Juliet Fish Nichols (1859-1947)

Juliet Fish Nichols was born in Shanghai, China, where her father, Dr. Melancthon Fish, was serving as U.S. consul. Juliet’s mother (also named Juliet) had died in childbirth, and her younger sister Emily came to China to care for the new baby. When Emily turned sixteen she married Juliet’s father, becoming Juliet’s step-mother. The family returned to the United States when Juliet was three, and Dr. Fish volunteered to serve in the Union Army as it fought in the Civil War. At the end of the war, he returned to California where he set up a medical practice.

Juliet grew up in Oakland, California, and attended Mills Seminary for Young Ladies (now Mills College), where the goals were good health and a classical education. A daily outdoor walk of at least one mile was required. Students also worked out with dumbbells, Indian clubs and wands—so Juliet was well prepared for the physical demands of lighthouse work.

After graduating from Mills, Juliet went to New York City where she studied art at the Cooper Institute and earned medals for her drawing. 

In1888, Juliet married Commander Henry Nichols of the U.S. Navy. They had no children. In 1990, an article in the San Francisco Call described her as a "young matron of society. ... Her principle attractions are her eyebrows and her hair, which is beautifully long and wavy."

Henry Nichols became Superintendent of the 12th Lighthouse District along the coast of California. In 1891, after Juliet’s father died, Henry helped Juliet’s mother, Emily Fish, obtain a job as lighthouse keeper at Point Pinos in Pacific Grove, California. In addition to performing her duties as keeper, Emily often entertained guests at the lighthouse, which she had filled with her own elegant furnishings.

Then, in 1899, while serving in the Spanish American War, Henry Nichols died of heat stroke, leaving Juliet without financial support. When Juliet learned that the lighthouse keeper on Angel Island was retiring, she applied for the job. While the policy of the Lighthouse Board was not to hire women, an exception was made for Juliet as it had for Emily. Her salary was the equivalent of $63 a month. Her duties included keeping a daily log, polishing the lantern glass, and cleaning and oiling the bell machine.

After Juliet’s retirement on November 19, 1914, she lived in Oakland until her death in 1947. She is buried in the family plot at Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland.

For an overview of Juliet Nichol’s life: https://cowgirlmagazine.com/wild-women-of-the-west-juliet-fish-nichols/


Juliet’s Log

February 1906

The logs of the Light and Fog Bell Station on Angel Island, San Francisco Bay, in which Juliet recorded the events of each day, are housed at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. On each page of the journal were 35 lines, enough for an entry of one line for each day of the month. Morning observations (AM) were on the left, with afternoon entries (PM) on the right.

Here are selected excerpts from Juliet’s log entries for 1906.

April 18, 1906. Calm. Hazy. Severe earthquake at 5:07 A.M. followed by several lighter shocks. [Note: the official time of the earthquake is 5:12 a.m. Perhaps Juliet could not see her clock clearly in the dark or her clock was slow.]

April 18, 1906. Oil house cracked, stone basement badly cracked, plastering of the dwelling house cracked from N.E. to S.W.  

April 18, 1906. San Francisco destroyed by fire and earthquake. City under martial law. All troops gone from Fort McDowell.

April 19, 1906. San Francisco still burning. Buildings being blown up by dynamite to check fire.

July 2, 1906. Fog. Light S.W. wind. Machinery disabled, worked by hand. Sent telegram to the Inspector and Light-House Engineer.

July 2-3, 1906. Bell struck by hand 20 hours 35 minutes.

July 3, 1906. A.M. Dense fog with mist. Bell struck by hand. P.M. Light S.W. wind, dense fog after 7:00 P.M. Machinery repaired at 10:00 A.M. by Mr. Burt from the Office of the Light House Engineer.

July 4, 1906. A.M. July 4th Flag flying. Calm. Distant fog. After 7:00 P.M. dense fog banks. Light SW wind. Machinery striking irregularly.

July 4, 1906. 8:00 P.M machinery went to pieces—great tension bar broken in two—dense fog. Standing out on platform until 4:00 A.M. Bell struck by hand with nail hammer.

July 5, 1906. 8:00 A.M. Landmarks just visible. Workmen sent by the Light-House Engineer replaced fog bell machinery. Mailed report of accident to machinery to Light-House Inspector.

July 23, 1906. Received letter of commendation from the Light-House Board Washington through the Inspector 12th Light-House District dated July 10th 1906.


History of Angel Island

At 1.2 square miles, Angel Island is the largest island in San Francisco Bay located a mile from Tiburon in Marin County or about three miles from San Francisco. When Juan Manuel de Ayala, the first European to visit the island, came in the fall of 1775, moored his ship in the small cove on the north side of the island. Following the tradition of naming discoveries after the closest feast day, he named it Angel Island in honor of the Feast of the Angels, celebrated on October 2nd.  Ayala encountered the indigenous Miwoks, who had been coming to the island to hunt, fish, and gather acorns and other wild plants for thousands of years. Over the next half century, the regional Miwok population was decimated due to resettlement and diseases introduced by white people, and their use of the island as a hunting ground ended. For more about Native American use of Angel Island go to https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=1310

In 1848 at the end of the Mexican-/American War, California became part of the United States. Two years later, the federal government became the official owner of Angel Island.

