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KEEPER OF THE LIGHT: Juliet Fish Nichols Fights the San Francisco Fog

KEEPER OF THE LIGHT tells the story ofJuliet Fish Nichols, the lighthouse keeper on Angel Island in San Francisco Bay from 1902 to 1914, and her heroic efforts in the summer of 1906 after the San Francisco earthquake, when for more than twenty hours she rang the giant fog bell by hand, thus averting potential disaster. At the time the Bay was crowded with boats bringing supplies to repair the ruined city. This fictional telling is based on her entries in the official lighthouse log and other historical documents.

Click HERE for a reading guide and projects for KEEPER OF THE LIGHT.

For more about Juliet Nichols, her log, Angel Island, the Point Knox Lighthouse, 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and more, go to my BLOG.

Excerpts from Juliet Nichols' Angel Island Lighthouse Log, 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.

Headlines in the Call-Chronicle-Examiner San Francisco, Thursday, April 19, 1960

EARTHQUAKE AND FIRE: SAN FRANCISCO IN RUINS

NO HOPE LEFT FOR SAFETY OF ANY BUILDINGS

BLOW BUILDINGS UP TO CHECK FLAMES

MAYOR CONFERS WITH MILITARY AND CITIZENS

Further Reading
  • Lighthouses for Kids: History, Science, and Lore with 21 Activities by Katherine L. House (Chicago Review Press, 2008) .
  • Hello Lighthouse, by Sophie Blackall (Little Brown, 2018)
  • Kate's Light: Kate Walker at Robbins Reef Lighthouse, by Elizabeth Spires and Emily Arnold McCully (Holiday House, 2021)
  • Abbie Against the Storm: The True Story of a Young Heroine and a Lighthouse by Marcia K. Vaughan (Scholastic, 1999)
  • Angel Island: Gateway to Gold Mountain, by Russell Freedman (Clarion, 2016)
  • Li on Angel Island (Smithsonian Historical Fiction), by Veeda Bybee (Capstone, 2020)
  • What Was The San Francisco Earthquake?, by Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler (Penguin Workshop, 2016)
  • Instructions from the Office of the Lighthouse Board, Washington, D.C.1886
    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. July 1, 1881.
    Portable libraries will be changed every six months.
    Curriculum Links
  • Language Arts: comprehension strategy--compare and contrast, main idea/details strategy, cause and effect relationships
  • Science: Weather, earthquakes.
  • Social Studies: California and U.S. history.
  • Reviews
    Booklist, March 15, 2022

    In 1902, Juliet Fish Nichols became the lighthouse keeper on Angel Island in San Francisco Bay. Written in first person from her point of view, this fictional narrative describes the actual woman’s solitary life, spent reading, writing reports in the log book, and maintaining the lamp that guided boats at night, as well as the machine that rang a heavy bell, warning sailors away from the island when fog hid it from view. Early one morning, her bed thrashed “like a boat in a storm.” The 1906 earthquake had struck San Francisco. Months later, when the bay was crowded with ships, the bell-ringing machine broke down. Grabbing the mallet, she struck the bell twice every 15 seconds throughout the night, saying, “The fog is fierce, but so am I.” Though not inherently dramatic, the story is well told and interesting. Sumpter contributes illustrations portraying a confident young woman within colorful surroundings including the lighthouse, her hillside garden, and the sun setting over the bay. An attractive picture book celebrating a lighthouse keeper's dedication to her work.

    Kirkus, March 2, 2022
    On Sept. 1, 1902, Juliet Fish Nichols began keeping a journal.
    Newly installed as the lighthouse keeper on Angel Island in San Francisco Bay, she enumerated her many duties, requiring physical strength, steadfastness, determination, and bravery. Every evening, she had to light the oil lamp and keep it shining all night long. On an April morning in 1906, the great San Francisco earthquake damaged the lighthouse, leaving Juliet heartbroken. A few months later, when the bay was saturated with a dangerous, impenetrable fog, the hand-cranked fog bell machine broke down, and Juliet had to manually strike the bell with a mallet every 15 seconds throughout the night to warn ships away from the rocks. Her journal entries, based on historical documents, appear in light, thin handwriting and illuminate her mostly solitary life, wholly dedicated to her important work and punctuated by times of terror and danger as well as occasional trips to the city across the bay for supplies. The story conveys Juliet’s deep appreciation for the beauty of the sea and the island’s landscape. Sumpter’s carefully composed double-page illustrations show the lighthouse, harbor, and city from a variety of perspectives and add detail and dimension to the narration. They show, for example, that the lighthouse was not a tower but a cottage with an attached bell house on a platform high on a cliff. Juliet presents White. (This book was reviewed digitally.)
    A fascinating introduction to a once-celebrated, now lesser-known light keeper. (additional facts, further reading) (Picture-book biography. 7-9)

