Tom Butt
  E-Mail Forum – 2021  
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  Is the End Near for East Brother Lighthouse?
April 9, 2021

East Brother Lighthouse is by far Richmond’s oldest building and has become an iconic destination for lighthouse lovers everywhere. The lighthouse may, however, be at the end of its successful 40-year run hosting tens of thousands of guests who come to Richmond for that rare experience.

I have an emergency situation I want to share with you and ask for any suggestions or help you can provide.

By way of introduction, I was one of the founders of East Brother Light Station, Inc., a 501(c)3  non-profit public benefit corporation that rehabilitated East Brother Light Station in 1979 and opened it as a bed and breakfast inn in 1980. I was awarded the U.S. Coast Guard Meritorious Public Service Award in 1982 for the rehabilitation of East Brother, the first U.S. lighthouse to be licensed to a non-profit organization rather than a government agency. We also received the National Trust for Historic Preservation National Honor Award, the U.S. Department of Transportation Award for Outstanding Public Service to Transportation and Historic Preservation, and the California Preservation Foundation Award of Merit. East Brother is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a State of California Registered Historic Landmark. Today, 40 years later, I continue to serve as the president of the board of directors of East Brother Light Station, Inc. East Brother Light Station is owned by the U.S. Coast Guard and licensed to East Brother Light Station Inc, which maintains and operates it as a public service.

Figure 1 - Approximate location of submarine power cable

The revenue from the inn operations at East Brother has been used to pay well over  $1 million in maintenance and repairs over the last 40 years, and volunteers have contributed at least another $1 million in in-kind services – probably a lot more. Some of the major improvements post- rehabilitation include new pier pilings and support structure, new roofs, upgraded electrical system, wastewater treatment system and lots of sealing, painting, waterproofing, wood decay repair, door and window repair, and much more. This 42-year partnership between the U.S. Coast Guard and East Brother Light Station, Inc. has been very productive. It has preserved the 147-year old lighthouse in excellent condition and made it available to the public while saving the U.S Coast Guard millions of dollars and relieving them of any Section 109 challenges. The bed and breakfast inn has been closed since March of 2020 due to COVID-19, but we hope to reopen later this year.

The emergency we have is that the 30-year old submarine power cable to the island failed on April 1, 2021 (no fooling) and left us without power. It also leaves the U.S. Coast Guard without power for the light. The Coast Guard has backup batteries, but the are only good for 72 hours. the last time the cable failed was in 1991 when it was damaged by a lightning strike. The Coast Guard replaced it in about 30 days, and it functioned successfully until April 1, 2021.

On April 8, I met on the island with Captain Dan Ursino, Commanding Officer of the U.S. Coast Guard Civil Engineering Unit Oakland and Tyrone Conner, Chief, Aids to Navigation, 11th Coast Guard District. They have been very responsive, but unfortunately, they were not optimistic that the U.S. Coast Guard would be able repeat the cable replacement that occurred in 1991. Captain Ursino explained that the Coast Guard just doesn’t have access to the same level of assets and funding they had in 1991. 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. 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.

Worst case, this may finally be the end of our 40+ year steward stewardship of this historic landmark. Without our continuous attention, it would quickly deteriorate and fall prey to vandals as it did prior to 1979. The public would lose a critical historic asset forever.

The cost of a new cable could be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and our non-profit does not have that level of assets. To complicate it further, we do not have ownership of the island, so we cannot secure a loan. We have asked the Coast Guard to start the process of designating the island as surplus, which could start a long process that could end in transferring ownership to our non-profit, but to date they have not been willing to do so.

The Coast Guard suggested we consider installing solar PV with a battery backup and go off grid. We are moving rapidly to evaluate that, but batteries like the Tesla PowerWall  can store only enough energy for about 24 hours, which is not enough to operate over several cloudy or rainy days. We would have to depend frequently on a backup generator, which would require frequently hauling fuel to the island. Installing solar and a battery would still cost probably $100,000 or more.

What I am requesting is one or more of the following:

  • Anything you can do or think of to persuade the Coast Guard to repair or replace the cable.
  • Any grant opportunities you may know of that would pay for a cable or solar.

You might appreciate these before and after photos. If we have to abandon the lighthouse, it would likely deteriorate back to its 1979 appearance or worse.

Figure 2 - This is what East Brother Lighthouse looked like in 1979 when the Coast Guard had abandoned it

Figure 3 - Another photo pre-rehabilitation

Figure 3 - What East Brother Lighthouse looked like after rehabilitation by East Brother Lighthouse, Inc. and what it looks like today

boat in front EBrother

Tom Butt, President
East Brother Light Station, Inc.
Mailing address: 117 Park Place, Richmond, CA 94801
P 510/236-7435 M 510/220-1577 F 510/232-5325

East Brother Light Station, Inc. is a 501(c)3 non-profit corporation that operates and maintains East Brother Light Station as a public service under a license from the U.S. Coast Guard. East Brother Island is a California Historic Landmark and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places