In his dying breaths, John Walker left his wife with these four words: “Mind the Light, Kate.”
And for three decades, Kate Walker carried out her husband’s final wishes, minding the Robbins Reef Lighthouse. More affectionately known as Kate’s Light, it sits about a mile off the shore of Staten Island and can be best viewed from the ferry -- passengers sitting on the Statue of Liberty side can catch a glimpse about five minutes after pulling out of St. George.
“It became her life’s work,” said Megan Beck, curator of The Noble Maritime Collection, which is in the middle of a 15-year restoration project with the ultimate goal of bringing visitors out to Kate’s home in the harbor. “It was very important to her that she continue her husband’s legacy and that she do the job well. She wanted to make sure she never let down the Sailors who depended on her.”
Katherine Gortler was born in Germany in 1848. In the early 1870s, she married Jacob Kaird and they had one son, also named Jacob. Kate was widowed shortly after Jacob was born and she emigrated to America with her young son in 1882, seeking opportunity. She settled in Sandy Hook, N.J., and worked as a cook and a waitress in the Officer’s Quarters at Fort Hancock. That is where she met John Walker, a Civil War veteran who would “hang out there” and give her English lessons. They married two years later.
John Walker was the keeper of the landlocked Sandy Hook Lighthouse which had a separate house on the property.
“She loved it,” Beck said. “She was happy to help him because she could have a garden, she could go for a walk, she could do all these things.”
At the end of 1885, Walker was appointed keeper of the Robbins Reef Lighthouse and Kate “did not want to go.”
“When they first went out there, at this point, she was pregnant with their daughter," Beck said. “She refused to unpack her trunks. She said, ‘I can’t stay here, I can’t have a garden, I can’t have a pet, there’s nowhere to go.’ It was a small space, but then as time went on, she had their daughter, she got trained as an assistant keeper and she liked it. She got settled in, she unpacked, she got used to life out there being very isolated.”
John Walker died five years after being appointed keeper of Robbins Reef, leaving Kate a widow for the second time, alone with her son Jacob from her first marriage and her daughter, Mary -- who went by the name May -- from her marriage to John.
“And that’s where the famous line comes in,” Beck said. “He told her to mind the light as he was being taken away to the hospital on Staten Island where he died of bronchial pneumonia in 1890. She was going to take that to heart, she was going to take care of the lighthouse.”
Kate’s story is so beloved and so widely-documented – she was profiled by leading newspapers, including the New York Times, throughout her tenure as lighthouse keeper. Kate’s great-great-great-granddaughter, Lucille, became the family historian, combing through newspaper clippings and documenting the stories passed down through the generations. John Walker did in fact tell Kate to “mind the light,” but other claims have been romanticized, like the widely popular belief that she rowed her children back and forth to school every day.
“She did not,” Beck said matter-of-factly. “I asked her great-great-great granddaughter about it and she said it would have been impossible. She had so much work to do. She rowed them over on a Monday, they would stay with friends during the week and she picked them up on Friday. It was very important that they had a network of people who could help.”
After John Walker died, the government had no intention of allowing Kate to take over the role of lighthouse keeper.
“At this point, she had a teenaged son and a young daughter,” Beck said. “She wants the job. She’s only 4-foot-10 and 90-pounds so they didn’t want to give it to her. It was rare for women, particularly mothers, to get that kind of job, but Kate said ‘I’m not leaving. Find someone else to take the post and then I’ll leave, then I must.’ In the 1890s, they did offer the job to several men, they would take them out there and they would see how isolated it was and they said ‘nope, I don’t want this job.’”
In 1894, Kate was appointed acting lighthouse keeper and a year later, she was officially made the lighthouse keeper. They lied about Jacob’s age, saying he was 21, so he could be appointed assistant lighthouse keeper. She made the exact same salary as her husband -- $600 a year. She was visited once a year by federal government agents who delivered her paycheck and a year’s supply of coal.
