They sailed to the Isthmus. She crossed the narrow strip of land on a mule, and he walked. They arrived in San Francisco a few months later without much more than the clothes on their backs.
Nicholl then spent a dollar, and the two crossed the Bay to Oakland. He started working for shares on a wheat ranch in San Leandro. He worked there for four years, long enough to buy 200 acres of the San Pablo Rancho. And being a very astute Scotsman, Nicholl traded, bought, sold and traded for more and more land.
He and Agnes built their home in what would become Richmond. He started the first school, hauling the lumber for the building on his own wagons. It was a logical thing to do, because he and Agnes would eventually have eight children.
He ended up with a lot of property, including what is now known as Point Richmond.
In 1895 Agnes died, and the elder Nicholl moved in with his daughters in Oakland. John H. took over the John Nicholl Company. He was no slouch. He set men to work turning Richmond into a city with a real street.
"It was in what is today Washington Avenue, now paved with asphalt and with the rails of the Southern Pacific electric line laid in it, that John H. Nicholl began the physical work of city-building, not the smoke variety. He set men to work ploughing up the street and taking a team himself turned the first furrow in Washington Avenue, the first furrow ever turned in constructing a street in Richmond," reported an Oakland Tribune story on Sept. 27, 1913.
John H. was also one of the city's strongest boosters. He worked to get Richmond a harbor. He was responsible for its first permanent railroad station and its first bank.
It could be said that John H. was always on the cutting edge. It wasn't surprising, then, that when C.L. Coffer came to town with his Terrestrial Wave Detector that John H. listened to him. Coffer said he could detect oil with his gadget that he attached to his waist. He convinced Nicholl that oil in paying quantities lay under Richmond.
Donna Roselius, Point Richmond History Association, tells the story on the association's Web site. Coffer chose a spot at the base of the hill, and Nicholl commenced the drilling.
"Nicholl drilled and drilled, until he met solid rock. Unwilling to admit defeat, he pounded through the rock while Point hills quivered. Eventually he struck an artesian well, yielding 1,000 gallons per minute. This was capped off and drilling continued for two more years, reaching down over 1,000 feet."
Roselius says that the well became an attraction. It was fenced off, but bleachers were built for spectators to sit.
"In the meantime, harbor and tunnel bonds were passed by voters, and a tunnel through the hill allowing easier access to the Bay was planned. Nicholl's well was in the path of the planned road, but he refused to give up his project, which explains the commodious triangular intersection at Garrard, Cutting and West Richmond avenues."
The Tribune's Sept. 27, 1913 story says that John H. had by that time already spent $30,000 on digging the well. "If he strikes it many of his fellow townsmen will be made wealthy. If he doesn't, he will smile characteristically at the loss and forget it."
So if you have a lot of water, what do you do? John H. thought filling a big swimming pool would be pretty nice. He offered a site by the well to the city of Richmond. His company would provide the land if it would construct a natatorium.
In 1922, a bond measure was put before the voters. It failed twice. But some Richmond residents realized that their growing city needed amenities such as parks, playgrounds, a hospital, maybe a memorial building and a natatorium. They placed another measure on the ballot in 1924. It would total $350,000. There would be $150,000 for parks and playgrounds, $100,000 for a hospital, $50,000 for the natatorium and $50,000 for a memorial building.
In October 1924, just weeks before the election, the John Nicholl Company turned over a deed for an acre-and-a-half of land to the city of Richmond on the condition that a swimming pool would be constructed on it. This time, the voters came through with enough aye votes.
In April 1925, construction on the natatorium began. In May, still another bond election was held. This one raised $85,000 to construct the pool building.
On Dec. 20, 1925, the Oakland Tribune reported that the natatorium was almost ready for its grand opening. The pool, 60 feet by 160 feet, would not only contain fresh water from Nicholl's well, but filtered salt water would be carried through a 6,000 foot, 6-inch pipe from the Bay to be mixed with it.
On Saturday, March 20, 1926, the pool opened to the public. Through the years, thousands of people have used the Richmond "Plunge," as it became known. But in 2001, it closed. It needed a seismic retrofit, and its mechanical equipment needed to be replaced. The city didn't have the money. A funding campaign was started, and the project is now well under way to a successful reopening in the near future.
Nilda Rego's Days Gone By appears Sundays in A&E. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.