    School Library Journal, April 1, 2022

    PreS-Gr 2—In a story inspired by real journals, this picture book gives readers a fictional glimpse into the day-to-day activities of a dedicated lighthouse keeper. In 1902, Juliet Fish Nichols began working at Angel Island to guide ships safely to San Francisco. Set in a journal format, descriptive language and hazy illustrations put the readers in her place as she tends to the mundane, everyday chores, while “the fog, my foe,” is a constant concern. Eventually, the story’s pace picks up when the 1906 San Francisco earthquake hits, followed months later with the lighthouse’s machinery breaking. Every 15 seconds, through a long night, Juliet must strike the bell to warn ships in the fog. Readers will admire her bravery and steadfastness, but might struggle to stay interested during the story’s slower sections. The specialized focus may also narrow the audience to local readers. There are intriguing tidbits dropped along the way, like how both Nichols and her mother were lighthouse keepers at the same time in different locations, but those are not explained until the back matter.

    VERDICT For patient readers with a demonstrated interest in lighthouses or historical fiction. By Elissa Cooper

    Good Reads With Ronna, November 9, 2022

    Keeper of the Light written by Caroline Arnold and illustrated by Rachell Sumpter is a fascinating, "fictionalized account based on true events and historical documents about Juliet Fish Nichols..." I love learning about historical figures, especially women who had non-traditional careers, whose stories might never be told were it not for an inquisitive picture book author.

    A widow at 42 and in need of a steady income, Juliet Fish Nichols worked for over a decade as Keeper of Angel Island Light Station in San Francisco Bay. Author Arnold presents an engaging interpretation of several years of Nichols’ life there--Point Knox to be precise--in log format so that readers can gain insight into the important responsibilities she was tasked with. This not only involved making sure the lamp (visible for up to 13 miles) was filled with oil, clean, and in working order but when needed, operating the fog bell machine.

    Life may have been simple and calm most of the time but it could suddenly change when the weather grew foggy as it was wont to do. When that happened, Nichols had one thing in mind: Keep the boats safe. Then, on April 18, 1906, a horrendous earthquake rocked San Francisco. Buildings tumbled to the ground and deadly fires broke out all over the city. Nichols helped by hanging her lamp to guide the way for ferries transporting people to safety.

    On July 2 of that same year, as early as midday, fog began rolling in...

    When the fog’s vast thickness rendered the fog light useless to keep boats from crashing into the rocks the clang, clang of the bell could be heard. But it soon stopped. Nichols realized the bell machine was broken but there was no time to get help or repairs. The keeper had no choice but to grab a mallet and strike the bell herself … every fifteen seconds, throughout the night … for over 20 long hours … until the fog lifted. Nichols’ selfless efforts likely saved hundreds of lives that day when people were still recovering from April’s tragedy.

    Sumpter’s warm-toned illustrations with a watercolor style perhaps mixed with pastels took me back in time to the turn of the twentieth-century San Francisco Bay area. They add atmosphere and tension in all the right places and, together with Arnold’s text, make this such an interesting read. We learn from the Author’s Note in the back matter that Nichols’ logs do exist but this fictionalized version makes them accessible to children by focusing on a few significant events during her 12-year tenure as keeper. I now want to visit Angel Island like Arnold did to see where this amazing woman lived and worked and to see firsthand the giant bell that, with Nichols’ help, saved so many from perishing. Ronna Mandel

    Datebook: San Francisco Chronicle, by Susan Faust, April 21, 2022

    What’s a widow to do? In 1902, with little money, Juliet Fish Nichols successfully applies to be lighthouse keeper at Point Knox on the southwest side of Angel Island, according to this fictionalized account of her time on the job. Based on “true events and historical documents,” journal entries allow Nichols to describe her isolated world: noisy sea lions and gulls; her few neighbors, infrequent city trips and well-tended garden; and the work station itself, a small house on stilts at water’s edge with an oil lamp and a 3,000-pound bell. Ethereal paintings capture the thickening fog two months after the 1906 earthquake. With lamplight unable to penetrate a foggy “foe,” the bell becomes critical. Thus, when its mechanism fails, Nichols must swing a heavy mallet every 15 seconds through a long night to prevent ships from going aground. They are loaded with rebuilding supplies. Nichols’ grit and determination are standouts in this rather staid tale of heroism. Oddly enough, Nichols is here remembered more as "keeper of the bell" than "keeper of the light," as the title suggests. But no matter: She’s duty-bound to keep Angel Island waters safe by whatever means necessary.