By Michelle Radison
Special to the Triplicate
There have been numerous women conducting their duties as light keepers and curators at Battery Point lighthouse over the years. While they were not often considered official positions, their stories are interesting and notable.
Fides Magruder married Theophilis at the age of 17 in the year 1831. They traveled by wagon westward, through largely uncharted territory. Fides and Theophilis were among some of the first settlers to travel over the Rocky Mountain range. Arriving in Crescent City on Christmas day, 1856, they began their duties as keepers at Battery Point.
Among the many duties of the keeper at the time was the illumination of the tower light. The lard oil lamps produced a large amount of smoke and soot, making the cleaning of the light and tower glass of major importance. The lard oil burned quickly and often needed to be filled; the wicks were trimmed to assure the proper flame. Light keepers were often called "Wickies" for this reason.
Mariners in peril were also the responsibility of the keeper. Those duties would be carried out even in the harshest of weather conditions.
A woman's work
Women of the time were thought to be unable to carry out the demanding work, because of their frailty, but surely Fides assisted her husband and performed these duties while he was ill or unable to keep the light.
Mrs. Magruder was also an excellent card player. She especially enjoyed the game of Whist. Unfortunately she lacked the opportunity to play and socialize with others because of the isolation of the island. It was written of her, "It seems ample to say of the noble character of Mrs. Fide Magruder that in all the dangers and duties incident to the venturesome and enterprising life of her husband; she was ever a faithful companion."
Helen "Nellie" Jeffery also assisted her husband, John, at Battery Point. The couple served as keepers from 1875 until 1914, the longest of the wickies at Battery Point. The Lighthouse Association, a rarity at the time, appointed Mrs. Jeffery assistant keeper. She performed her duties officially until 1882. The Jefferys had four children who also lived on the island.
Sending the children to school in town was gauged by the tides. If the children were tardy for school, the teacher would understand. After returning from classes, a flag would be raised from the island's flagpole informing the children if it was safe to pass or if they should stay in town with family members.
After 1956, the title of curator was given to the light keepers. Peggy and Clarence Coons were keeping the light. Peggy's stay would become a historic one.
March 27, 1964 began as any other day. Mrs. Coons described it as a mild one. She spent her day planting a garden on the island. Late in the evening, she looked out the window at the sea, sensing something was different. The rocks used to gauge the tides could not be seen. These rocks are visible at the highest of tides.
When the first wave of the tsunami reached Crescent City, the impact caused a large sound of breaking glass and splintering wood. The water plowed down the streets, taking buildings and cars with it. The wave receded back to the ocean, bringing everything back into the sea, boats were scattered about.
The second wave pushed past, taking all the debris into the town with it. The third wave reached the south side of Crescent City, igniting fires from sparking power lines. Peggy ran around the lighthouse, wondering if they were safe on the island. Expecting more destruction, she looked down at the sea, seeing a black chasm of immeasurable depth at the ocean floor. A vast maze of caves were visible; caves that were not seen even at the lowest of tides.
A still larger wall of water rushed at Battery Point. The couple tried to run for the safety of the tower, but the wave struck with tremendous speed and noise.
Peggy stated, "It took several minutes to realize the island had not moved." After the Tsunami, belongings, cars, and wood were littered about the town and its beaches. Thankfully the curators were safe and the only debris to be found on the island was a spool of lavender thread. Peggy Coons writes about her experience in an essay entitled, "Crescent City's destructive horror."
Nadine and husband Jerry Tugal served as curators on the island for 12 years, beginning in 1984. The Tugal's were active in the restoration of Battery Point.
During their curacy, the Conference of California Historical Societies honored Nadine with a preservation award.
During the presentation, it was said, "It seems that you have not been content to restore and preserve the site, you have delved into its history and given the lighthouse dignity and integrity."
Nadine has been described as a gracious and charming hostess, always researching the island's history. She assisted her husband with the duties of the lighthouse, and also gave tours through the historic site.
Today, Sally Ansley carries on the lighthouse duties with her husband Randy, following in the footsteps of the women of Battery Point Lighthouse.
Many women have served at Battery Point, and their contributions to its rich and interesting history is immeasurable.