1906: Armed with Only a Hammer, a Lighthouse Keeper Goes Over and Beyond the Call of Duty to Safeguard Ships and Mariners

July 2, 1906

Juliet Fish Nichols, the keeper at the Point Knox Lighthouse on Angel Island in San Francisco Bay, made maritime history when a fog bell malfunctioned at the worst possible time. Her job as lighthouse keeper was crucial in helping ships deal with the treacherous currents, rocks, and fog throughout the bay. The need to help vessels safely navigate that area assumed more urgency than usual during the summer of 1906. San Francisco had been hit by a devastating earthquake in April, and consequently hundreds of supply ships made their way through the bay to help with rebuilding efforts. The situation on July 2 was especially challenging thanks to a thick fog that rolled across the region.  

The fog rendered warning lights useless, so keepers had to depend on bells instead to alert ships to potential hazards. Unfortunately, the clockwork mechanism that automatically rang the large bronze bell on Angel Island stopped working. The 47-year-old Nichols, realizing that the disabled bell placed nearby mariners in greater danger of losing their lives, decided to try something else. She used a standard nail hammer to pound away on the bell, two beats every 15 seconds.  

During a brief lifting of the fog, Nichols managed to send a message to the lighthouse engineer asking him to repair the mechanism. Otherwise, she kept pounding away at the bell throughout the fog-blanketed night and into the next morning.  “[The engineer] came on July 3 at 10 a.m. and made slight repairs,” Nichols later recalled. “Meanwhile I had struck the bell by hand for 20 hours and 35 minutes, until the fog lifted.”  

Nichols’ makeshift efforts to safeguard mariners and their vessels did not end altogether at that point in time; over the next couple of days, she continued to hit the bell with a hammer as needed due to both the still-unreliable mechanism for that bell and the return of more dense fog. Nichols’ rough-and-ready response to the formidable challenges that she faced during that first week in July ultimately earned her a letter of commendation from the U.S. Lighthouse Board.

Photo Credit: U.S. Coast Guard

For more information on Juliet Fish Nichols and her tenure as keeper at the Point Knox Lighthouse, please check out http://www.lighthousedigest.net/Digest/StoryPage.cfm?StoryKey=2185

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