Friday, May 2, 2008

Emily Fish & Juliet Nichols - Lighthouse Keepers

[Photo by Michael Colbruno]

Emily Fish (1844-1931) Plot 33,
Juliet Nichols (1859-1947) Plot 33,

Emily Fish and Juliet Nichols are remembered as the most celebrated “mother-daughter” lighthouse keepers in the United States. Actually, Juliet was the daughter of Emily’s late sister. When Emily Maitland was just seventeen, she and her widowed brother-in-law, Dr. Melancthon Fish, were married in China where he served as U. S. vice consul in Shanghai for six years, and Emily raised Juliet.

After their marriage, Dr. and Mrs. Fish and Juliet returned to the U.S. where he served for the Union in the Civil War, and Emily and Juliet accompanied him during General Sherman’s campaign through Georgia.

Juliet married Henry Nichols who became a naval officer and inspector in the Lighthouse Service’s 12th District. When Melancthon Fish died in 1893, Henry Nichols suggested to Emily the idea of her becoming the lighthouse keeper at Pt. Pinos on the Monterey Peninsula – a position that was about to become available. Emily won the appointment and in 1893 moved into the lighthouse along with a Chinese manservant named Que who had come from China with the family. From her home in Oakland she brought fine antique furniture, paintings, china, and silver. Determined to have a garden, with Que’s help she brought topsoil to the sandy grounds and planted grass, trees and hedges. Her 92-acre “estate” featured Holstein cows, thoroughbred horses, chickens and French poodles. Over the years she listed in her log more than thirty male workers, most of whom she noted she fired for incompetence. Emily Fish was an active member of Monterey society, entertaining widely, chairing local committees and helping to organize the Monterey-Pacific Grove American Red Cross.

After Henry Nichols died in the Spanish-American War in 1899 leaving Juliet without support, it was arranged for her to be the keeper of the light at Angel Island, a post she filled ably from 1903 to 1914. In the summer of 1906 Juliet gained fame when the automatic bell failed in heavy fog and she manually rang the bell twice every fifteen seconds for a period of 20 hours, 35 minutes. Earlier that year both women were at their posts when the April 18 earthquake struck; Emily’s lighthouse suffered some rather severe damage, while Juliet’s experience included watching the destruction by temblor and flame of San Francisco.

Both women retired in 1914. Emily spent the rest of her life in Pacific Grove, Juliet in Oakland.

[Some of this information came from the article “Women of the Light” by Jeremy D’Entremont published in The Lighthouse Digest, July 2004 - compiled by docent Barbara Smith]

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