Katherine Walker was married to the lighthouse keeper at Robbins Reef Light, between Manhattan Island and a Staten Island. John Walker developed pneumonia and died in 1886. His last words were “Mind the lights, Katie.” And she did. For thirty years. She immediately took over her husband’s duties at the lighthouse while government authorities searched for a new lighthouse keeper. They did not believe that Katie, at 4’ 10” and 100 pounds, could do the job, but no one else wanted to. After nine and a half years as lighthouse keeper, she was finally given the official appointment.
Her life on Robbins Reef was focussed: the light was everything. She did not neglect her children, however, and every school day rowed them a mile each way, weather permitting, to Staten Island. In fact, in addition to helping with his academic studies, she trained her son Jacob to be her assistant, a form of on-the-job career training. (He later became keeper of the light when his mother retired.)
But the light was her reason for being and vital for shipping. Many vessels had been gutted on the dangerous rocks, laying close alongside the deep water channels leading up the Hudson and into the Staten Island/New Jersey docks. In her tenure, Kate was credited with some 50 rescues. The most rewarding, she recalled, came one winter night when a schooner crashed onto the reef. Five men were cast into the cold seas. Launching the small boat she used to ferry her children to school, Kate bravely rowed through the surging wreckage and rescued all five. All safely aboard, one of them asked "Where's Scottie?" Searching in the dark she caught a glimpse of a small dog and hauled him aboard, too. Back at the light she wrapped Scottie in a towel and forced him to drink warm coffee. The men left the next day and the skipper returned three days later to claim the dog. As the captain climbed down into his waiting boat, Scottie looked up into Kate's eyes and whined. "That's when I learned dog's could weep," she said, "there were tears in his eyes."
Katie Walker retired in 1919 after 33 years of faithfully attending to Robbins Reef Light. Read Walker’s story at SailNorthEast.