by Kevin Walsh

The Robbins Reef Lighthouse, familiar to Staten Island Ferry riders as it sits at the confluence of Upper New York Bay and the Kill Van Kull, was originally built in 1839, with the present tower built in 1883. Though it looks small from the ferry, it is 46 feet high. The Robbins Reef is a sand bar located beneath the lighthouse at the entrance to Kil Van Kull, an important ‘highway’ for barges, container boats and attendant tugs.

The Lighthouse perhaps pales in NYC popular lore when compared to the Jeffries Hook, or “Little Red” Lighthouse, which sits in the shadow of the George Washington Bridge ion upper Manhattan and was the subject of a popular children’s book, but Robbins Reef has, perhaps, an even more compelling history.

Katherine, or Kate, Gortler was an immigrant to the USA from Germany with her son, Jacob, in 1855 after the death of her first husband, Jacob. She was waiting tables in a boarding house in Sandy Hook, NJ when she met John Walker, the assistant keeper of the Sandy Hook Lighthouse. John taught her English, romance bloomed, and they married.

In 1883 John Walker was reassigned to the newly reconstructed Robbins Reef Lighthouse, and lived with Kate at the lighthouse with Jacob and their daughter Mamie. Kate became the assistant lighthouse keeper and adjusted to an isolated life in the harbor. In 1886, the year the Statue of Liberty was dedicated, John came down with pneumonia and died, but not before charging Kate with the lighthouse’s upkeep: “Mind the light, Kate.”

After a couple of years when the harbormaster tried two other keepers who were deemed unworthy, Kate Walker became the official keeper in 1894, a job she held until 1919. She would row her two children — through the choppy waters of Upper NY Bay — to the school on the Staten Island shore. She passed in Tompkinsville, Staten Island, in 1931.

In her tenure, Kate was credited with some 50 rescues. The most rewarding, she recalled, came one winter night when a schooner crashed onto the reef. Five men were cast into the cold seas. Launching the small boat she used to ferry her children to school, Kate bravely rowed through the surging wreckage and rescued all five. All safely aboard, one of them asked “Where’s Scottie?” Searching in the dark she caught a glimpse of a small dog and hauled him aboard, too. Back at the light she wrapped Scottie in a towel and forced him to drink warm coffee. The men left the next day and the skipper returned three days later to claim the dog. As the captain climbed down into his waiting boat, Scottie looked up into Kate’s eyes and whined. “That’s when I learned dog’s could weep,” she said, “there were tears in his eyes.” Sail Northeast

Kate Walker’s Legacy

USCGC KATHERINE WALKER was the second 175’ Keeper Class buoy tender built and commissioned for the United States Coast Guard. She was built by Marinette Marine in Wisconsin and accepted by the Coast Guard in 1996.



Brenda from Flatbush September 20, 2011 - 11:14 am

Wow! Awesome story, even better for a children’s book than the Little Red Lighthouse–and all she got named after her was a buoy?!

don callum September 20, 2011 - 1:46 pm Reply
Old Skool September 20, 2011 - 8:45 pm

It’s a buoy. Can you imagine living in the middle of everything like Kate did? What a view. Like many New Yorkers I have been past here plenty of times. Kevin, what are chances that you can get a peek inside?

Tal Barzilai September 21, 2011 - 7:12 pm

I am surprised why there is no book that talks about the Lighthouses of NYC, because it would be an interesting one.

HigherFaster September 21, 2011 - 7:27 pm

Pretty nice look inside Robbin’s Reef Light in the NYT audio slide show:


Tom September 21, 2011 - 8:34 pm

Great story! You should add the picture of the ship named after her to the page. I love all these little stories about NYC.

Andy Koeppel September 21, 2011 - 11:49 pm

That’a a great story about Katie. I can’t thank you too good much for your excellent research. Your new format improved a website that was already very good.

Warren Westbo September 22, 2011 - 8:52 am Reply
Andy February 3, 2020 - 11:47 pm

Man! That’s quite a story! This lady needs a street named after her fast! Quite the New Yorker!

PS: When could she have been born? Assuming she was originally windowed at age 25 she must have been born around 1830, which means she was still “keeping the light” until about 90 and lived to be about 100!


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