Angel Island has had many uses over the years, including as a cattle ranch and military base. During Juliet’s years as lighthouse keeper, Angel Island was used as an Army base (Fort McDowell), a quarantine station, and beginning in 1910 as an immigration station. The quarantine station at Ayala Cove opened in 1891. Overseas passengers arriving in San Francisco who were suspected of having infectious diseases, such as smallpox, were brought there before being allowed to enter the United States. They were examined, quarantined in barracks, treated if necessary, and their belongings were disinfected. The immigration station was on the east side of the island. As the West Coast’s primary immigration facility, immigrants, mainly from China and Japan, were brought there to be examined and interrogated, often being detained for weeks or months, and in many cases deported. At the time, US government policy discriminated against Asian immigration. It closed in 1940, when operations moved to the mainland. Thousands of soldiers left from Angel Island during World War I and II. After World War II, the military bases were closed. For more about the military’s use of Angel Island go to https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=1307

The Army left Angel Island in 19465, but returned in 1954 to install a Nike missile site. It was removed in 1962 and military use of the island ended. The federal government gave Angel Island to the state of California and at the urging of a citizens group, Angel Island became a state park open to the public. For more about the creation of the park go to https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=1306


Point Knox Lighthouse and Fog Station

The first lighthouse on Angel Island was built in 1886 at Point Knox, a rocky outcropping on the southwest corner of the island. It consisted of a small house for the keeper, storage buildings, and a bell house. Juliet Fish Nichols served at the Point Knox lighthouse and fog bell station for twelve years, from 1902 to 1914. Her devotion to her job meant that ships in San Francisco Bay sailed safely past the rocks of Angel Island day after day, week after week, year after year. In 1960 a new, more modern lighthouse and fog station was opened at Point Blunt on Angel Island and the Point Knox lighthouse and fog station was closed and the house where Juliet once lived burned down. The giant bell, too heavy to move, remains at Point Knox. It is a reminder of Juliet Fish Nichols’s heroic efforts to keep the bell ringing in the foggy summer days after the terrible San Francisco earthquake of 1906.

The fog bell: Point Knox was a fog bell station at first. The 3000 pound bronze bell was operated by a Gamewell Fog Bell Striker machine, in which a heavy weight suspended below the mechanism powered a mallet that struck the bell. Once the mechanism was wound, it ran for several hours. Gamewell mechanisms were used widely at lighthouses along the coasts of the United States for many years, but were known to be temperamental. Juliet Fish Nichols reported in her log at least eight failures of the Point Knox bell machine. Eventually, (after the 1930's) the fog bell at Point Knox was replaced by a much more reliable compressed air siren.

The light: In 1900, a light, a type known as a Fresnel lens, was added to the Point Knox station.  The glass rings of a Fresnel lens are prisms that concentrate light from inside the lens (originally provided by an oil lamp, later by an electric bulb) making the light visible for 20 miles or more.  The lenses came in various sizes. The light at Point Knox was a 5th order red lens, one of the smaller Fresnel lenses, but sufficient for distances in San Francisco Bay. On clear nights, the lighted lamp hung at the front of the bell house; during the day, it was brought back into the bell house with a pulley. It could be seen up to 13 miles away. But on foggy days and nights, the light was useless. Then the sound of the bell warned ships to keep away from the shore.


Excerpts from the General Instructions to All Light-Keepers from the Office of the Light-House Board, Washington, D.C., July 1, 1881:

 Lights must be lighted punctually at sunset, and must be kept burning at full intensity until sunrise. The keeper must visit the light at least twice during the night between 8 p.m. and sunrise.

 Directions for use of Gamewell Fog Bell Machines: Keep the machine scrupulously clean. Keep the machine dry. Keep the bearings of machine and hammer well oiled.


For more about lighthouses:


At this site you can learn about the purpose of lighthouses, lighthouse history, navigating in the Fog Game, shapes of lighthouses, Fresnel lamps, a glossary of lighthouse terms and more.

The San Francisco Earthquake

 At 5:12 a.m., April 18, 1906 a violent earthquake struck the city of San Francisco, toppling buildings, cracking streets and sidewalks, bursting water mains. The rupture extended both northward and southward for a total of 296 miles (476 km). Shaking was felt from Oregon to Los Angeles. No system of measurement was in place at the time, but it is thought today that the earthquake would have measured between 7.9 and 8.2 on the Richter scale.  Hundreds of buildings collapsed during the quake.  But the bigger disaster came from the fires the followed.  Without a water supply, it was difficult to fight the rapidly spreading flames. By the time the fires were out, 500 city blocks were destroyed, at least 700 people were dead, and more than 225,000 homeless.


