Elegy for a ‘House on the Bay’

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Santa Fe Railroad (“SFRR”) began ferry service between Point Richmond and San Francisco.

The ‘new’ Southampton Shoal Light as it appears today OCSC

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Santa Fe Railroad (“SFRR”) began ferry service between Point Richmond and San Francisco. An area of shallow water between Angel Island and the eastern shore of the Bay, known as Southampton Shoal, posed a hazard to these ferries because they passed close (sometimes dangerously close) to its south end. Because of this threat, especially during the frequent foggy periods, the SFRR asked the Lighthouse Board to construct a lighthouse on the southern end of the shoal. 

The Lighthouse Board recognized the benefit of such a light, not only to the SFRR ferries, but to all traffic heading to the shipyard at Mare Island and the ports farther east on the Sacramento River. The board petitioned for the construction of a light station, and Congress was quick to grant the $30,000 request. When Southampton Shoal Light was completed in 1905, one more beacon was added to the chain of lights guiding ships safely through San Francisco Bay.

A beautiful three-story white Victorian building, affectionately known as the “House on the Bay,” was constructed on the site. The lowest floor housed storage and workshops, and provided access to the davits supporting the station’s boat. The two upper floors were divided into two apartments for the keepers and their families, with the living quarters on the second floor and the bedrooms on the third. The lower two floors had balconies that entirely surrounded the building. The red roof (punctuated by dormers for the bedroom windows) tapered upward from all four sides to a tower that housed the light and fog signal. The station’s roof was designed to catch rainwater for the station, although keeping the water from being soiled by seagull droppings was an ongoing problem.

The foundation for the light station consisted of a series of 11 steel cylinders driven into the mud of the shoal. Within a few months of completing the station, erosion threatened the foundation of the structure. To combat this, several tons of rocks were dumped around the base of the cylinders.        

But a much greater threat to the station happened within that first year—the Great 1906 Earthquake. Following the temblor, some of the foundation cylinders tilted as much as 11 degrees to the east. After re-leveling the structure, the cylinders were filled with concrete and more rocks were added to support them.

In 1939, the Lighthouse Service was discontinued and the U.S. Coast Guard took over the management of all lighthouses. As part of the Coast Guard’s ongoing process of automating lights, it decided in 1960 that a manned station was no longer needed at Southampton Shoal Light. Recognizing the historical and architectural value of the lighthouse, the St. Francis Yacht Club purchased the building. The club arranged for the top two stories to be lifted off the station by a couple of very large cranes and placed on a barge. The living quarters of the station were then transported to Tinsley Island, a small island in the Delta also owned by the St. Francis Yacht Club. The repurposed lightkeeper quarters now serve as a clubhouse for the Club’s members and guests.  The remainder of the building was demolished and replaced with a concrete platform. The light—red, three seconds on, three seconds off—is still displayed, now from a small pole on that platform.

Unfortunately for the aesthetics of San Francisco Bay, the current structure is a long, long way from the elegant Victorian that once stood there. If your ferry route takes you east of Angel Island, you’ll pass close by; take a look and decide for yourself. 

Ray Wichmann, is a US SAILING-certified Ocean Passagemaking Instructor, a US SAILING Instructor Trainer, and a member of US SAILING’s National Faculty.  He holds a 100-Ton Master’s License, was a charter skipper in Hawai’i for 15 years, and has sailed on both coasts of the United States, in Mexico, the Caribbean, and Greece.  He is presently employed as the Master Instructor at OCSC Sailing in the Berkeley Marina.