12 Jun The Keeper of Richmond’s History Has Run the Light Station, a WWII Warship and a Century-Old Inn
Desiree Heveroh, former lighthouse keeper at East Brother Light Station, is now the shipkeeper for the SS Red Oak Victory museum in the Richmond Shipyards. (Photo courtesy of Desiree Heveroh)
By Dean Brightman
Bay City News Foundation
Desiree Heveroh is keeping to her plan.
I first met Heveroh in summer 2021. She was volunteering as the lighthouse keeper for the still-functioning East Brother Light Station, built in 1873 (Richmond’s oldest existing building) on tiny East Brother Island just off the coast of Richmond in San Pablo Bay.
Since the late 1970s, the lighthouse has also been an inn, offering visitors very unique accommodations. The only way to the island is by boat.
Heveroh was watching over a very fretful time in the light station’s history. COVID had put an end to any guest stays. She was there to keep up any maintenance needed because the place was empty and, of course, to keep the light on.
In the middle of all this, the electric cable that stretched under the bay and supplied power to the island failed, so, in addition to being closed, it was also in the dark.
By the time we spoke, a patch to the cable was providing power, the inn was prepping to receive its first guests in 18 months and her time as keeper was nearing its end. She was contemplating her post-island life — touring West Coast lighthouses that also accommodate guests, and eventually writing a book of her experiences.
“I’ve already thought of the title — ‘Isle Be My Brother’s Keeper.’ ”
But Richmond, it turns out, has other plans for its 43-year-old native, and her adventures will have to wait.
Heveroh had already led a pretty interesting life before landing on the island. Instead of traditional high school, at age 14, she was accepted into the academically rigorous Middle College High School curriculum at Contra Costa College in San Pablo. Once at college, she double-majored in liberal arts and biological sciences.
She also completed a dental assistant program and worked in dentistry for several years. She later served on the East Brother Light Station Board for eight years and, most recently, ran the Richmond Convention & Visitors Bureau before the pandemic shuttered it in 2020.
When I caught up with her again recently, she had indeed departed the island and was back on the mainland. More accurately, she’s sort of next to it. She lives on a ship — the WWII-era Red Oak Victory docked at the historic Richmond Shipyards where she’s, yes, the shipkeeper.
But that’s not the only company she’s keeping (literally) these days. She also works at Point Richmond’s historic Hotel Mac as, you guessed it, its innkeeper.
And if all that wasn’t keeping her busy enough, she’s also taken on the executive director role for the Richmond Museum of History.
So how did all this keeping come about?
After the pandemic-induced shutdown, the light station did indeed resume hosting guests last September. A couple with previous experience maintaining the inn and light station has taken over.
“We hired some keepers we had from five years ago,” Heveroh says. “Getting started back, in general, from a full halt was going to be hard. Getting started with new COVID precautions, if you’ve never done it before and didn’t know what you were in for — it just couldn’t have been someone new.”
Heveroh had learned of the shipkeeper opportunity a couple of months before she ultimately departed. “I was still at the light station, and I was going to suck every moment out of that,” she says. In the first of many signs that she interprets as “this is your next step, just follow the plan,” the timing worked out perfectly.
She moved off the island in mid-August. She moved onto the Red Oak two days later.
The SS Red Oak Victory was the 558th of 787 vessels assembled at the Richmond Kaiser Shipyards during World War II and is the only ship of any type built there that still exists. It was built in 87 days and launched Nov. 9, 1944. It served in the Pacific Theater during the war’s final months and, for the next two decades, served humanitarian and supply missions around the globe, including during the Korean and Vietnam conflicts.
After being mothballed in Suisun Bay for nearly 30 years, the Richmond Museum Association rescued and restored the Red Oak, and it now serves a new mission as a floating museum to honor those who served, in the same place where she was built nearly 80 years prior.
So what does being a shipkeeper entail?
A volunteer crew works two full days a week to maintain all the moving parts, the vast majority of which, remarkably, still work, including the ship’s radio and internal communications systems.
“On volunteer crew days, I have to wake up at 6 a.m. to get the gates open, the coffee brewed. Mondays, I have to make sure all the garbage and recycling’s outside the [perimeter] fence. When we had all the rains, I had to pull up buckets of water [that leaked in].” Just as on East Brother, “you just kind of do what needs doing, as it comes.”
Her new living quarters were yet another sign to Heveroh that she’s following her plan.
She was already very familiar with the ship’s terrain because she took many tours of the ship as a teenager and young adult. During one of those visits she got to hang out with the then-current shipkeeper in her quarters. Heveroh thought at the time, “How cool is this you get to be here? I would love something like this.”
“And now I’m [living] in that same exact room, and it all continues to just be very divine.”
The solitude of the ship also neatly solved some very real concerns she had about post-island life.
“I knew that leaving the light station was going to be a big transition for me. I skipped all of the stuff that was happening here during COVID. Coming back was so disorienting. Businesses that I thought were going to be there were closed down. The world was different — there’s all these stickers everywhere [that said] ‘6 feet apart,’ and everyone’s wearing masks. Things I didn’t have to worry about or deal with.”
