1848 - 1931
By CWO Al Primm
The story of Katherine (Katie) Walker is one of the immortal sagas of New York City and its many islands, ledges and lighthouses. Robbins Reef Light, located in the straits between Manhattan Island and Staten Island on the west side of the channel, is seen by more than a million people daily. Of those, only a few have ever heard of Mrs. Katherine Walker.
In the winter of 1886, Keeper John Walker developed pneumonia and died, leaving his wife Katherine as temporary head keeper to tend the light. His last reported words to her were, "Mind the lights, Katie."
She decided to stay on as keeper if the government permitted. However, objections were raised when she applied for the appointment, as she was only 4' 10" and 100 pounds. After several men turned the job down because the light was too isolated, Katie was hired. Time proved that she was as good at the job as any man, but her official appointment was not until June 6, 1895.
She not only kept the light burning but by her own account may have saved as many as 50 people. Most were fishermen whose boats were blown onto the reef by sudden storms Katherine 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"
One noteworthy incident was the wreck of a schooner which struck the reef. Kate launched her dinghy and took aboard the five crewmen, and a small Scottie dog, whose survival pleased her greatly. Katherine noted, "He crouched, shivering, against my ankles. I'11 never forget the look in his big- brown eyes as he raised them to mine." Upon reaching the lighthouse, she carried the dog inside her cloak to the kitchen, where she placed the dog on the floor. It promptly fell over as if it were dead. Reaching over to the stove, Mrs. Walker poured out some coffee from the pot she always kept hot in stormy weather, and poured some down the dog's throat. "Then his eyes opened, and there was that same thankful look he had given me in the boat."
A week, later the captain returned and took the dog. As he was being carried down the lighthouse ladder, the Scottie looked up and whined. "It was then I realized that dogs really weep, for there were tears in Scottie's eyes. It is strange that one of the most pleasant memories I have of my more than thirty years in the lighthouse should be of the loving gratitude of a dog."
Kate, assisted by her son Jacob, tended the light until her retirement to Staten Island in 1919 at the age of 73. With her passing at the age of 84 in 1930, a well-ordered life came to a close. Her obituary was carried in the New York Evening- Post, and provided this eulogy:
"A great city's waterfront is rich in romance . . . there are queenly liners, the grim battlecraft, the countless carriers of commerce that pass in endless procession. And amid all this and in 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."
The Coast Guard christened a Keeper Class buoy tender Katherine Walker (WLM-552) in her honor.