Just off Fort Point are several rocks that are a terror to mariners and on which many a good ship has laid her bones. The currents here, right in the jaws of the entrance to the harbor, are very strong and irregular, and in case of fog the rocks are extremely dangerous.”
—San Francisco Chronicle, November 10, 1895
Thick, damp, and cold fog pressed against the windows of the small house at Point Knox, condensed in a muted bronze gleam on the huge bell, slipped clammy fingers inside the cloak of the woman shivering on the small platform. Waves splashed and foamed against the rocks far below the wet planks where Juliet Fish Nichols listened tensely for the creak of rigging or the dull thunder of a steamship’s engine. She hoped she heard something before she saw it because any ship close enough to see was doomed.
Automatically, her throbbing arm lifted, and she rapped the small hammer twice against the side of the 3,000-pound bell. Fifteen seconds later, she struck the bell again. Then, after counting off another fifteen seconds, she elevated the hammer and banged twice more on the great bell. Again and again, eight times each minute, Juliet lifted her aching arm and rang the bell, warning ships away from Angel Island in fogbound San Francisco Bay.
At least four ships were due in port that first week of July 1906: the Capac, City of Topeka, and Sea Foam, all of which plied the California coast, as well as the transpacific steamer Mongolia loaded with passengers from the Far East. Unfortunately, the crystal-clear atmosphere of July 1 had deteriorated rapidly in the following few days. Visibility was often no more than a few yards. Impenetrable fog concealed every landmark.
Juliet had seen the annual summer phenomenon many times, but this year the job was doubly important. Rebuilding was in full swing following the great 1906 earthquake. The already hectic harbor was a mad scramble of activity with hundreds of ships attempting to navigate the bay’s treacherous currents, escape ship-eating rocks, and find their way through heavy fog. The lighthouses, fog sirens, and bells were critically important.
Juliet stood on the small platform with a hammer in hand because, once again, the Gamewell Fire Alarm Number 3 clockworks, which powered the mechanism that rang the Angel Island bell, had quit working. During a brief lifting of the fog, Juliet had sent a telegram to the lighthouse engineer and then serviced the small, stationary, red light on the southwest corner of the station. Because the light was intended for fair nights and not thick fog, it would be virtually useless as a warning.
In the distance, she heard the intermittent signals of foghorns at various locations on San Francisco Bay. She hoped those warnings would stop any ships from proceeding until the fog lifted. Navigation was always tricky against treacherous currents and strong tides. In a thick fog, Angel Island, Alcatraz Island, and Yerba Buena were nearly invisible. There was no one but herself to warn mariners away from the narrow channel between Angel Island and Sausalito, where more than one ship had gone to a watery grave.
Juliet straightened with a snap at a familiar sound. She gripped the hammer tightly and peered into the clammy, gray wall before her. A faint swish and creak, the sound of voices, and, suddenly, the masts of a sailing vessel coalesced from the mist. With a shout, she cracked a clamorous warning against the bell, creating a deafening din. Yells of alarm from unseen sailors carried across the choppy waters. Muscles burned as she hammered the bell until the masts disappeared into the mist.
With her heart beating high and hard, she listened for the agonizing crash that would signal the end for the ship whose name she didn’t know. Minutes later her arm fell to her side, cramped fingers frozen to the handle of the hammer. Silence, blessed silence, instead of the shriek of drowning men. With a shuddering sigh, she unclamped her fingers, changed hands, and again took up the rhythm of the Angel Island bell: two beats every fifteen seconds.
The next morning, the thick blanket lifted, and a wave of ships entered the bay from the Pacific; ferries once again carried passengers to and fro, and the merchant ships carrying summer produce from Stockton and Sacramento bustled into port. “Mr. Burt came on July 3rd at 10 A.M. and made slight repairs,” Juliet wrote in a report to the lighthouse inspector. “Meanwhile I had struck the bell by hand for twenty (20) hours and thirty-five (35) minutes, until the fog lifted.”
That evening the fog once more crept through the low points of the western hills of San Francisco and poured silently across the bay. Juliet slept uneasily, rising every two hours to wind the mechanism that automatically rang the bell. Her arms ached from the hours beating the bell with the hammer the day before, but there was little rest that night, either, because the heavy clockworks took twenty minutes to rewind.
