The history of America’s lighthouses is filled with tales of heroic women keepers, but one of the West Coast’s most famous female lightkeepers isn’t remembered so much for her lifesaving prowess as for the refined lifestyle she introduced at Point Pinos Lighthouse at the southern entrance to Monterey Bay. Emily Maitland Fish is immortalized in lighthouse lore as the “Socialite Keeper.”
Ms. Fish wasn’t the first woman keeper at the 1855 lighthouse. The light’s first keeper, Charles Layton, an Englishman, was serving on a posse in pursuit of an outlaw when he was fatally shot. His wife Charlotte, left alone with four children, replaced her husband as keeper. She served in that capacity until she remarried and her new husband became keeper, with Charlotte taking the position of assistant.
Emily Maitland, originally from Albion, Michigan, married Melancthon W. Fish when she was only 17 years old. Fish was a medical doctor who for six years served as U.S. vice consul in Shanghai, China. He had previously been married to Emily’s sister, who had died in childbirth while in China. After she married Dr. Fish, Emily raised her sister’s daughter, Juliet, as her own. Juliet later married Henry E. Nichols, who became a naval officer and inspector in the Lighthouse Service’s 12th District.
Melancthon Fish left China to serve for the Union in the Civil War, and Emily and Juliet accompanied him during General Sherman’s campaign through Georgia. Dr. Fish died in 1891, when Emily was 50. Later, her son-in-law mentioned that the job of keeper at Point Pinos Lighthouse was about to become available, and Emily’s interest was piqued. With Henry’s help she won the appointment and soon moved into the lighthouse along with a servant named Que who had come from China with the family. From her home in Oakland she brought along fine antique furniture, paintings, and the best china and silverware. Rarely has an American lighthouse been outfitted in such luxury.
Keeper Emily Fish had good soil brought to the sandy lighthouse grounds for the planting of grass, trees and hedges. She populated the 92-acre station with French poodles, Holstein cows, thoroughbred horses, and chickens. During more than two decades (1893-1914) as keeper, Emily hired a number of male workers, most of whom she discharged for “incompetence.” No such charge could be made against Emily. During her stay, Point Pinos Light Station received consistently high marks for being well-kept.
As the years passed, Emily earned the “Socialite Keeper” nickname because of her regard for fashion and style as well as her habit of entertaining artists, writers and other guests at the lighthouse. Naval officers from visiting ships were also frequently invited. Emily also became deeply involved in the local community and was a founding member of the Executive Committee of the Red Cross Society of Monterey-Pacific Grove.
Emily’s son-in-law Henry Nichols died of sunstroke while fighting in the Spanish-American War, and soon Juliet Fish Nichols followed in her mother’s footsteps when she became keeper of San Francisco Bay’s Angel Island Light and Fog Signal Station in 1902. Both women were on duty when the catastrophic earthquake of April 18, 1906 struck the region.
According to legend, Emily noticed her animals stirring uneasily early that morning. Soon the buildings were trembling and swaying. Emily wrote in the logbook, “At 5:30 a.m. violent and continued earthquake shocks jarred the lens causing it to bend the connecting tube and loosened the lens, so it was unstable, and also enlarged the crack in the tower.” Meanwhile, from her post closer to San Francisco, Juliet Nichols watched in horror as buildings collapsed and fires raged along the city’s waterfront.
The lantern and top of the tower at Point Pinos were replaced soon after the earthquake, but the third order Fresnel lens was repaired and remains in use today.
Jerry McCaffery, a docent at the lighthouse and author of the book Lighthouse: Point Pinos, Pacific Grove, Ca, feels that the “socialite” label trivializes Emily Fish’s fine record as a lighthouse keeper. He describes her log entries as precise and professional. “She went from high society to a rather reclusive lifestyle, “ says McCaffery. “It was a very different kind of life for her, but she crafted it to fit her previous lifestyle. And when she retired, the district lighthouse inspector went out of his way to give her a commendation.”
Emily Fish retired as keeper in 1914 and died at the age of 88 in 1931. Her assistant Que stayed with Emily until the end, returning to China after her death. Emily’s stepdaughter Juliet Nichols also retired in 1914, and she lived until 1947. The two women are buried on a hillside in the Pleasant Hill Cemetery in Oakland, and visitors to the family gravesite are treated to a fabulous view of San Francisco Bay.
Point Pinos Lighthouse, California’s oldest operational lighthouse, is now operated by the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History. The station has been beautifully restored and the lighthouse is furnished much as it was in the period when Emily Fish lived there. Local actress and volunteer Roo Hornady dons period dress and portrays Emily for visitors to the lighthouse Saturday and Sunday afternoons from 1 to 4. The lighthouse is open to the public with volunteer-led tours from 1 to 4 p.m. Thursday through Monday; the summer hours are 11:30 to 5 daily, seven days a week. Call (831) 648-5716 or visit the museum’s website at www.pgmuseum.org for more information.
This story appeared in the
July 2004 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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