Katie Walker Tends Robbins Reef Light Near the Statue of Liberty
Katie Walker told her husband, John, that she didn’t want to live on Robbins Reef Light, but she ended up staying and tending the light for thirty years.
“The sight of water whichever way I look makes me lonesome and blue,” said Katie Walker, petite and dark-eyed and fearful. That day in 1886, she told her husband, John, “I won’t stay,” when presented with the idea of living in total isolation on Robbins Reef Light, surrounded by waves, rocks, and seagulls, a mile away from the nearest community on Staten Island.
It took Katie Walker thirty three years to change her mind, but change it she did!
John Walker Transfers to Robbins Reef Light and Katie Reluctantly Goes With Him
When Katie married John in 1868, three years after the Civil War ended, he was already the keeper of the Sandy Hook Light in New Jersey. It seemed like a natural next step for her to reside with John at the Sandy Hook Lighthouse. Their lives flowed as smoothly as the ocean on a clam day until John got the idea to apply for the position of keeper at the Robbins Reef Light in the busy New York Harbor to the north.
John explained to the reluctant Katie that the light was located on the west side of the main channel of the harbor, about five miles south of the tip of Manhattan and one mile north of the tip of Staten Island. They could row to the island for supplies or in case of an emergency, John assured his wife.
He went on to describe Robbins Reef light. The tower was situated on a rocky ledge in the water, about two miles southwest of the Statue of Liberty, and the keeper’s home on the island was surrounded completely by water. The light, a traditional tower with a white top and a wider, born and white base, had just been renovated and it had successfully weathered the transition from whale oil to kerosene. It was considered to be one of the most modern lights on the East Coast.
John Walker Shows Katie the Living Quarters at Robbins Reef Light
John showed Katie their living quarters. He led her up the circular stairway to the supply room with its kerosene wicks and extra lamp chimneys in case the light needed repairs. He took her up to the lantern room itself, high at the top of the winding stairs, until she gasped for breath. She had to agree that the lantern room was immaculate and the lantern shone and the brass work gleamed.
In her first few days on the light, Katie worked getting settled in her new home, but prudently kept her trunks and boxes packed. She hung a pendulum clock on the wall and pictures of sailing boats alongside it. She arranged green, flowering plants in the windows and placed a wooden rocker in the strategic corner by the iron pot-bellied stove. She arranged chairs against the west wall in anticipation of any visitors brave enough to make the trip to call on her.
On her kitchen table close to the stove she put a bowl of flowers and changed them every day. Katie secured the iron railing that wound around the tiny tower porch so her children, Jacob and Mary, wouldn’t fall to the rocks below.
John Walker Dies of Pneumonia and Katie Takes Over Robbins Reef Light
As for the children’s schooling, Katie rowed them to school every day, weather permitting. When they had to stay home from school because of bad weather, Katie heard their lessons while she tended her pots and pans at the stove or darned socks while rocking in her rocking chair.
Then one winter day, John caught a heavy cold which turned into pneumonia. Leaving him with the children, Katie rowed to Staten Island for help. Friends came back to the light with Katie. They wrapped John in blankets and prepared to send him to the Smith Infirmary in Tompkinsville which would later become Staten Island Hospital.
Katie helped them hoist John into the boat, tucked the blankets tightly under his chin so the strong wind wouldn’t whip them away. John supposedly said to her, “Mind the light Katie.” Katie did just that. She hurried back to the light tower. Even when John died and was buried in a cemetery on Staten Island, Katie didn’t leave the light.
Every morning after his death, she stood at the porthole in the tower and gazed in the direction of John’s grave, but she never visited it. The only time she left the light was to row the children to school and tend a few nearby buoys.
The Lighthouse Service Finally Appoints Katie Official Keeper
The first time Katie petitioned the government to remain on Robbins Reef Light as its keeper, officials objected, nothing the limitations of her four-foot-ten inch frame. Eventually, she convinced them she could row a boat and tend a light as well as any man. She received her official appointment as the keeper of Robbins Reef Light on June 6, 1895, three years before the start of the Spanish American War.