“On the night of July 3rd, 1906, the machinery worked badly, striking irregularly,” Juliet reported. The next day a fog bank menaced the city, held back by its famous, steep hills. By seven o’clock that evening, the battle was lost, and 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 5 report that she wrote about the preceding three days, Juliet noted that the machinist from the office of the lighthouse engineer, located in San Francisco, had finally arrived and replaced the tension bar just as she was writing the account.
By the foggy summer of 1906, Juliet had served as keeper of the Angel Island station for four years. She had the satisfaction of knowing that her efforts were important to the crew and passengers whom made it safely to port, but she also had the frustration of dealing with a piece of equipment that became more unreliable the more she needed it. Because of the intense vibration and the constant tension on the clockworks that regulated the heavy sledgehammer that rang the bell, the mechanism was prone to fail during long periods of foggy weather.
San Francisco had a legendary reputation as one of the foggiest harbors in the nation. Although it was often foggy in winter, the peculiar phenomenon of heavy summer fog made bells and sirens critical to nautical safety. In her first few years as keeper of the light, she’d seen more foggy days in summer than ever before in her life.
The daughter of an army physician, Dr. Melancthon Fish, Juliet was born in China in 1859. 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. After returning to California from China, where Dr. Fish had served as vice consul of Shanghai, the family became prominent in the Bay Area. Dr. Fish taught university level classes, and he, his wife, and daughter were active in the social life of Oakland, across the bay from San Francisco.
Juliet’s wedding to Commander Henry Nichols in 1888 was prominently featured in San Francisco’s Daily Morning Call. Juliet was thirty years old, and Henry was forty-five. The newspaper reported that the bride had graduated from Mills College and the groom had successfully commanded two ships prior to their wedding day. The floral counterpart of a full-rigged vessel was part of the wedding decorations, and they were married under an archway of white chrysanthemums set up in the bay window of her father’s Oakland home.
Henry was, at that time, working for the Coast and Geodetic Survey and for several years 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 Call in 1890. Henry later was appointed superintendent of the Twelfth Lighthouse District which covered the California coast.
When Dr. Fish died, Henry appointed his mother-in-law, Emily, to the light keeper’s position at Point Pinos on the Monterey Peninsula. Emily Fish was one of the few women not directly related to a male light keeper to serve in such a critical position. Little did Juliet dream that she, too, would be widowed a few years later and that she would accept a similar position. In 1902, two years after her husband’s death in the Philippines while serving in the Spanish-American War, Juliet was given the post of lighthouse keeper at Angel Island.
She lived there alone. The small station was isolated, accessible only by boat and a long, steep, wooden stairway. The little house perched precariously on a rocky outcropping at the western edge of the island. The house had been remodeled after Juliet took over. The rear porch was enclosed and became the kitchen; the former kitchen became the living room, and the pantry became a bathroom and water closet with stationary washtubs. A shed had been built for wood and coal needed for heating and cooking.
The small house sat in a 30-by-30-foot plot of rocky dirt, but Juliet managed to cultivate two, small flower beds there. Access to the outside world required a long climb up the staircase perched on the steep granite bluff, then a trek across the military reservation on the island, for which she needed an official pass. From there she caught a government steamer to take her to town to buy supplies, see a doctor, or pay a visit to a friend.
In a 1903 letter to the Lighthouse Board, Commander J. B. Milton asked that the keeper 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.”
Commander Milton pointed out that the “station is not allowed a ration and the salary is so small that the Keeper is unable to pay an assistant.” Later that year, permission was granted to allow Juliet to purchase “subsistence stores” subject to several conditions, including a ten percent surcharge and only if the post commander decided the army could spare the goods.
In 1905, Commander W. P. Day requested a pay increase for Juliet. “There is only one keeper at this station, and a woman at that, and she has been up on one occasion 83 [sic] consecutive hours and obliged to strike the bell by hand a considerable part of that time.” Milton believed the station should have assistance but acknowledged the difficulties.
“As this station is built on a small detached rock, the quarters are constricted; I would therefore respectfully recommend an increase in salary of the present keeper from $600 to $750 per annum, on condition that she employs a servant to assist her in her duties as Keeper.” She would, in effect, earn about $63 a month–but to get the raise, part of it would have to be spent on wages for a helper.
Juliet’s raise was approved, although there is no record that she ever hired help. Her new salary was less than the Alcatraz keeper’s $800 annual pay, and the Alcatraz keeper was assigned two assistants whom were paid $500 a year each by the Lighthouse Board, not the keeper.
