ROBBINS REEF LIGHTHOUSE

Early Dutch settlements gave rise to what is now New York City, and the names of several features in the area are reminders of this heritage. Just off the northern tip of Staten Island, a small ridge of sand was named Robyn's Rift, meaning seal's reef, as the animals were frequently found lounging there. This Dutch name was later Anglicized to Robbin's Reef, or now more commonly Robbins Reef. The reef is situated near the entrance to Kill van Kull (Kill is Dutch for water channel), a three-mile-long waterway linking Upper New York Bay to Newark Bay, home of the busiest port in the eastern United States.

In 1839, the first lighthouse to mark this navigational hazard was constructed: an octagonal stone tower, painted white, that stood atop a stone base. The light, which originally consisted of nine lamps in fourteen inch reflectors, was first kept by Issac Johnson and had a focal plane of sixty-six feet. A fourth-order Fresnel lens was installed in the tower in 1855. After the lighthouse had served mariners for just over four decades, relief lightship LV 25 was anchored nearby to mark the reef, while a construction crew living onboard dismantled the old tower and built a replacement.

Click to view enlarged imageA wooden cofferdam was pieced together on the reef, made watertight, and pumped dry. Workmen then entered the cofferdam and built up a foundation that was subsequently capped with a granite, circular crib. Atop this crib, a four-story, iron sparkplug tower was erected. The bottom story served as a kitchen and dining room, and was originally encircled by a partially enclosed porch. A pair of bedrooms was located on the second floor. To give the tower a distinctive marking, the top half was painted white and the bottom portion brown. Just west of the tower, a small breakwater formed a protective cove to help the keepers reach their sanctuary in rough seas. (The octagonal structure near the Robbins Reef Lighthouse is not the base of the 1839 tower but rather a sewer outfall that was constructed around 1915.)

The most famous occupant of New York Harbor is surely Lady Liberty, who first struck her now permanent pose in 1886, just three years after the second Robbins Reef Lighthouse was built. In the lighthouse community, Kate Walker, keeper of Robbins Reef for over thirty years, runs a close second to the torch-bearing statue that stands just over two miles north of the lighthouse.

To gain an appreciation for Kate Walker, you have to travel back to northern Germany, where she was born Katherine Gortler in 1848. After finishing school, she married Jacob Kaird. The couple's only child, also named Jacob, was only seven years old when his father died. Seeking a new life, Kate took Jacob to America, where she accepted a position waiting tables at a boarding house in Sandy Hook, New Jersey. It was here where she met John Walker, assistant keeper of the Sandy Hook Lighthouse.

Kate knew very little English and gladly accepted Walker's offer of free English lessons. The student-teacher relationship quickly converted into a romantic one, and the two soon married. Kate enjoyed her life at the lighthouse, where there was land for her to grow vegetables and flowers. However, this life was short-lived as John was offered the position as keeper of the recently reconstructed Robbins Reef Lighthouse.

"When I first came to Robbins Reef," Kate recalled, "the sight of the water, which ever way I looked, made me lonesome. I refused to unpack my trunks at first, but gradually, a little at a time, I unpacked. After a while they were all unpacked and I stayed on." John received an annual salary of $600, while Kate was paid $350 to serve as his assistant. The couple, along with their son and new daughter Mary, quickly adjusted to their home with a 360-degree harbor view.

Tragedy touched the station in 1886, when John contracted pneumonia. As he was being taken ashore to a hospital, his parting words to his wife were "Mind the light, Kate." John never returned to his family. For the second time in her life, Kate was a widow, but she carried on, motivated by the need to provide for her two children and fulfill her husband's wish. "Every morning when the sun comes up," Kate said, "I stand at the porthole and look towards his grave. Sometimes the hills are brown, sometimes they are green, sometimes they are white with snow. But always they bring a message from him, something I heard him say more often than anything else. Just three words: 'Mind the light.'"

Although Kate had capably served as assistant keeper, the position of head keeper was only offered to her after two men had turned down it down. Perhaps the Lighthouse Service doubted a petite, 4'10" woman, with two dependent children, could handle the job - and a tough job it was. Every day, Kate would row her children to school, record the weather in the logbook, polish the brass, and clean the lens. At night, she would wind up the weights multiple times to keep the fourth-order lens rotating, trim the wicks, refill the oil reservoir, and in times of fog, she would have to start up the steam engine in the basement to power the fog signal. As her son John matured, he started to help with the tasks and was later made an assistant.

Besides keeping the lighthouse in fine order, Kate also rowed out to assist distressed vessels and is credited with having saved fifty lives. Most of her rescues were fishermen whose boats were blown onto the reef by sudden storms. Kate observed, "Generally, they joke and laugh about it. I've never made up my mind whether they are courageous or stupid. Maybe they don't know how near they have come to their Maker, or perhaps they know and are not afraid. But I think that in the adventure they haven't realized how near their souls have been to taking flight from the body."

After several years, Kate was more at home in the lighthouse than on land, and she was well acquainted with her nearest neighbors, the boats that frequently passed by her kitchen window. Recalling trip she had made to New York City, Kate stated, "I am in fear from the time I leave the ferryboat. The street cars bewilder me and I am afraid of automobiles. Why, a fortune wouldn't tempt me to get into one of those things!" Upon hearing the noon whistle sound at a factory during one of her trips to the big city, she remarked, "If I hadn't known that the Richard B. Morse had been scrapped many years ago, I would have said that was that ship's whistle." It was later determined that the whistle was indeed from the Morse. After a scrap dealer purchased the ship, the whistle was salvaged and sold to the factory.

Kate served at the light until 1919, and then retired to nearby Staten Island where she could still keep an eye on the beacon. Even after her retirement and eventual passing in 1935 at the age of eighty-four, captains and harbor pilots still referred to the lighthouse as "Kate's Light."

When the Coast Guard assumed responsibility for Robbins Reef Lighthouse in 1939, a three-man crew lived in the lighthouse to perform the duties that not too many years prior had been carried out by the diminutive Kate Walker. In tribute to the heroic service offered by lighthouse keepers, each vessel in the Coast Guard's fleet of fourteen, 175-foot Keeper Class Buoy Tenders is named after a keeper. The KATHERINE WALKER (WLM 552) was launched on September 14th, 1996, and appropriately, its homeport is in Bayonne, New Jersey, within sight of Robbins Reef Lighthouse.


Operational Statistics
Position 40° 39' 26.5" N
074° 03' 55.3" W
US Coast Guard Light List Number 34975
Light Characteristics Flashing Green 6s
Focal Plane 56 feet
Light Visual Range 7 Nautical Miles
Color White and Brown
Sound Signal None
Sound Characteristics N/A
Robbins Reef
Last Modified 9/19/2013