............January 21, 2001

Oh, Come on Baby, Light My Firehouse

Livermore station glows under 100-year-old bulb

by Joe Garofoli

Our lights threaten to dim any second, the governor urges us to buy energy saving toasters and PG&E lays off hundreds of workers. But amid the chaos of California's energy crises, one sturdy bulb refuses to be turned off.

For going on 100 years, this light has burned continuously in Livermore's Fire Station No. 6. To the locals, it is a shrine. A 3- watt temple to stability that has inspired international press coverage, scores of thrill- seeking visitors and even a book.

Still, enough is enough, you say to the Keeper of the Flame. California needs all the watts it can get. The rest of us are wearing sweat shirts to bed and stumbling around in darkened hallways, so how about turning off the bulb?

"Absolutely not," said Livermore-Pleasanton Deputy Chief Tom Brallon. "It would be like turning off history. Would you ask them to turn off the eternal flame near John Kennedy if we were running low on gas?"

The lights may be off in the hallways of Station No. 6, but the Bulb will never be snuffed - it is on the same backup gen- erator as the station. (The Bulb has only been dimmed during long ago power outages and on the three times it has changed stations.)

They're serious about the Bulb in Livermore, cuddling it like a Faberge egg. Twenty years ago, when the Station No. 6 crew moved, firefighters packed the Bulb in cotton, then commis- sioned a sirens-and-lights police escort to its new home.

You can't blame them, as the Bulb is one of Livermore's major tourist attractions.


After physicists and foreign dignitaries visit the nearby Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, many pop by Station No. 6 to see the Bulb swing from a cord 20 feet off the ground next to a fire engine. Every week brings tourists from around the world to the corner of East Ave. and Loyola Way to bask in the faint glow of its processed- cheese-colored filament.

"At night," station worker Moni- que McLaughlin tells the faithful, her head turned skyward in respect, "it has a pinkish hue."

Bulb devotees are cultish, like Doors fans who flock to Jim Morrison's Paris grave. When inside the station house, most ask if they can borrow a nearby ladder so they can have their picture taken next to it. When told they can't for safety reasons, most settle for snapping a solo portrait.

The nearby guest book is filled with the breathless prose of pil- grims. "We've known about the Bulb since we were kids back East. Great to see it at last," wrote one recent admirer. The faithful have filled three such books.

Bulb mania hasn't burned this hot for 30 years.

It started 30 years ago with a flash of investigative journalism that screamed, "slow news day." After "weeks of research and interviews," the Livermore Herald News found that Dennis Bernal, the owner of the Livermore Power and Water Company, gave the Bulb to the fire station sometime in 1901.

After the story appeared, the Ripley's Believe It Or Not folks were bowing to the Bulb's longevity, and representitives of General Electric authenticated its birth date. Ripley's wants it for its museum - as soon as the Bulb dies of course.

Yet ever since the story broke, doubters and naysayers have surfaced to challenge the Bulb's age.


A mechanical Engineer in New York. A theatre in Fort Worth. But none - at least no one who has basked in its processed cheesiness - has doubted that the Bulb is the grandaddy of them all.

There are probably not many others like it. Shelby Electric Co., the Livermore firm that produced the glass-blown, carbide filament bulb, went out of business in the early 1900s, said Barry Schrader, author of the Livermore history book, "Will the Last Person Leaving Livermore Please Unscrew the Bulb in Fire Station One."

"It's not supprising that a company that made light bulbs that last a hundred years went out of business," said Schrader, public information officer for the nearby Sandia National Laboratory. Contemporary bulbs last anywhere from 750 to 4,000 hours, and have been made with tungsten filaments since the early part of the century.

Soon, Bulb fever will be sweeping the Bay Area, as Livermore prepares to celebrate the Bulb's 100th anniversary. A Sandia lab artist has already created a beautiful poster portrait. Yet for Schrader, a member of the Bulb anniversary committee, the question remains, "How can we properly celebrate the Bulb?"

T-shirts? Posters? Rubber replicas? Definitely. Schrader hopes for a visit from a member of the Edison family.

However the hype may be too much for some. McLaughlin admitted that some visitors are somewhat underwhelmed by what they see.

"A lot of people think it's going to be brighter," she said. "But most people just sit here and stare at it, for five or 15 minutes."

These days, few of us can afford to keep a light on that long. ________________________

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