So Heveroh decided that, aside from being shipkeeper, which is a volunteer gig just like the light station was, she wasn’t going to take a new paying job for the rest of 2021.
Again, Richmond’s “plan” came in handy. Both the lighthouse and shipkeeper gigs provided living arrangements, while she was able to live on severance from the tourism bureau closure, as well as a lease buyout when a previous residence was sold.
“I’d been keeping it hush-hush that I was back,” Heveroh says. “I knew that if people knew, they were going to start [asking] ‘Hey, can you help me here; can you work for me there?’ No, I’m taking the rest of the year off!”
Then the Hotel Mac came calling in October.
Originally the Colonial Hotel, the Hotel Mac was built in 1911. New ownership changed the name in the 1930s. Its popularity faded as the decades passed, and a fire in 1971 closed it entirely. It was restored and reopened in 1978 as a hotel and restaurant and continues accommodating guests today (the restaurant closed in 2020 due to COVID and has yet to reopen).
“Innkeeper, right? So again, another sign, that’s the next plan,” Heveroh says. “And that gig comes with its own apartment, my own office, my own staff, actual salary this time. And I thought, ‘Well, [the ship and the hotel] are only 10 minutes from each other, I can do both.”
But in early December, she received yet another call.
“The executive director of the Richmond Museum of History was leaving,” Heveroh says. “I thought they were calling to see if I had any suggestions of who might be able to take over. So I threw a couple out, and [the caller said,] ‘Oh, yeah, I hadn’t thought about that, but actually I was calling because we were thinking you.’ ”
Heveroh balked at first, but “again I got that call, and I thought ‘If anybody could do it, it would be me. I’m [already] not going to have a personal life, whatsoever. I’m probably not gonna sleep well.’ ”
The Richmond Museum of History occupies a former Carnegie Library built in 1910. The museum features rotating exhibits and includes items in its permanent collection detailing the city’s history from prehistoric times, through Spanish/Mexican occupation, early U.S. industrial history and pre- and post-WWII periods.
Museum members get an exclusive, behind-the-scenes peek at their extensive archives.
One of the more unique items in its collection was a brick, stamped “RICHMOND” and fired at one of the early 20th century brick kilns where the upscale Brickyard Cove neighborhood now resides on the bay shoreline — a brick that would eventually give me firsthand experience with one of Heveroh’s “signs.”
“Maybe someone’s lucky to say ‘I worked at the museum,'” she says. “But — light station keeper, shipkeeper, innkeeper, museum keeper — it’s all coming at me, and I answered the call. I said, ‘I’ll be interim executive director. Let’s see how it fits with my schedule.’ ”
Although she calls the situation at the museum a “mess,” Heveroh says, “I’ll be able to get it organized because I’m really obsessively organized about things.”
As with most people with overwhelming schedules, she credits a reliable support system to help her through it.
“I’m able to bring a lot of good people in with me,” Heveroh says. “Capt. Jarrod [Ward], who taught me how to drive the boat and use the machinery at the light station; he’s working as my handyman at the hotel. It’s a slow season for the maritime industry, and I know he’s good. I’m able to keep the same people who’ve been helping me along the way, helping me along the way.”
The Red Oak Victory is currently open for tours on Sundays only. “The ship is in such financial trouble,” Heveroh says. “We heavily relied on our events, we relied on our tour days and we couldn’t really have any of that for the last, what, two years now?”
A virtual docent app for self-guided tours is in the works, and an updated events schedule will be posted to the ship’s website and social channels soon. The ship’s team is actively recruiting for more volunteers in order to expand its tour schedule.
The Hotel Mac is available for guest accommodations, and although the restaurant remains closed, they have received interest from new owners. Heveroh is hopeful it’ll reopen soon.
And she’s hit the ground running at the Richmond Museum of History. Projects include refreshing the permanent exhibit hall (“which hasn’t had fresh content since the ’90s”), hiring Native American artists to retool the museum’s Indigenous displays (thanks to a Lesher Foundation grant) and creating a new exhibition showcasing Richmond music and musicians, which will include performances on the Red Oak Victory.
The East Brother Light Station, as mentioned earlier, is once again hosting guests, but its fundraiser continues. The emergency fix continues to supply power to the island, but was meant to be only temporary. A new, permanent power cable is needed, which is quite expensive.
For Heveroh, seeing all these signs and answering all these calls stems, bottom line, from the love of her native city.
“Richmond’s been good to me,” she says. “And I love Richmond; I’m Richmond grown.”
Several weeks after speaking with Heveroh, I attended an event that included a raffle benefiting local nonprofits. One of the prizes was the aforementioned Richmond brick, donated, of course, by the Richmond Museum of History.
I texted her how cool I thought the brick was and how great it was that the museum donated it. “I hope you win it,” she replied.
I explained that I donated to the raffle but declined tickets to avoid any conflict of interest.
I later encountered a friend at the event. She too had purchased tickets but only to support the organizations, not so much for the prizes. I mentioned the brick and how great it would be to have a piece of history like that.
So she put her tickets in the jar in front of it and said if she won she’d give it to me.
She won, of course.
I texted a photo to Heveroh and explained how I got possession.
“I put it out there. The Universe listens!”
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