Keepers · Research

Researching Female Lighthouse Keepers

As every historian knows, research is an ongoing process; you are never completely finished. The story is often told and new information comes to light. So it is with my research on female lighthouse keepers. Our book, Women Who Kept the Lights, first published in 1993, keeps expanding as new information is found on these remarkable women who kept lighthouses primarily during the nineteenth century. We produced a third edition in 2013 that includes two new chapters.

So I was surprised and delighted when I noticed a postcard that Linda Keenan had scanned in the Herb Entwistle collection for inclusion in the Society Archives and digital Catalog. (Founding member of the Chesapeake Chapter of the U.S. Lighthouse Society, Herb amassed an amazing collection of lighthouse postcards that his family has donated to the Society’s Archives.) Linda recognized the significance of this particular postcard of Point Pinos and scanned both the back and front sides shown here.

Point Pinos Lighthouse, California, from the Herb Entwistle collection, Society Archives.
Point Pinos Lighthouse Keeper Emily Fish wrote “I have my efficiency star with commendation for the efficient and conscientious manner in which I have discharged my duties–am so pleased” to Angel Island Lighthouse Keeper Juliet Nichols. 1913 postcard from the Herb Entwistle Collection, Society Archives

The efficiency star intended “to promote efficiency and friendly rivalry among lighthouse keepers, a system of efficiency stars and pennants . . . Keepers who have been commended for efficiency at each quarterly inspection during the year are entitled to wear the inspector’s star for the next year, and those who receive the inspector’s star for three successive years will be entitled to wear the Commissioner’s star…”(Reproduction stars are available in the Keeper’s Locker),

We know that Keeper Emily Fish had a servant and employed laborers for the “heavy work” which included maintaining her large gardens and livestock. And that her son-in-law, district lighthouse inspector Lt. Cdr. Henry E. Nichols, arranged Emily’s appointment in 1893.  But Fish was a very conscientious keeper, keeping an excellent light and dealing with the after-effects of the 1906 earthquake that destroyed much of nearby San Francisco.

Emily’s step-daughter, Juliet Nichols, was the wife of the same inspector who procured Emily’s appointment. Juliet was offered the appointment as keeper of Angel Island’s light and fog signal after her husband’s death. Nichol’s correspondence with the district inspector reflected continued struggles with the fog signal, having to ring it by hand when the striking mechanism failed. Nichols, appointed in 1902, also served during the 1906 earthquake and watched San Francisco burn from her post.

Both Fish and Nichols retired as keepers in 1914, the year after this card was written.

Another female keeper, Julia Williams (pictured here), kept the Santa Barbara Light, California, from 1865 to 1905. Postcard from Herb Enwistle Collection, Society Archives

Submitted by Candace Clifford, Society Historian. Her book, Women Who Kept the Lights, co-authored with Mary Louise Clifford, is available in the Keeper’s Locker.

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