Congress appropriated an additional $550 on August 4, 1886, and work on the island resumed roughly two months later. The station’s fog signal commenced operation on November 1, 1886 with a metal hammer, powered by a clockwork mechanism that required winding every two hours, being used to strike the bell a double-blow at fifteen-second intervals. Near the fog signal building and taking up most of the point’s surface was a thirty-foot-square, one-story keeper’s dwelling. Access to the main part of the island was via a series of 151 steps, which led up the steep bluff.
The station’s first keeper was John Ross, who began his career in the Lighthouse Service on the East Coast. Ross accepted a position aboard the new lighthouse tender Shubrick, which left Philadelphia in 1857 and sailed around Cape Horn bound for its home port of San Francisco. En route, the ship’s coal supply ran out, and the crew was forced to burn furniture and the ship’s beautiful wood paneling to keep the boiler fires going. The Shubrick finally arrived in San Francisco on May 27, 1858.
In 1872, Ross was still serving aboard the Shubrick as she crossed the Columbia River bar towing a barge. The force placed on the towline by the strong current at the river’s mouth snapped the huge hawser sending one end recoiling toward the Shubrick. The line struck Ross in the leg, injuring him so severely that the limb required amputation. The accident brought Ross’ seagoing career to an end, forcing him to settle for a keeper position. Ross served as an assistant keeper at Point Hueneme and Piedras Blancas before being promoted to head keeper at Angel Island.
Ross, along with his wife and two children, faithfully tended the bell at Point Knox for sixteen years. In November 1900, his workload was augmented when a lens lantern was added to the station. Each night, the fixed red lens lantern was hung near the bell to serve as a minor aid to navigation.
It seems the machinery used to strike the fog bell was not the most reliable as it frequently broke down requiring Juliet to strike the bell by hand. Juliet noted at least eight failures of the striking mechanism in her logbook. The most notorious of these occurred on July 4, 1906. Juliet recorded the event: “July 4 - Flags flying, calm, distant fog. After 7:00 p.m. dense fog banks, machinery striking. 8:00 p.m. machinery went to pieces – great tension bar broke in two – dense fog – fresh SW with heavy mist – bell struck with a nail hammer, standing out on the platform until 4p.m. [July 5].” Juliet later received special commendation for manually striking the prescribed characteristic of two blows every fifteen seconds for an amazing twenty hours and thirty-five minutes.
Additional fog signals and lens lanterns were placed on Angel Island at Point Blunt and Point Stuart in 1915 and added to the list of duties for the keeper at Point Knox. These remote-controlled stations consisted of a 500-watt incandescent lamp in a lens lantern and electric sirens. The Lighthouse Service Bulletin provided details on the new navigational aids:
The controlling station is located at the keeper’s dwelling, distant 1 mile from Point Stuart and 2 miles from Point Blunt. Current is supplied from an 11,000-volt, 3-phase, 60-cycle transmission line stepped down to 220 volts for the lights and sirens. The lights at each station are in duplicate, the spare lamp being automatically cut in should the service lamp burn out. The lamp circuit is opened and closed each day by a time switch. An arrangement of magneto relays in conjunction with a telephone enables the keeper at the control station to open and close the siren circuit and to listen to the operation of the fog signal through the medium of a single wire.
To make room for an assistant keeper, the original keeper’s dwelling was elevated and a second story was built underneath.
Lighthouse living was not always easy. We often laughingly stated that Lighthouse keeping is not light housekeeping. It was a quiet life and at times monotonous but there is something about the lighthouse service that brings forth an intense sense of responsibility. Thus, thought of self interests were forgotten in the performance of whatever official demands were made. We realized early that loneliness was the greatest destroyer of contentment. We decided to combat loneliness by keeping alert for the interesting events of each day. There was always the beauty of scenic surroundings to enjoy. The sunsets at times were so inspiring that we were filled with awe at the majestic beauty of them. Then the sea, ever changing from calmness to turbulence, was always fascinating. The waves, which seemed at times to be doing a can-can with lacy petticoats as they danced along the shore, were a delight to watch. On clear nights, the stars reflecting their brilliance on the smooth sea, made us feel very close to our Supreme Admiral. No, loneliness was not a part of our living for there was always much to do and enjoy. Thus we were compensated with the peace that comes from striving to do our best.
Point Knox was automated by the Coast Guard in the early 1960s, and the station at Point Blunt assumed oversight for all operations on the island. The structures on Point Knox were intentionally burned to the ground in 1963, leaving behind just a lonely bell suspended in a wooden frame.
Over the years, Angel Island was used for more purposes than just aiding maritime navigation. An immigration station was established on the eastern side of the island in 1910 with the anticipation that it would become the “Ellis Island of the West.” In its thirty years of operation, the station processed tens of thousands of immigrants, primarily from Asia. One of the barracks from the station now serves as an immigration museum.
The Army also made good use of the island. Fort McDowell, which covered large areas of the island, was the largest staging facility on the west coast for the first and second world wars. Over 300,000 soldiers passed through Fort McDowell en route to the pacific theater during World War II. The fort also served as a discharge center for soldiers returning from war. Armaments were found on the island at different periods. Artillery batteries were placed on the southwest side of the island during the Civil War, and a Nike Missile site was located on the southeast corner of the island during the late 1950s. At Ayala Cove, where the ferry landing exists today, a quarantine station was active for several years. Ships arriving from foreign ports would stop here for possible fumigation of the ship or quarantining of the passengers if the vessel was suspected of carrying an infectious disease.