The sound of the gun at sunset and the mellow bugle notes drifting over from Governors Island on the eastern side of the harbor marked the beginning of Katie Walker's workday on Robbins Reef Light. She spent all of the darkness hours in the watch room, because a light couldn’t burn all night without being tended.
Katie Walker Tends the Robbins Reef Light
Almost every three to five hours, a new, freshly filled set of kerosene lamps with sparkling chimneys and well-trimmed wicks had to be placed in operation or the light would go out,. The clockwork that drove the rotating lens had to be rewound or the light would change from flashing to stationary, confusing the ship pilots who depended on it. When a fog came up, Katie had to go to the cellar of the lighthouse and start the engine that ran the fog horn. If the engine failed, as it sometimes did, she would have to sound an old-fashioned, hand-operated buoy bell.
When daylight came and the weather was good, Katie blew out the light, draw the blinds that sheltered the lens from the sun’s rays and slept until it came time to wake Jacob and Mary and row them to school. Then back she came to the routine of preparing the light for the next night’s work and keeping things in spotless order. She managed to nap before or after lunch and then finish the more routine work until it was time for the mile-long row to pick up the children at school.
Katie Walker Adds Rescuing People to Her Light Keeping Duties
At the sound of the gun and bugle on Governors Island, she climbed the stairs again to begin another night of work on the light. Despite her demanding duties as both light keeper and mother, Katie was an expert rower who managed to rescue a total of 50 people in the Robbins Reef light region, which was notorious for tidal whirlpools on the reef’s outer rocky fringe. One of her most grateful patrons was dog.
Katie Walker Rescues Scotty
One frigid winter day, a three-masted schooner labored against strong winds as it tried to pass Robbins Reef Light. It lurched, swayed, and went over on its beam ends on the reef landing. Katie let down the boat and rowed out to the schooner. Five men clung to it, and she helped them hoist themselves into the boat. As the last man tumbled in, he cried, “Where’s Scotty?”
Hearing a feeble whine, Katie looked down into the water and spotted a shaggy brown dog. She caught the dog between he roars as he drifted by and hauled him into the boat.
“He crouched, shivering against my ankles. I’ll never forget the look in his big brown eyes as he raised them to mine, “Katie recalled.
Katie and the sailors rowed against the wind for two hours before they could reach the lighthouse. Hugging Scotty inside her cloak, Katie hurried into her big kitchen. She sat him beside the stove and stoked p the fire. Scotty fell over like a frozen corpse.
Katie rushed to the stove and poured some coffee from the pot she always kept hot during bad weather. She forced it down Scotty’s throat, and he gasped and shivered. “Then his eyes opened and there was that same thankful look he had given me in the boat,” Katie said.
Katie Walker Retires to Staten Island, but Misses Robbins Reef Light
The women who hadn’t planned to say on the light, spent 33 years tending the Robbins Reef Light. She retired to Staten Island in 1919, when she was 73 years old, a year after World War I ended.
Life on land didn’t set too well with Katie. Visiting New York City made her nervous, and lonely for the solitude of Robbins Reef Light. The street cars bewildered her and the automobiles caused her to bristle. “A fortune wouldn’t tempt me into one of those things!” Katie snorted.
Whenever she could, Katie visited Robbins Reef Light to listen to the cry of the seabirds and the lapping of the waves on the shore.
She died in 1930, at the age of 84, her heart still with the waves, the seagulls, and the Robbins Reef Light.
The Coast Guard Takes Over Robbins Reef Light
In 1939, the United States Coast Guard took over Robbins Reef Lighthouse and appointed a three man crew to live in the lighthouse and perform the light keeping duties that Katie had done herself for so many years.
The Coast Guard named its Buoy Tender WLM 552 that was launched on September 14, 1996, the Katherine Walker. The Katherine Walker’s homeport is in Bayonne, New Jersey, within sight of Robbins Reef Lighthouse.
Clifford, Mary Louise and Clifford, J. Candace, “Mind the Light, Katie:,” The History of Thirty-Three Female Lighthouse Keepers, Cyprus Communications, 2006
Roberts, Bruce and Jones, Ray, Lighthouses of New York, Globe Pequot Press, Guilford CT, 2008