Mind The Light - The Story of Kate Walker

      While the Statue of Liberty towered above the waters as the symbol of freedom, a diminutive, single mother quietly reigned as first lady of New York harbor at the turn of the last century.

      Kate Walker was born in Germany in 1848 and immigrated to the U.S. among the "working class poor." Why she left her native land is unknown, but as a single parent she no doubt shared the hopes of many women who came here with dreams of a better life in America. It is unlikely, however, that she ever thought she would spend that new life on a tiny, rock islet in New York harbor.

      In the early 1880s, waiting tables in a New Jersey boarding house, she met and married John Walker, assistant keeper of the Sandy Hook lighthouse. Theirs was a working class union and, in 1883, the couple moved when he was transferred to Robbins Reef an island light about two miles southwest of the Statue of Liberty. In her early 30s, a halcyon social period for many people, Kate was deposited on an reef inhabited solely by harbor seals. (Robbins Reef comes from the early Dutch name, "Robyns Rift," or Seal Rocks.) She was devastated. From a modest home where she had a small garden and a few chickens, she moved into a five-story, cast iron cylinder 20 feet across. The lighthouse covered the entire island.

      "When I first arrived I refused to unpack my bags. Everywhere I looked there was water. No grass, no land, just water. It depressed and frightened me," she told a reporter years later.

Mind the light, Kate...       In 1886 John Walker died from pneumonia, leaving Kate, now 38 and a widow with two teenaged children. His last words to her were not romantic but they were prophetic: "Mind the light, Kate." And she did -- from that day on, every single day, for more than three decades.

      At first the Light-House Establishment, merged into the Coast Guard years later, refused Kate's application to be the keeper. While officially John's assistant for three years (at $30 per month, paid annually) she knew the job and how to maintain the light. But she was a woman, and a petite 4'10" at that, and the government men believed she could not withstand the rigors of the job. After offering the post to two men, who both refused, Kate was hired at $600 per year.

      "I grew to love it here," she told The New York Times in 1909, noting the satisfaction of doing important work, the comfort of routine and isolation mixed with a few social visits. "Someone could offer me a millionaire's mansion and I'd feel like I was in prison." Yet she bristled when told she had nothing in common with women in more conventional roles. She thoroughly enjoyed her domestic duties and entertaining the occasional fair weather visitors on her 'veranda.' But, she pointed out firmly, "Maintaining this light is more work than running any household or any child," she said.

      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."

      Kate kept the light until 1919, when she retired at age 71. She left behind two enduring legacies. For years afterwards, harbor pilots referred to Robbin's Reef as "Kate's Light." And, a testimony to her fortitude and spirit, when the Coast Guard last manned the light in 1966, they had replaced this diminutive woman with a four man crew.

Recommended reading: "Women who kept the lights" by Candance Clifford.

T. Patrick Harris

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From Bob Wright on Wednesday, September 10, 2008 at 18:48:12

I saw Bill Blacks' fine song and thought I would mention a song a wrote a number of years ago entitled ' Kate Walker' which is on a CD I recorded named Harbortown about the harbor and specifically about things Staten Island. It was funded by a grant from New York City and New York State. Bill's instincts about the 'mind the light' line are right on as I too used it for the chorus of the song. A number of folks in England and Ireland are performing it and whenever I've sung it over there they all know the words. You can check it out at www.CDBaby.com . My grandfather was a tugboat captain in the harbor and I heard about Katie Walker growing up on Staten Island.
Bob Wright
Staten Island, New York
www.bojomusic.com

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From Karen Anderson on Sunday, November 12, 2006 at 11:59:33

Looking for information. Do you know where Kate Walker is buried?

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From Bill Black (Falmouth MA) on Thursday, March 23, 2006 at 14:06:32

I spent all my working life in and around NY Harbor and had never
run across this story before. Truly a revelation!

In any event the phrase "Katie Mind the Light" cried out to the
songwriter buried deep inside me, and the result is attached (I'm
still working on the melody and will forward same to you as a MIDI
file if you're interested).

Hope you enjoy this little effort.

