a nonprofit that still runs the B&B and keep the place going. The innkeepers still know how to power up the foghorn, which Dre did for us in the morning. Yes, the sound was completely deafening–any boat that can’t figure out what that bellowing means isn’t paying attention!

Dre starting the engine for the foghorn. I didn’t get to record the sound of the foghorn itself but it was deafening!

the original Fresnel lens which refracts light and makes the light station visible for a much longer distance

Two of our evening companions had first stayed the night there 39 years ago and were now celebrating an anniversary with those youthful memories in place. The inn itself is simple and pleasant, decorated in a Victorian chintzy style which seems appropriate and comfortable. Pete and I stayed in a small corner room (“Walter’s Quarters”) in the engine house, with views to the south and east and a little private seating area. A cool breeze blew in off the water, perfect for sleeping. There are a couple inconveniences to staying here for those used to luxury accomodations. Only one room has a private bath and visitors for one night are asked not to shower because of water scarcity. Thank god for sea breezes!

the entrance to Walter’s Quarters

After champagne and hor d’oerves and with the setting sun, the ten of us retired to the dining room, where Dre and Charity served up a four course meal, complete with wine. The conversation continued with its cheerfulness and occasional hilarity, still studiously avoiding controversy. We shared enough of ourselves, however, that I learned that one couple had a teenage son who was bullied and is now learning to make boats, that another had lived in Boston for years and that two of them had grown up in Pennsylvania. That one was a neurosurgeon and one is the general counsel to a small college. The 30-something couple with the new baby told us somewhat sheepishly that they had met on a dating app, and I assume were only feigning sheepishness because we are probably older than their parents.

The dinner was good enough for conversation and the wine flowed freely. We all met again in the morning for a lovely full breakfast. The early risers watched the sun illuminate Mt Tam from the east and followed the commuter ferries as they zipped across the Bay. A short distance away, we could see the contaminated Chevron piers that were being dismantled, a reminder that the Bay has always been a locus of all manner of activities, even at a moment of seeming peace and quiet

morning coffee
contaminated Chevron piers being dismantled

After our evening of lively conviviality, the 30-something man commented on the rarity of spontaneous conversation among strangers. “This never happens in my life,” he said, “it felt so organic.” An observation a little bit sad, and probably true. Maybe it takes an evening in a place that feels far away, unique, and fun to invite people to let down their guards just a little bit, eat and talk with no pretense.

View to the north
View to Richmond from the widow’s walk
West Brother as the sun was rising

5 Replies to “A Night in A Lighthouse in the San Francisco Bay”

  1. Oh, Sharon, another beautifully told tale that has me feeling like I was there’s with you. Your words create pictures and the actual photos deepen the experience. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I am so glad that you enjoyed it! We loved it! I love the comment that conversations are rarely organic any more! Take away our screens and perhaps we can have those conversations again!


  3. What a great adventure in a beautiful place. I had no idea this place existed. I know the trepidation around funky b&bs and strangers. You got a good one. Thanks for sharing.


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