Lighthouse Libraries

Lighthouse keepers were provided with books for casual reading by the Light-House Service. They were contained in wooden portable cases with shelves and brass handles. At first the keepers were able to keep the libraries for as long as they wanted. But in 1886 the Light-House Board changed the policy. The 12th District Inspector wrote:

“…it has been the custom of this office to change the libraries only when requested by the Keepers as it takes some of them a year to read all the books. In the future they will be changed every six months as directed by the Board….”

 All library boxes were numbered. In the summer of 1906, Juliet Nichols notes in her log that Library box No. 284 was taken away on August 26 and replaced with a new one, Library No. 87.

 A sample of some of the books included in the library boxes:

Captain Fracasse from the French of Theophile Gautier by M.M. Ripley

Ovingdean Grange, by William Harrison Ainsworth

The Reign of Lewis XI, by P.F. Willert

Seasons with the Sea-Horses, or Sporting Adventures in the Northern Seas, by James Lamont

At Home and Abroad: A Sketch-book of Life, Scenery and Men, by Bayard Taylor

The Surgeon’s Stories: Times of Charles XII, by Z. Torpelius

British India, by R.W. Frazer

My Apingi Kingdom: With Life in the Great Sahara, and Sketches of the Chase of the Ostrich, Hyena, etc., by Paul Du Chaillu (A classic study of African wildlife, culture and tribes in the mid-1800s)

The Tuscan Republics (Florence, Siena, Pisa, and Lucca) with Genoa, by Bella Duffy

The Gulf and Inland Waters, by A.T. Mahan


What is a Pharologist?

One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World was a lighthouse - the famous Pharos of

Alexandria, Egypt. It is the first one that is recorded in history and was built about 280 B.C. Those

records tell us that it was the tallest one ever built -450 ft. (comparable to a 45 story skyscraper) and used an open fire at the top as a source of light. Can you imagine being the keeper, climbing to the top to light the fire, and then forgetting the matches or whatever was used in those days to start a fire? This fantastic structure survived for 1500 years until it was completely destroyed by an

earthquake in the 14th Century. Slave labor was used to build it, and it took twenty long years to

complete. It was a three part tower with a square base, a second story with eight sides and a narrow,

taller; round third story. At night they believe its lighted fire could be seen for thirty miles, whereas

by day it produced a column of smoke for a daymark. Today we call people who study (or are interested in) lighthouses pharologists. The name comes from that famous lighthouse.

(From lighthouse website. https://www.nps.gov/apis/learn/kidsyouth/upload/lightcurra.pdf)

Wildlife on Angel Island

Quail: The island once had a large quail population. In 1912 the quail became so numerous that hunting season was declared, the limit being two birds per hunter. In later years, ferrets, introduced to eliminate a rat problem, eradicated the quail as well. The ferrets were eventually trapped.

Wource, Miwoks to Missiles, p. 61

 For more about Angel Island’s natural history go to: https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=1312


 Visiting Angel Island


For information about visiting Angel Island go to https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=1313


For more about Angel Island, go to Angel Island Conservancy website:  http://angelisland.org

For more about the Point Knox lighthouse: https://www.lighthousefriends.com/light.asp?ID=337

Sources /Historical documents:

Call-Chronicle-Examiner (San Francisco). March 24, 1891; June 11, 1899; November 26, 1899; December 19, 1899; January 24, 1900; April 19, 1906; July 4, 1906; July 5, 1906; February 13, 1910; October 20, 1912. Library of Congress.

 Fish-Nichols gravesite. Mountain View Cemetery, Oakland, California.

 Menz, Katherine B. Historic Furnishings Report: Point Loma Lighthouse. Harpers Ferry Center: National Park Service, US Department of the Interior, December 1978.

 Nichols, Juliet. Angel Island Light, Log, January–December 1906. National Archives, Washington, D.C.

 United States Light-House Board. General Instructions to All Light-Keepers. Treasury Department, Document No. 151. Washington, D.C., July 1, 1881.

 U.S. Census Bureau. Census 1870, 1880, 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930, 1940.

 U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey. United States Coast Pilot, Pacific Coast. Washington: G.P.O. 19031952, 1909.


Additional Sources:

 Angel Island Conservancy. www.angelisland.org/history/lighthouses/ .

 Bagwell, Beth. Oakland: The Story of a City. 2nd ed. Oakland: Oakland Heritage Alliance, 2012.

 Chartier, JoAnn. “Juliet Fish Nichols: The Angel of Angel Island” Lighthouse Digest, March 2005.

 Colbruno, Michael. “Emily Fish & Juliet Nichols—Lighthouse Keepers.” Lives of the Dead: Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland (blog). May 2, 2008. http://mountainviewpeople.blogspot.com/2008/05/emily-fish-juliet-nichols-lighthouse.html.

 D’Entremont, Jeremy. “Women of the Lights.” Lighthouse Digest, July 2004.

 Soennichsen, John. Miwoks to Missiles: A History of Angel Island. Tiburon, California: Angel Island Association, 2001.


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