Robbins Reef - Entrance to Kill van Kull

History  | Visiting Info


Robbins Reef refers to a small sand bar located off the tip of Staten
Island. It marks the entrance to the Kill van Kull waterway linking
Upper New York Bay to Newark Bay. The lighthouse erected here guided
ships to one of the busiest ports in the world. The original lighthouse
was an white, octagonal stone tower built in 1839. In 1883 the tower
was replaced by the present 46 foot, cast iron 'spark plug' tower built
atop a granite foundation situated a few yards south of the old tower.
The new tower had black lantern with the top two stories painted white
while the bottom two stories were painted brown. It was first lit on
July 10th, 1883 and showed on a focal plane of 56 feet. A fourth order
Fresnel lens was installed in the tower in 1855.

Robbins Reef is synonymous with it's most famous keeper, Kate Walker,
who held that position for over 30 years. Kate was born in Germany in
1848 as Katherine Gortler. She married Jacob Kaird and had one son,
also named Jacob. When young Jacob was seven years old, his father
died. Kate decided America provided a fresh opportunity so she and
Jacob sailed into New York harbor for the first time, not realizing this
would literally become her new home. Her association with lighthouses
began in Sandy Hook, NJ. She was waiting tables at a boarding house
there when she met John Walker, assistant keeper of the Sandy Hook

Kate knew little English and John Walker happily agreed to teach her the
new language. A romance bloomed and soon Kate became Mrs. John Walker.
Kate enjoyed her life at the lighthouse and she gave birth to a
daughter, Mamie. But her time at Sandy hook was short lived. John was
assigned to the position of keeper for the recently reconstructed
Robbins Reef Lighthouse on December 30, 1883.

At first Kate did not take to living surrounded by water, she felt
isolated and alone. However over time the whole family adjusted to
living in the harbor. John received an annual salary of $600 as keeper
and the district was good enough to hired Kate as his assistant, for
which she was paid $350. In 1886, as the 'Statue of Liberty' was just
being finished, John contracted pneumonia. As he was being ferried to a
hospital ashore, John's last words to his wife have become infamous.
"Mind the light, Kate." John never recovered and died in the hospital
February 28, 1886. Once again Kate was a widow. Driven by the need to
provide for two children she followed her last order and took over as
light keeper.

Although Kate had been the assistant keeper, only after two men had
turned down it down, was the position of keeper formally offered to her.
She was appointed the official Keeper of the light in 1894. For 33
years Kate served as keeper and during that time she was credited with
over fifty saved lives. She retired to Staten Island in the shadow of
the light, so that she could still "Mind the light". Kate passed away
in 1935 at the age of eighty-four but captains and harbor pilots still
referred to the lighthouse as "Kate's Light" to this day.

The Coast Guard honors the most heroic of lighthouse keepers with the
vessel names for it's fourteen, 175 foot Keeper Class Buoy Tenders. The
KATHERINE WALKER (WLM 552) was launched on September 14th, 1996. She is
currently home ported in Bayonne, New Jersey, within sight of Robbins
Reef Lighthouse.

2007 NJLHS