Digest>Archives> Sep/Oct 2017

The Famous Lighthouse Cow of Goat Island

By Debra Baldwin


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Assistant lighthouse keeper John P. Kofod is ...

Today’s Yerba Buena Island in California’s San Francisco Bay has always had a strong connection with its animal past. In fact, the name of the island reflected that relationship over the centuries, as it was first named Sea Bird Island and then Goat Island in reference to those early inhabitants. But perhaps the most famous of all was the Lighthouse Cow.

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In 1909, Yerba Buena Lighthouse keepers Herbert H. Luff and John P. Kofod kept a cow on the island to provide the normal dairy products that many keepers needed in order to supplement their meager food supplies on isolated island light stations. Little did they think that their cow would not only be front page San Francisco news over the course of several months, but it would be known all the way through the higher levels of government and eventually all the way up to the Congress of the United States!

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The island’s reforestation did occur early in ...

The issue started about trees.

Fires had decimated the natural foliage that grew on the island, and the local population felt it was an eyesore to continually see huge swaths of open ground on the island which faced the daily ferry routes and ocean approaches into San Francisco. They wanted to replant the natural trees in order to beautify the island and preserve its forestation.

But the Lighthouse Cow stood in their way.

A newspaper article appearing in the San Francisco Call on October 9, 1909 summarized the battle that ensued over the 30 acres of land, and not without a great deal of humor over the entire situation.

“The 30 acres stood out bleak, barren and cheerless from the lapping waves, devoid of foliage, depressing in its desolation, bare of living creature save the obnoxious lighthouse cow.” So multitudinous became the protests that the Chamber of Commerce jumped to the fore. A letter was sent to the Lighthouse Board asking permission to plant trees on the island. The Lighthouse Board replied that the object was worthy, but since they were a part of the Department of Commerce and Labor, they did not have the power to grant the request.

So, the cow grazed on in tranquil scorn.

The second request was made to the Department of Commerce and Labor, and the reply was received stating that, while the artistic spirit of the citizens of San Francisco was to be applauded, the planting of trees was done by the Forest Service.

And the cow grazed on.

A third letter was sent to the Forest Service. The officials replied that, while the planting of trees was to be encouraged, they were but insignificant cogs in the Agricultural Department, and permission would have to come from the officials there.

And the cow grazed on.

The Agricultural Department was notified of the existing conditions. It replied that, while they were happy to observe a request from the people of San Francisco, it could not, without violating departmental ethics, command the Forest Service to plant trees on property belonging to the Lighthouse Board without a request from the latter. The Chamber of Commerce took off its coat, kicked out the office cat, and settled down to work.

And the cow grazed on.

So, a letter was sent to the Lighthouse Board asking it to request the Department of Commerce and Labor to request the Department of Agriculture to command the Forest Service to plant the trees on Goat Island.

The Lighthouse Board replied thusly, “What about the cow? Where will it graze?” Those who had been pushing the scheme up to this stage began to think that the best way out of the difficulty would be to run the risk of offending the Hindu inhabitants of the Pacific slope by catching the cow on a dark and stormy night and dumping it over-side.

In the meantime, the cow grazed on.

The trouble did not end there. The Navy Department was consulted about the trees. The Lighthouse Board argued for the rights of the cow. Ultimately, the Lighthouse Board agreed to allow the cow ten acres of pasture. It requested the Department of Commerce and Labor to request the Department of Agriculture to request the Forest Service to plant the trees. The Forest Service agreed to do this if the people of the San Francisco area would be willing to provide $800 for the planting of the trees and the first year’s care of the trees. Immediate steps to raise the money were taken.

In the meantime, the cow grazed on.

Concurrent to these actions in San Francisco, on the Washington political scene Senator George C. Perkins, who previously had served as the Governor of California in the 1880s, became involved in lobbying for funding from Congress to help in the reforestation of Goat Island. Senator Perkins was meanly quoted as saying, “If that land is needed for pasturage, we would better transfer the lighthouse keeper to Point Arena and get him a sea cow.”

However, by 1910, enough money had been raised to start the reforestation project, and, as later pictures show, it was entirely successful.

Then, in 1912, the Board of Geographic Names in Washington, D.C. once again officially changed the name from “Yerba Buena Island” to “Goat Island.” One only has to wonder at that point, given the recent history, why they did not feel “Cow Island” would have been a more suitable name.

This story appeared in the Sep/Oct 2017 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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