Walker tended the Robbins Reef Light in the Lower New York Bay in New York Harbor for more than thirty years after the death of her husband, Captain John Walker, who had been appointed keeper of the light in 1883. In 1886, John Walker was dying from pneumonia. In the hospital, his parting words to his wife were, "Mind the light, Kate." He never returned to the lighthouse again. Katherine Walker was appointed the official keeper of the light by President Benjamin Harrison in 1890, four years after her husband's death. During her commitment on the tower she rescued 50 sailors from shipwrecks, and raised two children, Jacob and Mary.
Katherine Walker immigrated to the United States in the 1870s. As a recently widowed mother, Walker settled in Sandy Hook, New Jersey where she got a job in a boarding house. There she met Captain John Walker, a retired sea captain who was the keeper of the Sandy Hook Light. He offered to give Kate English lessons, despite not speaking the language well himself. Soon the couple married, and Kate happily settled, with her son Jacob, into her new home in the Sandy Hook lighthouse. She quickly learned how to assist her husband with his duties, but soon after they were wed, Captain Walker was transferred to Robbins Reef Light.
Sandy Hook Light was land-based which allowed Kate to have a garden and plant vegetables. Such a garden would not be possible at Robbins Reef as the structure was surrounded by water, a fact that made Kate threaten to leave her husband. Later in life she told a visitor to the lighthouse of her first impression of her future home, “When I first came to Robbins Reef, the sight of the water, whichever 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.” Kate ultimately stayed on for 33 years after her husband’s death from pneumonia in 1886. Captain Walker’s last words to his wife, “Mind the light, Kate,” motivated her to continue as the keeper at Robbins Reef. They were words Kate had often heard from her husband, and she intended to abide by them.
Although Kate had been working for $350 in wages as assistant keeper while her husband was alive and had proven herself capable of the required work, it was four years, after multiple men had declined the job, before she was officially offered the keeper position for $600 a year. Once a year, a lighthouse official would stop by the lighthouse to drop off a few tons of coal, barrels of oil, and an envelope containing Kate’s wages. Aside from this visit, Kate was left alone. Now comfortable with her life offshore, Kate became uncomfortable with trips to the mainland. She rarely left the station, except to row her children back and forth to school on Staten Island. Of New York City, Kate once said, “I am in fear from the time I leave the ferryboat. The street cars bewilder me, and I am afraid of automobiles. Why, a fortune wouldn’t tempt me to get into one of those things!”
In 1906, Kate Walker was interviewed by the New York Times at Robbins Reef and explained that becoming truly lonesome was impossible, as there was too much work to be done. The light was to be lit each night immediately following the gunfire from Governor’s Island which signaled sunset. Until dawn, the light would shine every six seconds and, on a clear night, it could be seen twelve miles away. If the night was foggy, Kate would descend into her basement where she would start an engine that would send out loud siren blasts at three second intervals. Kate and her assistant keeper, her son Jacob, would not attempt sleep on foggy nights as there was no point in trying. If the siren were to malfunction, Kate would have to ascend to the top of the tower and manually hammer on a bell. This hammering was a signal to the mainland that the siren was in need of repair, and officials would make the trip as soon as the weather permitted. She also had to keep detailed notes regarding her keeper duties to submit to the government each month. To the New York Times, Kate described the light as “more difficult to care for than a family of children.” Although the lamp only needed to be wound every five hours to maintain the light, Kate took careful measures to wind it every three hours. Her meticulous efforts ensured that the “light never disappointed sailors who have depended on it.”
Aside from “minding the light,” Kate had to do hours of housework each day. She exclaimed to the New York Times reporter in 1906 that there was “as much housework to do here as at the Waldorf Astoria!”. Kate turned the small three-story lighthouse into a surprisingly comfortable home. The reporter wrote that casual passersby would be surprised to learn “that it has five large rooms quite as commodious as they would expect to find in a forty-dollar-a-month flat.!”. The kitchen and dining room were in the main room, which was the largest. Lockers for clothing and closets for china were fitted into the circumference of the main room. The second, smaller floor was divided into two bedrooms. Kate kept all the woodwork polished and the floors clean. She also put flower pots in each window to brighten up the rooms. A wind-up phonograph was prominent in the main room and her children frequently played records, longing to hear the sound of different voices. Kate’s daughter, Mary, was her primary companion at the lighthouse for the majority of her childhood and her dolls were strewn about the floor. Mary’s brother, Jacob, was older and though he worked as assistant lighthouse keeper, he spent most of his time on the mainland as his mother’s postman and general courier. Jacob did continue to make daily trips out to the station to help his mother tend to the light. Mary eventually spent more time on Staten Island as well, as she boarded with a family there once it was time to go to school, only returning to visit on weekends and holidays.
Although Kate’s home was comfortable, she spent the majority of her time on the terrace outside of her home, regardless of the weather. From the decks of passing ships, the terrace looks remarkably small, as though “two goats walking side by side would be crowded.” In fact, the terrace was spacious, and in the summer months, when the awning provided shelter from the sun and Kate set up tables and chairs, it was a very welcoming place. The terrace was where she would entertain guests when the water was calm enough for visitors to make the trip. A friend of Kate’s from Staten Island, Alderman Kerrigan, described the terrace as the “most comfortable and coolest roof-garden in New York.”
In 1919, at the age of seventy-three, Kate Walker retired as the Robbins Reef keeper. In her thirty-three years at the lighthouse, Kate saw the progression from kerosene lamps to oil vapor lamps and eventually to electricity. Minding the light became much easier as time moved into the 20th century. After her retirement, Kate lived in a small cottage with a garden on Staten Island where she was frequently spotted observing Robbins Reef.
Kate Walker died in 1931 and her obituary in the New York Evening Post contained this passage, “A great city’s water front is rich in romance… There are queenly liners, the grim battle craft, the countless carriers of commerce that pass in endless procession. And amid all this and in the sight of the city of towers and the torch of liberty lived this sturdy little woman, proud of her work and content in it, keeping her lamp alight and her windows clean, so that New York Harbor might be safe for ships that pass in the night.”
A United States Coast Guard Coastal Buoy Tender is named for her. The folk song, "Lighthouse Keeper" by Neptune's Car was reportedly inspired by Walker.
In 2009 the government declared the historic Robbins Reef Light "surplus property,” and although the Bayonne Economic Development Corporation expressed interest in the structure, only the Noble Maritime Collection submitted a proposal. The museum was granted stewardship in 2011 by the U.S. General Services Administration. The Noble Collection has plans to restore the lighthouse to the days of Kate Walker. Eventually, Robbins Reef will be turned into a museum to educate people about Kate Walker and life as a lighthouse keeper.