Kate Walker was a lighthouse keeper who tended the Robbins Reef Light in New York Harbour for over 30 years. She made a vital contribution to the safety of shipping in New York waters and was an early female pioneer in a most male-dominated profession.
Better known as Kate, Katharina Görtler was born in Rumbach in Germany in November 1848. She married Joseph Kaird in 1875 and had a son, Jacob. Kaird died shortly after the birth, leaving Kate a young widow with a son to raise alone.
In 1882, Kate and her little boy emigrated to the USA, settling in Sandy Hook in New Jersey. She took a job as a waitress in a boarding house and there she met a retired sea captain, John Walker. The couple married in 1884 and Kate gave birth to their daughter, Mary, the following year.
Captain Walker was the keeper of Sandy Hook Light and, soon after his marriage to Kate, he was transferred to Robbins Reef Light. Kate moved with her husband and children to this highly unusual home; a socket lighthouse situated on a small rift of sand surrounded by water at the entrance to one of the busiest channels in the Port of New York and New Jersey. Kate became assistant keeper and helped her husband to operate and maintain the light, keeping safe the vessels in the harbour waters.
In 1886, Walker died of pneumonia. At his death, he told his wife, “Mind the light, Kate” – and of course she did. For the next three decades.
Following Walker’s death it took four years for Kate to be officially recognised as the Robbins Reef Light keeper and to receive the appropriate remuneration. Initially the authorities had believed that this diminutive woman was not up to the job and refused her application. It was only after several men had turned down the role, by which time Kate had proved herself more than capable, that the post was formally hers and she was paid the $600 per year salary.
Minding the Robbins Reef Light was a huge responsibility and a tremendous amount of work. The light was lit at sunset every evening and remained shining until dawn. Kerosene lamps reflected onto the light’s huge lens, projecting across the harbour and illuminating the perilous reef beneath. Every few hours throughout the night, Kate had to refill those lamps and wind up the clockwork mechanism which drove the rotating lens.
When conditions were foggy Kate had to go down to the building’s cellar to fire up the engines which operated the siren. The siren would blast at three second intervals to alert oncoming shipping. On foggy nights, Kate would not sleep; she preferred to stay awake in case of a siren malfunction. In that event she would walk up to the top of the tower and hammer manually on the bell to alert officials on the shore that the siren needed repairing.
During the day Kate would wash the lamps, trim the wicks and clean the lens to prepare for the night ahead. She also kept detailed notes regarding weather conditions and water traffic and submitted a monthly report to the coastguard. In a 1909 interview, Kate told The New York Times, “Maintaining this light is more work than running any household or any child”.
In addition to tending the light, Kate also had two children to raise single-handedly. She turned the small three-story lighthouse, basically a cast iron cylinder, into a comfortable home for her family and, when her children were young, she would row them to Staten Island and back every day in order that they could attend school.
Although not part of her formal duties, Kate would come to the aid of vessels that had fallen foul of the treacherous waters around the reef and aided in the rescue of approximately 50 ships during her time as keeper at Robbins Reef Light. On one occasion, a schooner crashed onto the reef and five sailors were plunged into the freezing water. Kate used the small boat in which she took her children to school to row through the wreckage. She rescued not just all five men but their little dog too.
Kate finally retired in 1919 aged 71. In the decades to follow, Robbins Reef was known as “Kate’s Light”. She died in February 1931. Her obituary in the New York Evening Post read, “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”.
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