Bill Black
Falmouth MA


KATIE MIND THE LIGHT!
(The Ballad of Katie Walker)
(1)
THE JANUARY WINDS ARE FIERCE
AS THE GALE SWEEPS O’ER THE BAY
THE SHORELINE LIGHTS HAVE DISAPPEARED
IN THE SHEETS OF FREEZING SPRAY
THE LIGHTHOUSE KEEPER IS DYING
HE’LL NOT SURVIVE THE NIGHT
HE CALLS HIS WIFE FOR ONE LAST WORD:
PLEASE, KATIE, MIND THE LIGHT!
(CHORUS AFTER FIRST VERSE)
PLEASE, KATIE, MIND THE LIGHT!
ON THIS AND EVERY NIGHT
MY TIME IS SHORT SO IT’S UP TO YOU
DEAR KATIE, MIND THE LIGHT!
(2)
SHE LEARNED THE LIGHT, THE SHIPS, THE PORT
AT HER LOVING HUSBAND’S SIDE
SHE WANTS THE JOB, BUT THE BUREAUCRATS
JUST CAN’T SEEM TO DECIDE
- SHOULD THEY LET A WIDOW TRY THE JOB?
- WOULD A STRONG MAN BE THE BEST?
AT LAST, THANK GOD, GOOD SENSE PREVAILS
AND THEY HONOR KATE’S REQUEST
(CHORUS AFTER VERSES 2 - 7)
PLEASE, KATIE, MIND THE LIGHT!
ON THIS AND EVERY NIGHT
SO MANY LIVES DEPEND ON YOU
SO KATIE, MIND THE LIGHT!
KATIE MIND THE LIGHT!
(3)
NOW KATE WALKER WAS A WOMAN
WHO STOOD UNDER FIVE FEET TALL
WHO’D EVER EXPECT SO BRAVE A HEART
IN ANYONE SO SMALL?
BUT EACH DAY SHE’D STEER HER ROWBOAT
WITH A WATERMAN’S TRUE SKILL
TO BRING HER BOYS TO SCHOOL AND BACK
THRU THE CURRENTS OF THE KILL*
(4)
THE SAILORS WHO REMEMBER
THE STORMS OF NINETY-SIX
STILL SHAKE THEIR HEADS AS THEY RECALL
THE DEVIL’S BAG OF TRICKS
THE FURY OF THE TEMPESTS
WRECKING EVERY BOAT IN SIGHT
ONE THING ALONE TO SAVE THEM -
KATIE WALKER AND HER LIGHT!
(5)
ONE HORRID NIGHT A SCHOONER
SMASHES HEADLONG ON THE REEF
THE CAPTAIN AND HIS STRUGGLING CREW
CRY DESPERATE FOR RELIEF
SOON KATIE’S IN HER ROWBOAT
COMING FAST THRU ICE AND FOG
TO SAVE EACH AND EVERY CREWMAN
AND THE CAPTAIN’S SCOTTIE DOG!
(6)
AFTER THIRTY YEARS KATIE’S TIME HAS COME
AND SHE LEAVES TO LIVE ON SHORE
IT GRIEVES HER HEART TO REALIZE
THAT THE JOB IS HERS NO MORE
BUT THE KEEPER WHO SUCCEEDS HER?
WELL, WE KNOW HE’LL DO IT RIGHT -
IT’S KATE’S OWN SON WHO’LL BE TAKING CARE
OF KATIE WALKER’S LIGHT!
KATIE MIND THE LIGHT!
(7)
KATE’S LIGHT TODAY AS IN THE PAST
GUIDES MARINERS FROM THE SHOALS
BUT HER KEEPERS AND THEIR KIND ARE GONE
THOSE BRAVE AND HARDY SOULS
SO LET’S DRINK A TOAST TO KATIE
AND HER NIGHTS ON ROBBINS REEF
AND THANK HER FOR DEVOTION
THAT’S ALMOST PAST BELIEF!

- BILL BLACK
MARCH 2006
-o0o-

* KILL = THE KILL VAN KULL, A NARROW WATERWAY THAT
SEPARATES NEW JERSEY FROM STATEN ISLAND. ROBBINS
REEF LIGHTHOUSE STANDS AT THE NORTH SIDE OF THE
ENTRANCE TO THE KILL VAN KULL.

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From james j westgate on Friday, January 27, 2006 at 20:53:43

Herman Westgate was my farther and i spend most of my younger years at robins reef lighthouse

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From KEN BARNES on Wednesday, December 22, 2004 at 15:15:26

HE WAS NO "KATE WALKER" BUT HERMAN WESTGATE MANNED THAT VERY SAME LIGHTHOUSE FOR A GOOD 35 YEARS......hE WAS MY GRANDFATHER

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From William Curtis Abernathy Jr. on Thursday, June 27, 2002 at 17:45:54

As a child growing up in Bayonne NJ
My father would take me fishing around Robbins reef lghthouse ,
( kate's Lighthouse )
I was alway's curious as to what was in that round building across from it ?
We use to wave to the people who lived there and that was back in the forties
I enjoyed the story.

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From Sid Crawford on Wednesday, September 13, 2000 at 18:28:56

If a light minder failed to mind the light was there a penalty for their deriliction of duty?
I am going to be giving a talk about dedication to service and I want to use lighthouses and their keepers as an example.
Any help or stories you can share with me would be very welcome.

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From John Bennett on Saturday, April 17, 1999 at 19:10:20

Dave thanks for the note I'll tyr again. I liked Sail Northeast particularly the story on Kate. I'd like to get an opertunity to sit down and chat with you about marketing my site sometime soon. thanks again JEB

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From Paul Shegan on Tuesday, March 9, 1999 at 20:22:26

This is a most enjoyable sight for local boaters......Thank You

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From the editor on Saturday, November 28, 1998 at 09:52:56

The US Coast Guard launched the 'Kathrine Walker', named for Kate on September 14th, 1996. For photos of the ship and additional information please see http://www.uscg.mil/hq/g%2Da/awl/bclass/katwalk.htm

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From Dave Murphy on Monday, November 9, 1998 at 03:58:09

T. Patrick Harris captains 'Ventura', an historic sailing yacht built by the Herreshoff family in the 1930's, and hosts charters on her out of a marina near the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan. He is a sponsor of SailNorthEast.

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