Uncertain future for 148-year-old East Brother Light Station off Richmond shore

Bay City News
Wednesday, April 14, 2021
Days may be numbered for 148-year-old Bay Area lighthouse
A relic of maritime history could become history. An underwater cable that powers the East Brother Light Station failed and replacing it is too expensive.

RICHMOND, Calif. -- Richmond Mayor Tom Butt is putting out an SOS to save the 148-year-old East Brother Light Station, northeast of the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, after the underwater power cable leading to the small island failed April 1.

Butt said in a statement that the U.S. Coast Guard, which is responsible for the cable, isn't confident it can replace it. Butt is one of the co-founders of the nonprofit East Brother Light Station, Inc., which rehabilitated the station in 1979 and turned it into a tiny bed-and-breakfast inn the following year.

The Richmond mayor wants to raise the money necessary to replace the cable or supply the island with solar power and a backup generator. The cable failed in 1991 due to a lightning strike, after which the Coast Guard replaced it.

"The Coast Guard just doesn't have access to the same levels of assets and funding they had in 1991," Butt wrote. "They are looking at installing a small solar panel to operate the light (the fog horn already operates on solar and batteries), which would address their responsibilities for aids to navigation, but leave the rest of the island without power."

"Essentially, the Coast Guard has advised us that we are on our own," Butt wrote. "Without a significant power supply to operate lights, pumps, refrigerators, power tools, heaters, dishwashers, and appliances, our operation of East Brother cannot continue, and along with it, our revenue stream to continue stewardship.

"This would be a huge loss of a historic public asset."

Butt said the lighthouse is "by far Richmond's oldest building." It was the first U.S. lighthouse to be licensed to a nonprofit corporation. It's listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a State of California Registered Historic Landmark.

The bed-and-breakfast has been closed since March 2020, thanks to the pandemic.

Butt said a new cable "could be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars," which the nonprofit doesn't have. Butt's group has officially asked the Coast Guard to declare the island as surplus, which could smooth the way for transferring ownership to the nonprofit. But the process could be a long one.

The mayor wrote that the Coast Guard suggested installing a solar system with a backup battery, which is being evaluated, but likely couldn't store enough power for more than 24 hours at a time. A backup generator would require constant fueling.

He said his group is looking for ideas. A GoFundMe page has been started. As of Wednesday morning, the page has raised more than $58,000.