Digest>Archives> January 1998

Lady of the Harbor

By Joseph N. Esposito


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If you were to ask people from around the world who the lady in New York Harbor was, they would say it was the Statue of Liberty, a gift from France, established in 1886. But in the same harbor was another lady called Catherine Walker. You could say she was a gift from Germany around 1884.

Catherine (Gortler) Walker came to America with her son Jacob after her first husband died. She took up residency at Sandy Hook, New Jersey and worked at the officers mess as a waitress to support her son. Catherine at the time did not know how to speak English. While waiting on tables she met John Walker who had been appointed the assistant keeper of Sandy Hook Lighthouse in 1878. After seeing Catherine from time to time he fell in love with her. He volunteered to teach her English and she agreed to his offer. After knowing each other for some time she eventually fell in love with John. They got married and soon set up home at the lighthouse.

Catherine (Kate) liked being at this light station where she could grow vegetables and flowers. She also helped John at the light. John taught Kate all he knew on keeping the light. I can't help feeling how proud Kate must have felt at this point in her life. She was a woman with courage enough to go on with her life even after losing her first husband, getting on a ship with her small son and coming to America. But her happy life at Sandy Hook would soon come to an end.

John was given notice by the Lighthouse Board that he and his family were being transferred to Robbins Reef Lighthouse located in upper New York Bay. Little did Kate know that this lighthouse was not on land. So with bag and baggage they set off for the journey to Staten Island and the Robbins Reef Lighthouse. After arriving at the light, it became apparent to John that Kate did not want to stay. She knew at once she would lose her ability to grow her vegetables and flowers or even to raise chickens on this solitary reef one and a half miles north of Staten Island. I guess that Kate came to the realization that John could do nothing about the transfer ordered by the Light-House Board. Even at this moment Kate would have no idea that she would be spending the next 30 years at this lighthouse.

At this time, the Robbins Reef Lighthouse was brand new. It began operation July 10, 1883 on the west side of New York Harbor's upper bay. It used a fourth-order Fresnel lens that flashed a white light every six seconds and a fog bell that was struck by a machine every fifteen seconds. The fog signal's machinery was located on the fourth deck of the lighthouse.

John Walker having been appointed keeper on December 30, 1885 was only the keeper for a short time. He died of pneumonia February 28, 1886 leaving his wife Kate as the acting keeper. However, on June 11, 1895, the President of United States, Benjamin Harrison, appointed her the official Keeper of the light.

Kate serviced the light for an amazing 29 years until her retirement in 1919. She retired to live on land at 53 Brook Street in Tomphinsville, Staten Island, NY. She died on February 5, 1931 at the age of 83. She was truly a woman of achievement.

Today the Robbins Reef Lighthouse is all boarded up, never to see the light of day. The lighthouse that saw good times and bad times will never see Kate again. All is gone at the speed of light.

About the author - Joe Esposito is president of the Lighthouse Research For Preservation. He can be contacted at 23 Husson Street, Staten Island, NY 10305-1213.

This story appeared in the January 1998 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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