Robbins Reef Lighthouse – Staten Island, New Jersey5 min read
The Kill van Kull is a tidal strait between Staten Island, New York and Bayonne, New Jersey, that connects Upper New York Bay with Newark Bay. Marking the eastern end of the Kill is the Robbins Reef Lighthouse.
Dutch colonists acquired the island of Manhattan in 1626, and it was formally incorporated as the city of New Amsterdam on February 2, 1653, encouraging many Dutch settlers to put down their roots in the area.As the Dutch settled the area, explorers referred to many of the locations based on shape, geography, or its relation to other places. The word kill comes from the Dutch word kille, which means “water channel” or “stream”, and Kill van Kull roughly translates to “channel from the pass.”
By the early 1800s the City of New York, under British Rule, was becoming an economic powerhouse and traffic into and out of New York Harbor was rapidly increasing. A lighthouse on Robbin’s Reef, a small sand ridge located just off the northern tip of Staten Island, which obstructed the entrance to Kill van Kull and Newark Bay, was built.
The tower had built-in living quarters, large enough for a single keeper and his family. Isaac Johnson was appointed the station’s first keeper in 1839, and he lit the array of lamps on the night of October 25, 1839 for the first time.
In 1863, a fog bell was established at the station.
Although the lighthouse had many keepers over the years, surely the most famous was Katherine (Kate) Walker.
At 4’10” and less than 100 pounds, Kate may seem like an unlikely candidate for lighthouse keeper.
She was born and grew up in Northern Germany as Katherine Gortler. While in Germany, she married and had a son named Jacob. After the passing of her husband, she and her son immigrated to the United States in 1884, ending up in Sandy Hook, New Jersey.
While waiting tables at a boarding house, she met Captain John Walker, a Swedish immigrant, retired sea captain, and keeper of the Sandy Hook Lighthouse.
The two struck up a friendship and soon thereafter, they were married. While at the lighthouse, Kate quickly learned how to assist John with the lightkeeping duties. John Walker was transferred to the Robbin’s Reef Lighthouse, accepted the appointment on December 30, 1885 and Kate was hired as an assistant keeper and paid $350 per year. Unlike Sandy Hook Light, which is on land, Robbins Reef Light is on a rock in the center of the inner harbor of New York City. Being surrounded by only water at first made Kate lonely, but she soon grew accustomed.
Captain Walker developed pneumonia and died shortly after, on February 28, 1886.
On his death bed, his last words to his wife were “Mind the light, Kate.” These words motivated her to stay on as keeper of the lighthouse.
And thus she continued to tend the light and, although she was the assistant keeper and had proven herself capable at the lighthouse, objections were raised when she applied for the position. She was not officially appointed keeper until 1890, after the post was refused by several men due to the isolated location.
Kate took her husband’s words to heart, and she tended Robbins Reef Light for more than 30 years.
She became very comfortable at the lighthouse, leaving the station only to row her children to and from school on Staten Island.
When asked about New York City, only a short distance from the lighthouse, she once said, “I am in fear from the time I leave the ferryboat. The street cars bewilder me, and I am afraid of automobiles. Why, a fortune wouldn’t tempt me to get into one of those things!”
She turned on the light each night immediately following the gunfire from Governors Island that signaled sunset. The light shined every six seconds until dawn. If the night was foggy, Kate started an engine in the basement that would send out loud siren blasts at three second intervals.
She never slept on foggy nights because, if the siren malfunctioned, she would go to the top of the tower and manually hammer a signal bell.
In a 1906 New York Times interview, she described the light as “more difficult to care for than a family of children”. Although the lamp only needed to be wound every five hours, she wound it every three to ensure the light never disappointed sailors who have depended on it.
Kate went shopping in the nearby shore town once every seven months and always returned home before nightfall. She hired a substitute to perform her duties only once in 30 years — the day she attended her husband’s funeral.
But she was back at the job later that day.
During her tenure, she raised two children and rescued nearly fifty sailors whose ships hit the reef. Most were fishermen whose boats were blown onto the reef by sudden storms.
As her son Jacob got older, he officially took on assistant keeper duties but, once married, he moved with his wife to the mainland, and would deliver mail and supplies to the station while helping his mother tend the light.
Kate’s daughter, Mary, began spending more time on mainland as she got older. To be closer to school, she began boarding with a family on Staten Island, and would only return to the lighthouse on the weekends and holidays.
Although her husband had passed away and both of her children were living on the mainland, she said during an interview in 1906 with the New York Times that there was too much work to be done to become truly lonesome.
Despite all the work and the isolated location, Kate stayed on as keeper for 33 years, retiring in 1919 at age 73. After retirement, she lived in a small cottage on Brook Street in Staten Island.
She passed away on February 5, 1931 at the age of 83.
Her obituary read: “A great city’s waterfront is rich in romance… There are queenly liners, the grim battle craft, the countless carriers of commerce that pass in endless procession. And amid all this and in the sight of the city of towers and the torch of liberty lived this sturdy little woman, proud of her work and content in it, keeping her lamp alight and her windows clean, so that New York Harbor might be safe for ships that pass in the night.”
Coast Guard Buoy Tender 552 is named in her honor.
Images from web – Google Research