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Kate Walker, Lighthouse Keeper and Hero of New York Harbor (Teach It!)

A woman standing in front of a body of water
Kate Walker, c. 1909. Courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard Historian’s Office.

Introduction 

"Women's History to Teach Year-Round" provides manageable, interesting lessons that showcase women’s stories behind important historic sites. In this lesson, students explore the experience of Kate Walker, who served for 35 years as the lighthouse keeper of the offshore Robbins Reef Lighthouse near Staten Island and the coast of New Jersey. This lesson is adapted from the Teaching with Historic Places lesson plan, “Navesink Lighthouse and Robbins Reef Lighthouse: Lighting the Way Through New York Bay.”

Background

In the 19th century, New York was America’s busiest harbor, but navigating it was difficult and dangerous. As shipping increased during the 19th century, the number of shipwrecks also rose. In response, the U.S. government built lighthouses on dangerous parts of the coastline in order to warn sailors.

The geography of New York Bay is confusing to anyone who does not know the area. “New York Bay” is a collective term for the waters leading from the Atlantic Ocean to the port of New York. “New York Harbor” refers both to the Upper Bay and to the waterfronts at the southern end of Manhattan Island and in nearby cities in New Jersey

Map of New York Bay with lighthouses marked
National Park Service

United States History Standards for Grades 5-12

Era 6: The Development of the Industrial United States (1870-1900)

  • Standard 1A - The student understands the connections among industrialization, the advent of the modern corporation, and material well-being.

  • Standard 1B - The student understands the rapid growth of cities and how urban life changed.
  • Standard 2A - The student understands the sources and experiences of the new immigrants.
  • Standard 3A - The student understands how the “second industrial revolution” changed the nature and conditions of work.

Era 7: The Emergence of Modern America (1890-1930)

  • Standard 3B - The student understands how a modern capitalist economy emerged in the 1920s.

Reading

Robbins Reef Lighthouse is located about one mile north of Staten Island on a dangerous rocky underwater ledge. Established by the federal government in 1838, it was the first lighthouse built offshore in New York Bay. Lighthouses on land were accessible by roads and paths, but offshore lighthouses were out in the open water. The Robbins Reef lighthouse was a four-story tower with living space for two people.

Kate Walker was born in Germany and immigrated to the United States in 1882. She first arrived at Robbins Reef in 1885 with her husband, who was working as the lighthouse keeper. At first, she hated it. “When I first came to Robbins Reef,” Kate later remembered, “the sight of 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.”1 The lighthouse was indeed very isolated. A boat sent by the Lighthouse Service twice a year delivered basic requirements for the light (such as coal and oil), but the keepers at Robbins Reef had to row one mile to shore to get personal supplies.

At the time, Kate was the assistant lighthouse keeper. The U.S. government did not allow women to serve as principal lighthouse keepers in offshore lighthouses. Yet when Kate’s husband John Walker died of pneumonia in 1890, she took on the full responsibility of maintaining the lighthouse. For years, the Lighthouse Board tried to hire men for the position, believing that Kate Walker was unfit for the job. Of course, Kate was working unofficially as the principal keeper for all that time. Finally, in 1895, she received the permanent appointment.

A lighthouse in the middle of the water
Robbins Reef Lighthouse, c. 1950. Courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard Historian’s Office.

Working as a lighthouse keeper was difficult and dangerous work. Kate had to maintain the light and foghorn, which required regular upkeep. During the winter months ice would often build up on the lantern room glass and the keeper would need to constantly scrape it so that the light signal was visible to ships. When the foghorn machinery broke, the keeper would have to ring the bell by hand until someone from the Lighthouse Depot could make the trip to fix the equipment. Kate was also responsible for rescuing sailors after shipwrecks. She estimated that she rescued 50 people from drowning over the time she worked at Robbins Reef. In this time, she also raised two children.

During her time at Robbins Reef, Kate Walker was the subject of many articles in local newspapers and magazines. In an article that appeared in the New York Times in 1905, Kate Walker described her life at the lighthouse:

I have no time to get lonesome … I have meals to get regularly, although there is often nobody but myself here to eat them. Then there are the beds to make, the floors to scrub, the windows to clean … This lamp in the tower—it is more difficult to care for than a family of children. It need not be wound more than once in five hours, but I wind it every three hours so as to take no chances. In 19 years that light has never disappointed sailors who have depended upon it. Every night I watch until 12 o’clock. Then, if all is well, I go to bed leaving my assistant in charge. I am always up to put the light out at sunrise. Then I post my log from which monthly reports to the Government are made out. We have to put everything down, from the amount of oil consumed to the state of the weather. Every day I clean the brasswork of the lamp, and every month I polish the lenses. The latter is a two days’ job.2

Kate did not relish the media attention that she received. When asked about her difficult, isolated, and dangerous life, her reply was, “It isn’t much of a story. Just keep the light burning and the fog-bell wound up and the siren ready all the time. That’s all.”3

Kate Walker worked at the lighthouse until retiring in 1919 at the age of 73. She died in 1931. Many people still refer to Robbins Reef as “Kate’s Light.” In 2019, New York City announced that it would build a statue of Kate Walker in at the Staten Island Ferry landing.4 (Though Robbins Reef is officially in New Jersey, it is closest to Staten Island and visible from the ferry). The U.S. Coast Guard has also named one of its boats the Katherine Walker in her honor.

Discussion Questions

  1. What were some of Kate Walker’s responsibilities as the lighthouse keeper? What were some of the challenges she faced?
  2. How do you think life was different for keepers of offshore lights than for keepers on the mainland?
  3. Why do you think Kate Walker kept working at Robbins Reef for so many years?

Activity 1: Living in a Lighthouse

Using the information provided in the lesson, have students imagine that they are lighthouse keepers or lighthouse keepers’ spouses or children. Have them write diary or journal entries about what life might have been like living at Robbins Reef Lighthouse in the late 19th or early 20th century. Have students compare accounts and summarize the aspects of life that they described.

Activity 2: Researching Women Lighthouse Keepers

Have students research another female lighthouse keeper using library resources and/or credible websites. Examples of women they could research include Ida Lewis (Rhode Island), Harriet Colfax (Michigan), and Abbie Burgess Grant (Maine)—but there are many more! An extensive list is available on the U.S. Coast Guard Historian’s Office website. (Please note: there is not much information available online for some of the lighthouse keepers on the list). Students should find the following information about the lighthouse keeper they are researching:

  • Lighthouse location

  • Family relationships

  • How isolated she was from other people

  • Public attention she received during her life—and if she received any, her reaction to this attention

  • Any tributes or honors she received, both during her life and after death

Then, have students compare the information they found on the following topics to Kate Walker. Have student find the similarities and differences between Kate Walker and the lighthouse keeper they researched. Students could depict their findings in a chart or diagram, written response, or even a creative medium, such as an imagined conversation between the two women.

1 William Hemmingway, “The Woman of the Light,” Harper’s Weekly, 14 August 1909, 12.
2 Kate Walker in Cliff Gallant, “Mind the Light, Katie,” The Keeper’s Log 3, no. 3 (Spring 1987): 16.
3 Hemmingway, 11.
4 Sydney Kashiwagi, “City to construct statue of late lighthouse keeper Katherine Walker at Ferry landing,” SILive.com, 6 March 2019, https://www.silive.com/news/2019/03/city-to-construct-statue-of-late-lighthouse-keeper-katherine-walker-at-ferry-landing.html.

Last updated: August 25, 2020