Kate’s nights began when a horn was fired at Governor’s Island, signaling sundown. “That is when she would go up there and start the full process,” Beck said. “At night, she would have to wind the light. Winding it is supposed to last five hours, but she would wind it every three hours because she didn’t want to risk it stop working and letting down people who relied on it. She would hang out in the watch gallery and make sure the lights were functioning. She would watch it all night.”
If the light malfunctioned for any reason or if the evening was particularly foggy, Kate headed to the basement and used a foghorn to replace the flashing light. And, if the foghorn wasn’t working, she climbed back to the top of the lighthouse and banged on a bell that was hanging on the balcony until she got the attention of someone at Governor’s Island.
Though, it might sound like minding a lighthouse is a sunset-to-sunrise job, there was no real rest for Kate.
“It’s really a 24-hour gig,” Beck said. “During the day, she had to keep everything clean because back then, she was using kerosene in the lamp. She stored the kerosene in a little shack outside, fill them inside and walk up five flights of steps and two ladders to get to where the lamp was. That would create a lot of dirt and grit. She had to make sure those windows were never dirty because the light had to shine for seven miles.”
And her eye was always scanning the harbor for any signs of distress. By her own account, she rescued at least 50 wayward fishermen – and one dog.
“There’s one story where she saw a small boat get capsized,” Beck said. “She rowed out to them and she pulled all the people out and they had a dog with them. She loved dogs. She got to hold on to the dog for a few days and she really enjoyed that.”
She also meticulously maintained a log book, documenting everything she saw in the harbor – the number of people fishing, the weather, accidents. Her records were often subpoena to assess damages and assign fault after collisions.
As the assistant lighthouse keeper, Jacob headed into Staten Island to buy groceries, pick up the mail and run other errands. He also helped with the daytime lighthouse cleaning so his mother could get a little rest.
When he was ashore, Jacob stayed at a small hotel which was located at the foot of Victory Boulevard in Tompkinsville. The woman he married worked at the hotel.
“She moves out to the lighthouse so they’re all out there living in the lighthouse,” Beck said. “In the next 10 years, they have five children, and they all live out there as well.”
Their oldest child, a 5-year-old girl, died after hitting her head in a fall down the stairs. After the accident, they moved into an apartment in Tompkinsville so two of their girls could attend school, while their younger girls stayed at the lighthouse. Jacob’s wife died in 1909 or 1910 from what the family now believes was cancer. Kate’s oldest daughter then moved into the apartment to care for the girls during the weekdays. They all stayed at the lighthouse on the weekends.
Beck described the six-floor lighthouse “as surprisingly roomy on the inside.”
“During the summer, they used to have parties out there and they’re friends would come out,” Beck said. “There could be 20 people out there having a party. I can’t fathom where they all went, but I am sure it was fun.”
In 1919, Kate was forced into retirement when the federal government changed the laws that mandated lighthouse keepers could not be older than 70. Kate was 71.
After Kate retired, Robbins Reef was operated by civilian keepers, including Jacob Walker, until 1939 when it was taken over by the Coast Guard. Rotating crews of three Guardsman and one civilian keeper took over running the lighthouse – “doing the work Kate largely did by herself.”
The light was automated in 1966 and is still active today. Members of the Coast Guard and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration stop in to inspect the equipment. As stewards, the Noble Maritime Collection is restoring the lighthouse as a museum.
Kate's last day as the lighthouse keeper was Feb. 28, 1919. Kate and her daughter moved into a house at 53 Brook St. in Tompkinsville, where she had backyard garden and a dog. She also walked along the waterfront so she could see her lighthouse. She died on Feb. 5, 1931.
“It was hard for her to leave because she was used to being out there and the world had changed so much in the 33 years she was on Robbins Reef,” Beck said. “She told stories about how she had to go into Manhattan and she would see all the street cars and they freaked her out. Too much noise, too loud. She was much more comfortable watching the ships pass by and hearing their horns.”
(Photo: The Robbins Reef Lighthouse, more affectionately known as Kate’s Light sits about a mile off the shore of Staten Island, courtesy of the Noble Maritime Collection)