Historic, but not famous

Kate Walker, lighthouse keeper

Katherine Walker (1848–1931), born in Germany, was an American lighthouse keeper. She married Joseph Kaird and they had a son, Jacob, in 1875, but Joseph died shortly after. In 1882, the widow and her young son emigrated to the United States. She met her second husband, Captain John Walker, while she was a cook in a boarding house in New Jersey.

The couple married in 1884 and became the keepers of the lighthouse in Sandy Hook, New Jersey. A year later, they were assigned to the Robbins Reef Lighthouse in the New York Harbor and she had a daughter less than a year after that. Her husband died of pneumonia in 1886 and Katherine stayed on as the lighthouse tender for the next 33 years, motivated by her husband’s final words to his wife, “Mind the light, Kate,”.

She worked as the assistant keeper for her husband and it took 4 years of men refusing the job at Robbins Reef before she was offered the job as main keeper. She eventually became so used to the island life, it made her nervous to leave. Generally she only left to row her children to school in Staten Island. Once a year, a lighthouse official would stop by the lighthouse to drop off a few tons of coal, barrels of oil, and an envelope containing her wages.

In 1919, at the age of 71, Walker reluctantly retired as the Robbins Reef keeper, as required by a federal law passed the previous year. Her son Jacob took over as keeper. In her thirty-three years at the lighthouse, she saw the progression from kerosene lamps to oil vapor lamps and eventually to electricity. She died in 1931, at the age of 1983, and is buried in Ocean View cemetery on Staten Island. A US Coast Guard Coastal Buoy Tender is named for her. The folk song, “Lighthouse Keeper” by Neptune’s Car was reportedly inspired by Walker.

There is a proposal to restore the lighthouse at Robbins Reef and turn it into a museum with information on Ms. Walker’s life and dedication to the sailors of NY Harbor.


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