Kate Walker stood barely 4’10 with her shoes on. But for the 29 years she kept the Robbins Reef Light in New York Harbor, Walker was a tower of dependability and strength, as solid as any rock in the sea. Like so many celebrated keepers, she downplayed the difficulties and isolation of her unique post. “Oh, there were so many things at the lighthouse,” she said
in 1925. “It’s so funny to hear people call it a lonely place.”
The woman who would become one of the most famous lighthouse keepers in the world was born Catherine Gortler in Germany in 1846. She journeyed to America with her young son after her first husband died. While working at a boarding house in Sandy Hook, New Jersey in the early 1880s, she met John Walker, an assistant keeper at Sandy Hook Lighthouse.
Before long, Kate and John were married. “He took me to that lighthouse as his bride,” Kate said years later. “I enjoyed life there,
for the light was on land, and we could
have a garden and raise flowers.” The Walkers once traveled to the Catskills; it would be the last time Kate would travel beyond the New York Harbor area for the rest of her life.
Kate’s world changed dramatically after her husband was appointed keeper at Robbins Reef Light. The cylindrical cast iron tower was built in 1883, replacing an earlier structure. There was no land around the lighthouse – just a small stone pier. Kate later described her reaction when she and John arrived at their new home. “The day we came, I said to him, ‘I can’t stay here. The sight of water everywhere I look makes me too lonesome. I refused to unpack my trunks, but somehow they got unpacked.’” Kate became her husband’s official assistant at $350 per year, and she gradually grew accustomed to her new home in the harbor.
In 1886, John Walker caught a severe cold that developed into pneumonia. He had to be rowed to Staten Island for medical attention. Legend has it that John’s last words to Kate were, “Mind the light, Kate.” Years later, Kate recalled what happened next. “A few nights later, as I was sitting here tending the lamp, I saw a boat coming. Something told me the news it was bringing. I expected to hear the voice that came up out of the dark. ‘We’re sorry, but your husband’s worse.’ ‘You mean he’s dead?’ I answered, and they made no reply.” Kate was widowed for the second time at the age of 40, with two children to care for.
Some doubted that Kate would be physically capable of handling the duties at the lighthouse by herself, but she applied for and received the keeper position. She grew to love her unique life at the lighthouse. “You have nature and the elements,” she said in 1925, “and the best company of all – the quiet.” When they were young, Kate rowed her children – Jacob and Mary – to Staten Island so they could attend school. At night, she had to wind the mechanism that rotated the lighthouse lens every three hours, so she napped during the afternoon.
Kate’s children assisted their mother with the light as they got older, but Kate rarely got a good night’s sleep. “Even when I am off duty,” she said, “I wake up every hour in the night to see if the light is all right. You get a thing like that on your mind. The light must be kept burning.”
It was said that Kate could recognize every ship that frequented the harbor by the sound of its whistle. Once, while in New York City, she heard a steam whistle at a factory that made her stop in her tracks. “If I didn’t know that the Richard B. Morse had been scrapped years ago,” she said, “I would have said that was her whistle.” Someone checked into the matter, and sure enough — the factory’s whistle had been salvaged from the Morse.
By her own count, Kate saved 50 people from drowning during her years at the lighthouse, but other estimates range as high as 75. One of the most memorable rescues occurred on a winter night when a schooner crashed into the reef. Kate launched her small boat in heavy seas and rescued all
five of the crew, bringing them into the lighthouse. When one of the men asked, “Where’s Scottie?” Kate rushed back outside to rescue a small Scottie dog. She nursed the dog back to health for the next few days. When the captain returned to pick up his beloved pet, the dog looked at Kate. “That’s when I learned dogs could weep,” she said later. “There were tears in his eyes.”
Kate was keeper until 1919 when she was 73 years old. She retired to a small home on Staten Island where she died in 1931. She’ll never be forgotten for the long years she served the mariners of New York Harbor, honoring her husband’s last request. “We buried him on the mainland over there,” Kate once said of her husband. “Every morning when the sun comes up, I stand at the porthole and look towards his grave. Sometimes the hills are brown, sometimes they are green, sometimes they are white with snow. But always they bring a message from him, something I heard him say more often than anything else. Just three words – ‘Mind the light.’”
This story appeared in the
October 2005 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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