Bonnie Tsui is a contributing writer to CityLab. She writes frequently for The New York Times and is the author of American Chinatown: A People's History of Five Neighborhoods.
Though tens of thousands of people pass by it every day, the East Brother Light Station is remarkably under the radar.
"For how would you like to be shut up for a whole month at a time, and possibly more in stormy weather, upon a rock the size of a tennis lawn?" Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse
Not long ago, I sat on a rock about the size of a tennis lawn near my home in San Francisco. It was by choice: From my widow’s walk perch atop East Brother Light Station, in the narrow strait that separates San Francisco Bay from San Pablo Bay, I saw a blue-sky day get eaten up by a plume of fog coming in through the Golden Gate at sunset, fishermen out for sturgeon and striped bass, and pelicans camped out on the adjacent (and even smaller) West Brother Island.
The lighthouse was San Francisco's first, built in the late 19th century on the single-acre rock of East Brother Island. During the Gold Rush, thousands of ships came through San Francisco Bay, and because of the hazardous reefs, rocks, and shallows that snared so many boats in the bay’s northern reaches, a dozen lighthouses were eventually built in the area. Over the next century, lighthouse keepers and their families lived on tiny East Brother, keeping animals and gardens and even bringing in teachers for months-long stints with their kids.
"This going to the Lighthouse was a passion of his, she saw..."
Nowadays, there are three ways to visit East Brother: do volunteer work at the site, sign up for a Saturday afternoon boat ride with picnic in hand, or stay the night at the lighthouse B&B, a five-room establishment that has been run by a series of innkeepers since the early 1980s. The gingerbread-lace Victorian has tilted bead-board ceilings, antique lamps, and a working lighthouse up a winding staircase from the two top-floor rooms. The Coast Guard-licensed operation also has a vintage two-tone diesel-powered foghorn, capable of emitting deafening blasts; now it serves mostly as a demo piece, since it's the modern (and considerably more muted) solar-powered horn that does most of the daily work between October and April (listen to it here).
"It was his fate, his peculiarity, whether he wished it or not, to come out thus on a spit of land which the sea is slowly eating away, and there to stand, like a desolate sea-bird, alone."
The newest innkeepers, Richard Foregger and Jude Haukom, are wrapping up their inaugural year on the rock; Foregger captains the vessel that ferries passengers to the island (accessed by clambering from said vessel up a vertical ladder that ranges between four and 12 feet, depending on the tide and the extent of the bay's chop) and shows guests how to fire up the antique foghorn, while Haukom preps the elaborate four-course dinners and grows produce for the plate in her windswept lighthouse garden.
Though tens of thousands of people pass by it every day, the light station is remarkably under the radar; in my (highly unscientific) sample, I found that 95 percent of locals will tell you they've never heard of it. But a stay there is thrilling, akin to getting to spend the night on Alcatraz, only with better accommodations and food. Let's just go ahead and say it's the other Rock in the Bay, with extraordinary views of San Francisco, the Richmond Bridge, San Quentin, Mt. Tamalpais, and China Camp. On the way in and out of Point San Pablo Yacht Harbor, we passed by a barely submerged wooden shipwreck that was set afire and sunk there for the 1955 John Wayne and Lauren Bacall picture, Blood Alley.
So I pose the question to you, dear reader, by way of Virginia Woolf: For how would you like to spend the night upon a private island the size of a tennis lawn in San Francisco Bay? For just a night or two, I reckon most of us — like Woolf’s young protagonist, James — would jump at the chance.