Katherine Walker, 1848-1931

  • Katherine-Walker-WWP

Woman Category: Activism & FeminismWoman Tags: NYC Women

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    One of the few female lighthouse keepers in the history of the US, credited with rescuing 50 or more sailors from shipwrecks.

    Born as Katharina Görtler in Rumbach, Germany. At 27, she married her first husband, who died not long after the birth of their son Jacob. To seek a better life for her and her son, Walker, then 37 years old, immigrated to the US and settled in Sandy Hook, NJ. Walker found a job as a cook in a boarding house, where she met Captain John Walker, who offered her English lessons. John was a veteran sea captain who was the keeper of the Sandy Hook Light, and after they got married, they moved into the lighthouse. A short while later, she learned the trade and became her husband’s assistant. After a year in Sandy Hook, they relocated to the Robbins Reef Light – a lighthouse surrounded only by water located in a dangerous stretch of water between Staten Island and New Jersey. There Walker gave birth to her daughter Mary.
    Two years after moving to the Robbins Reef Light, Captain Walker died from pneumonia. His last words before he passed away were “Mind the light, Kate,” and so she did. Although Katherine already worked officially as an assistant keeper, it took four years, and multiple declines from male lighthouse keepers before Walker was offered the position of the keeper. With her son Jacob as her assistant, she fulfilled all the job requirements, which included operating the lighthouse during the night and preparatory tasks during the day – cleaning the reflectors, scraping ice from the windows as well as rowing out to save the survivors and victims of wrecks or accidents. On foggy nights, she had to start an engine that would send out loud siren blasts every 3 seconds, and if the siren wouldn’t work, Walker had to climb to the top of the tower and hammer on the bell manually. Walker made sure to wind the lamp every 3 seconds, and not 5 as required, to ensured that “the light never disappointed sailors who have depended on it.”
    In addition to her work as a keeper, Walker was a devoted mother to her children, turning the lighthouse into a proper home and rowing the children back and forth Staten Island, so they attend school.
    In 1919, at the age of 71, Walker reached the age of mandatory retirement and unwillingly passed the job to her son. She moved out of the lighthouse into a small cottage in Staten Island, where she could observe Robbins Reef. In her 35 years at the lighthouse, Walker saved the lives of at least 50 people and guided countless vessels to safety.

    More Interesting Anecdotes:

    • At first, Walker had a tough time adjusting to an isolated lifestyle, surrounded by water with no option of gardening and planting vegetables, a fact that made her threaten to leave her husband.
    • A United States Coast Guard Coastal buoy tender is named after her.
    • A statue commemorating Walker will be placed at the Staten Island Ferry landing during 2021.
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  • One of Her Landmarks

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  • Woman Tags: NYC Women

    Lighthouse Kate - A Life on the Reef

    Please join us on our trip to the Noble Maritime Museum, where we talked with curator Megan Beck about Katherine Walker, Lighthouse Keeper at the Robbins Reef Lighthouse. She kept the light burning at all times. To learn more, please watch our video or visit "Robbins Reef: A Home in the Harbor" an exhibition at the Noble Maritime Collection through 2017. -Gregory Perosi and Eddy Gregory for Life-Wire News Service. Additional footage provided by Michael McWeeney with permission from Michael McWeeney and the Noble Maritime Collection.

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  • Photo credit - NPS