Alcatraz and Angel Island were equally important in protecting shipping in the bay. Mid-nineteenth-century news accounts, editorials, and letters to the Corps of Engineers show that the lack of a fog signal at Angel Island had been a problem for years. On the other hand, having an unreliable signal was considered almost a worse problem.
“A fog signal, to answer all the requirements, must not only be very powerful, very efficient, and very simple, but it must be very reliable; for it is better to have none at all than one that stops frequently because [it’s] out for repairs,” noted the Alta California newspaper in January 1869.
Juliet was only the second keeper at Angel Island. It had taken years of constant requests before the bell station was finally approved. Requests had repeatedly been made for a signal on the island, located just past the entrance to the bay. For years, the heavy fogs and tidal rips had taken a toll on shipping. The loss of ships and crew and the wealth that sank to the bottom of the bay with each shipwreck had merchants and politicians lobbying for help. One report from June 2, 1854, showed that three steamships alone had carried more than $2 million in “treasure” the day before. The loss of such cargoes weighed heavily in the long-delayed decision to install a fog signal at Angel Island.
More than fifteen years of shipping disasters and much political pressure bore fruit in 1885 when $4,500 was appropriated to put a fog bell at Point Knox on the western side of Angel Island. Construction was not an easy job. 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 necessary to scale the steep cliff. Because so many ships passed through the narrow channel between Point Knox and Sausalito and because the strong tides and rocky outcroppings were so dangerous, more money was appropriated to rebuild. In 1887, the station was finally activated.
The keeper’s quarters and signal house were connected to the top of the steep hillside by a wooden stairway with 151 steps. Water was delivered via a pipeline from the army post on the other side of the island. In the three years after the station went into operation, landslides twice took out the stairs, the water line, and a small storage building. The clockwork mechanism that automatically ran the bell broke down regularly – all this before Juliet took on the job at the Point Knox station. Any keeper there was at the mercy of the elements.
The summer of 1906 was particularly foggy, and the bell’s mechanism was extremely unreliable. It was a year of trials for San Francisco. On April 18, Juliet helplessly watched through binoculars as the bustling city shuddered and tumbled and then burst into flames. Her own station on the island had survived the massive earthquake without mishap, but across the bay the city became a raging inferno. Unable to communicate with the outside world for hours, she worried about the only living member of her family–her stepmother, Emily, keeper of the Point Pinos light. Two days later, she learned that Emily was safe and the Point Pinos lighthouse had survived the terrible earthquake with only minor damage.
Towns as far as 100 miles away had suffered damage in the quake. Wreckage of roads and rail systems hampered relief efforts, but ships carrying badly needed supplies kept the bay’s shipping lanes busier than ever. All that spring and early summer, Juliet stayed vigilant, lighting the small, red lamp that marked Angel Island and winding the machinery that kept the bell going until it gave out that memorable day three months after the 1906 quake.
Juliet received a commendation from the commissioner of lighthouses for the twenty-hour marathon with her trusty hammer. It might have been more rewarding if they had also replaced the machinery that automatically struck the bell. She wrote numerous letters, sent telegrams, and reported many more instances when her hammer and her arm were the only warnings for ships negotiating the hazardous rocks in the fog-bound bay.
Her log for November 19, 1908, recorded dense fog all night and the breaking of a steel pin in the mechanism that disabled the bell. Once again, she grabbed her hammer and stood outside banging it twice every fifteen seconds for more than four hours. During forty-five minutes when the fog lifted, she reported the incident by telegraph, but at 10:00 A.M. the fog settled in again, and she rang the bell by hand for another hour. Similar reports are repeated every year in the log Juliet kept until she retired. She turned the station over to her replacement, Peter Admiral, on November 19, 1914.
Admiral’s first year was a busy one, to say the least. During that year, Juliet usually saw sunshine break through the morning fog at her home in Oakland, but the station she’d left on Angel Island was frequently immersed in the mist. The San Francisco Lightship reported 2,145 hours of fog that year, and in 1916 the lightship was fogbound for 2,221 hours, or about twenty-five percent of the year. Juliet’s replacement had just as much trouble with the fog bell.
Juliet lived quietly in Oakland to the age of eighty-eight. The Angel Island fog bell was automated in the 1960s, and the keeper vacated the quarters on the rocky point. The house was burned to the ground in 1963. The bell remained in place for years, its dulled sides showing the marks of a hammer wielded by one valiant woman.