Tending the light at the Robbins Reef Lighthouse in a busy, dangerous stretch of water between Staten Island and New Jersey meant the following: Fussing over eight oil-burning lamps backed by reflectors in a frame. The frame rotated under the power of a slowly descending weight. The lamp wicks had to be trimmed. The reflectors had to be perfectly clean. In bad weather the lighthouse keeper would go out on a narrow catwalk, scraping ice or snow from each window.
From the early 1890s to 1919, all this was the job of Katherine Walker, who will soon be receiving a monument at the Staten Island ferry landing, one of the four memorials announced last week as part of the city’s She Built NYC initiative.
Walker was 4 foot 10, an immigrant from Germany who learned English from her second husband. At the time, she was the only female keeper on the Eastern Seaboard for a lighthouse entirely surrounded by water, according to Erin Urban, founding director of the Noble Maritime Collection on Staten Island, which owns and is currently restoring the lighthouse.
Walker lived an unusual and hardy life, moving to America with her son Jacob in 1882 after the death of her first husband. In Sandy Hook, New Jersey, she met and married a Civil War Navy veteran and lighthouse keeper who moved her to the even less comfortable Robbins Reef lighthouse about a mile off shore in New York Harbor. It was a move she strongly opposed.
“I refused to unpack my trunks at first,” she wrote, according to Urban’s book “Perspective: Robbins Reef.”
But soon she grew accustomed to life on the rock, where supplies had to be boated in, and after her lighthouse-keeper second husband died of bronchopneumonia she took over his duties.
Duties that included rowing out in her dory to save the victims of wrecks or accidents, at least 50 of whom she pulled from the waves over her career, according to Urban.
Then there was fearsome sleet and snow and wind that lashed the tower and the chain that fastened her rowboat, a chain that came loose and hit her in the eye one winter.
It was a job that entailed working through the night and all sorts of preparatory tasks during the day, and not much time to get into Manhattan, an island she found frenzied and bewildering (outer borough residents today might sympathize).
When her foghorn was malfunctioning, according to “Perspective,” she had to climb to the top of the tower and hammer on a bell to signal to the mainland that repairs were necessary.
The lighthouse was heated by a wood stove and had no refrigeration. She sometimes had to row her children to school herself. There were hard times, including when her 8-year-old granddaughter was visiting the lighthouse in 1905 and fell down the metal stairs, dying days later.
It was a perilous place, and not just for sailors.
“More difficult to care for than a family of children,” Walker described the lighthouse.
But on a clear night, her light could be seen from 12 miles away. It was a savior and a landmark for those entering or leaving NYC: during World War I, she would unfurl an American flag to greet the transport vessels passing through the harbor. She served so long and so well that she became a fixture, lauded by mariners and newspapers.
In 1919 she received a letter telling her that, as a 71-year-old, she had reached the age for mandatory retirement.
She reluctantly did so, says Urban, moving to a house on Staten Island close to the water, walking down to the shore every day and looking at her old lighthouse. She died in 1931.
“I think the statue will bring her to much greater attention,” says Urban.