Today in Women’s Transportation History – 1931: A Keeper of the Light Dims

The Montana Standard newspaper featured a tribute to a legendary lighthouse keeper who had died the previous month on faraway Staten Island in New York. “Death recently closed the life of Mrs. Kate Walker, keeper from 1886 to 1919 of the Robbins Reef lighthouse in upper New York harbor,” stated the article. “A little woman, only 4 feet 10 inches [1.2 meters 25.4 centimeters] tall and weighing less than 100 pounds [45.4 kilograms], Mrs. Walker was regarded as one of the most faithful, alert and reliable tenders the government had in its employ.”

Kate was born in Germany as Katherine Gortler sometime during the 1850s. As a widowed mother, she immigrated to the United States along with her son Jacob in the 1870s. Kate ended up working at a boarding house near the Sandy Hook Lighthouse on the coast of central New Jersey. It was at the boarding house that she met retired sea captain John Walker, who served as the lighthouse’s keeper.

The couple soon married, and Kate and Jacob joined John at the Sandy Hook Lighthouse. (Kate and John eventually had a daughter named Mary, also known as Mamie.) She enjoyed life at the lighthouse and quickly learned how to help out her new husband with his duties.

Kate and John had been married for just a few years when, in 1883, he was reassigned to serve as keeper of the Robbins Reef Light. Kate was appointed assistant keeper for this lighthouse, located on a stand-alone ridge of sand that is about one mile (1.6 kilometers) from Staten Island and on the west side of the heavily used main channel of New York Harbor.

Initially, Kate was not pleased at all about living and working on a small piece of land completely surrounded by water. “When I first came to Robbins Reef, the sight of the water, whichever way I looked, made me lonesome,” she recalled in an interview several years later. “I refused to unpack my trunks at first, but gradually, a little at a time, I unpacked. After a while, they were all unpacked and I stayed on.” Kate not only stayed on but ultimately embraced her life at the Robbins Reef Light.

John Walker succumbed to pneumonia in 1886. Just before his death in a hospital, he told his wife, “Mind the light, Kate.” She did that for more than three decades. With one man after another turning down the opportunity to serve as the new keeper of Robbins Reef Light, Kate continued to care for and maintain the lighthouse in her official capacity as its assistant keeper. She was formally named keeper of the Robbins Reef Light during the 1890s.

Kate was busy as a single parent raising two children, rowing both of them to Staten Island on a regular basis so they could attend school there. She still found the energy, however, to also carry out her responsibilities as the keeper with considerable dedication and effectiveness. “For 33 years she never permitted the lighthouse lamp to fail,” asserted the Montana Standard the month after her death. “Before the days of the compressed air siren, Mrs. Walker remained on duty every stormy and foggy night to ring a great bell every 10 seconds as a warning to shipping in the world’s busiest harbor.”

It is estimated that Kate rescued anywhere from 50 to 75 individuals during her time in charge of the Robbins Reef Light. She once not only rescued a young man and his girlfriend from a sinking rowboat but also then took the time to help arrange a wedding for them on Staten Island.

Kate retired in 1919, with her son taking over as keeper of the Robbins Reef Light. She subsequently resettled on Staten Island, spending the remainder of her life in a cottage there. The lighthouse was never far from her thoughts, though. At night, she would often look out towards the water to catch a glimpse of the lighthouse flashing its signal at regular intervals.

“There is little public acclaim for Mrs. Walker, but the chiefs of the lighthouse service knew that a little woman never would fail the mariners of a great harbor and through impenetrable fog always came the cautioning note of her gong or siren,” stated the Montana Standard. “Such are not the heroes and the spectacular performers of life, but they are the ones always to be counted on in time of emergency or peril.”

For more information on Kate Walker, please check out  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Katherine_Walker.

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