Digest>Archives> March 2005

Juliet Fish Nichols:

The Angel of Angel Island

By JoAnn Chartier


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Whenever the Gamewell clockwork device broke ...

Juliet Fish Nichols had seen the annual summer fog stealing across San Francisco Bay many times. She was appointed lighthouse keeper at Point Knox on Angel Island in 1898. She learned to deal with the unreliable mechanism that rang the 3,000 pound bronze bell sitting on a platform above the churning water. But in 1906, the job of warning ships became important. In April, Juliet watched helplessly as San Francisco trembled, tumbled, and burst into flame. By July, rebuilding was in full swing. Hundreds of supply ships added to the traffic in the busy harbor. The lighthouses, sirens and bells were critically important in a bay full of treacherous currents, ship-eating rocks and heavy summer fog.

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Photo by: Kraig Anderson

The first newspaper editorials calling for a light at Angel Island were published in the early 1840s. Numerous shipping disasters and the resulting political pressure culminated with a $4,500 appropriation in 1885 to put a fog bell at Point Knox. The first attempts to build the station were nearing completion in 1886 when a violent storm and landslide ripped away the trail and the wooden steps that scaled the steep cliff. More money was appropriated to rebuild and in 1887, the station was finally activated. Built on a detached rock, the station was manned by one person because it was too small to house an assistant.

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The Angel Island station today.
Photo by: Kraig Anderson

During its first three years, landslides twice took out the stairs, the water line and a small storage building. And the clockwork’s mechanism that automatically rang the bell frequently broke down. Because of the intense vibration of the sledgehammer striking the bell and the constant tension on the spring, the mechanism was prone to fail during long periods of foggy weather.

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Fresnel lens from Angel Island Lighthouse with an ...

July 1, 1906, Juliet’s log shows the weather clear and calm. The next day, fog formed offshore and rolled through the Golden Gate. That night, the Gamewell Fire Alarm Number 3 clockwork that rang the bell quit working. During a brief lifting of the fog, Juliet sent a telegram to the lighthouse engineer before servicing the small, fixed red light on the southwest corner of the station. But the light was for fair nights – not thick fog. It would be virtually useless as a warning.

In the distance, the intermittent fog signals at various locations around the bay boomed out. With the Angel Island bell disabled, mariners were in extreme danger. Yet, from July 2 to 3, the familiar cadence rang out: two beats every 15 seconds. Armed only with a carpenter’s hammer, Juliet banged the side of the bell for more than 20 hours.

“Mr. Burt came on July 3 at 10 a.m. and made slight repairs,” Juliet reported. “Meanwhile I had struck the bell by hand for 20 hours and 35 minutes, until the fog lifted.” That evening, the fog once more poured silently across the Bay. Juliet slept uneasily, rising every two hours to wind the Gamewell mechanism. Her arms ached from the hours beating the bell with the hammer the day before. But there was little rest that night, as the heavy clockworks took 20 minutes to rewind.

“On the night of July 3, 1906, the machinery worked badly, striking irregularly,” Juliet reported. The next day a fog bank again menaced the city. By 7 o’clock that evening the Bay was blanketed in dense fog. “On the fourth of July the machinery went to pieces, the great tension bar broke in two and I could not disconnect the hammer to strike by hand. I stood all night on the platform outside and struck the bell with a nail hammer with all my might. The fog was dense, with heavy mist, almost rain.” In the July 5th report covering the preceding three days, Juliet noted that the machinist from the office of the lighthouse engineer in San Francisco had finally arrived just as she was writing the account.

Failure was not acceptable to the woman who stood guard at the entrance to the Bay as keeper of the Point Knox Station.

Juliet was born in China in 1858. Her mother died giving birth to her, and her mother’s sister, Emily, ventured to the Orient to care for her niece. Emily later married Juliet’s father, Dr. Melancthon Fish. After the family returned to California, Juliet graduated from Mills College in Oakland, and in 1888 she married Commander Henry Nichols at her father’s home. Henry worked for the Coast and Geodetic Survey and spent summers mapping in Alaska. Juliet lived in “a handsome residence on Ninth Avenue and Twenty-third Street – which was her bridal gift from her father,” reported the San Francisco Call in 1890.

Henry was later appointed Superintendent of the 12th Lighthouse District, which covers the California coast. In 1902, two years after Juliet’s husband died in the Philippines while serving in the Spanish-American War, the 44-year old widow was given the post of lighthouse keeper at Angel Island. She was the second keeper, taking over on the retirement of John Ross.

The small, red-roofed house perched in a 30 by 30 foot plot of rocky dirt where Juliet managed to cultivate two small flowerbeds. Access to the outside world required climbing up 151 steps of the staircase, then a trek across the military reservation to a boat to take her to the mainland.

In a 1903 letter to the Lighthouse Board, Commander J. B. Milton asked that Juliet be permitted to purchase supplies from the Subsistence Department of the Army at Angel Island. “Mrs. Nichols has related to me that during the last winter, she was, on several occasions, in a bad way for provisions, owning to the fact that she is alone, being unable to send to the city and of course could not leave the station herself.”

Juliet handled her duties without an assistant. And she did it for the equivalent of about $63 a month. That was less than the Alcatraz keeper earned, and he had two assistants. In a request for a pay increase, Commander W.P. Day wrote “she has been up on

one occasion 83 consecutive hours and obliged to strike the bell by hand a considerable part of that time.”

Juliet received a commendation for the 20-hour marathon with her trusty hammer the summer of 1906. It might have been

more rewarding if they had also replaced the Gamewell

clockworks. She wrote numerous letters, sent telegrams, and recorded many more instances where her hammer and her arm

provided warnings for ships negotiating the hazardous rocks in the fog-bound Bay.

Her log for November 19, 1908 recorded dense fog all night and a broken steel pin in the mechanism. Once again she grabbed her hammer and stood outside banging the bell twice every 15 seconds for more than four hours. When the fog lifted for a few minutes she reported the incident by telegraph, but when the mist settled again she rang the bell by hand for another hour. Similar reports are repeated every year in the log Juliet kept until she retired at the age of 55. On November 19, 1914, she turned the station over to her replacement, Peter Admiral.

Juliet lived quietly in Oakland to the age of 88. The Angel Island fog bell was automated in the 1960s and the keeper moved out of the quarters on the rocky point. The house was burned to the ground in 1963.

The bell remains in place to this day, its dulled sides showing the marks of a hammer wielded by one valiant woman doing her duty.

This story appeared in the March 2005 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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