Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2015-06-14.
The Kill van Kull is a tidal strait between Staten Island, New York and Bayonne, New Jersey that connects Upper New York Bay with Newark Bay. Marking the eastern end of the Kill is the Robbins Reef Lighthouse.
Dutch colonists acquired the island of Manhattan in 1626 from a group believed to be the Canarsee Indians of the Lenape Indian Confederacy. The island was formally incorporated as the city of New Amsterdam on February 2, 1653, encouraging many Dutch settlers to put down roots in the area.
As the Dutch settled the area, explorers referred to many of the locations based on shape, geography, or its relation to other places. The word kill comes from the Dutch word kille, which means "water channel" or "stream." Kill van Kull roughly translates to "channel from the pass."
By the early 1800s, the City of New York was under British Rule and was becoming an economic powerhouse. Traffic into and out of New York Harbor was rapidly increasing. On March 3, 1837, Congress appropriated $50,000 for a lighthouse on Robbin's Reef, a small sand ridge located just off the northern tip of Staten Island, which obstructed the entrance to Kill van Kull and Newark Bay.
The following text was included in the Report from the Secretary of the Treasury dated December 14, 1837:
For Robbin's reef, which is seen from the city of New York, I was desirous of having a light-house both durable and handsome. The foundation being in water, which rose and fell with the tide some eight or ten feet, and exposed in the winter season to floating ice, it was found necessary to form it of granite, forty eight feet diameter, with an elevation eighteen feet. Upon this the tower will be placed, of the octagon form, built of hewn granite, with accommodations in the different stories for the keeper and his family. A contract has been entered into for erecting the building upon this plan, and with this material, for the sum of thirty-four thousand nine hundred dollars, and for fitting up the same, six hundred and eighty dollars; the work to be completed by the middle of October, 1838. The appropriation, it will be recollected, was fifty thousand dollars.
The sixty-six foot tall stone tower was constructed by the D. Haselton Company. The tower had built-in living quarters, large enough for a single keeper and his family. Isaac Johnson was appointed the station's first keeper in 1839. He lit the array of lamps on the night of October 25, 1839 for the first time.
Although it is unknown what illuminating apparatus was present in 1839, the station was listed as having an array of nine lamps backed by 14" reflectors in 1842, and was upgraded to 15 lamps with 16" reflectors in 1849. At some point, the lighting system was upgraded to nine Argand lamps and 21" reflectors.
With the establishment of the United States Lighthouse Board in 1852, the system of lighthouses, fog bells, and buoys were removed from oversight by the U.S. Treasury department and put under the auspices of a group which consisted of distinguished military officers and civilian scientists who understood the business.
Starting around the time that the Lighthouse Board was established, most lighthouses in the United States were upgraded to the more efficient Fresnel lens. As there were so many lighthouses to outfit, it took several years before the Robbin's Reef Lighthouse was upgraded, however, in 1855, it was updated to a 360° fourth-order Fresnel lens displaying a fixed white light.
In 1863, a fog bell was established at the station and in 1875, "new and improved parts have been fitted to the fog-bell striking-machine, and general repairs and improvements have been made, for the greater comfort of the keeper, as well as the efficiency of the station."
The following year, the lamps were upgraded to burn mineral oil and a storage shed was built to store the oil and other supplies.
As New York Harbor continued to expand, companies attempted to get grants from the State of New Jersey for portions of the reef to set up factories. As the Lighthouse Board was concerned that any such grant could interfere with shipping, they applied for, and received a grant covering the Robbin's Reef Lighthouse and extended out 350' in every direction.
In 1883, it was decided that the tower would be replaced and it was torn down. The Robbin's Reef Lighthouse was extinguished on March 10 and its duties were taken over by LV25, a relief lightship that was brought into the area. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for 1883 had the following entry:
Robbins' Reef, off Tompkinsville, lower part of New York Harbor, New Jersey and New York - The old stone tower was torn down, and a four-section iron tower erected in its place. While the tower light was out, a light-ship was kept on the station. The new flashing lens was put in place, and the light was exhibited on July 10, 1883, for the first time.
Once the crib was constructed, a four-story, iron "spark-plug style" lighthouse was erected. Like most lighthouses constructed in this style, the lower floor served as a kitchen and dining room, the second and third floors housed bed rooms. Typically, the fourth level was a work / watch room, and housed the machinery for the fog bell.
Robbins Reef Lighthouse courtesy USCG
Like most stations, there were periods of upgrades. In 1888, a new flash pattern was tested at the station and was deemed a success and on April 25, 1893, the fog bell was removed and a blower siren, operated by a Priestman engine was installed. This only lasted for a few years before a Hornsby-Akroyd oil engine replaced it in 1896. Two years later, a larger trumpet was installed.
Although the station had many keepers over the years, surely the most famous keeper was Kate Walker. She was born and grew up in Northern Germany as Katherine Gortler. While in Germany, she married and had a son named Jacob. After the passing of her husband, she and her son immigrated to the United States in the 1870s, ending up in Sandy Hook, New Jersey.
While waiting tables at a boarding house, Kate Gortler met Captain John Walker, a Swedish immigrant, a retired sea captain, and keeper of the Sandy Hook Lighthouse. The two struck up a friendship and although John didn't speak English well, he offered to give Kate lessons.
Soon thereafter, the two were married and Kate and Jacob moved into the Sandy Hook Lighthouse with John Walker. While at the lighthouse, Kate quickly learned how to assist John with the lightkeeping duties. John Walker was transferred to the Robbin's Reef Lighthouse and accepted the appointment on December 30, 1885. Kate was hired as an assistant keeper.
When Kate first arrived at the Robbin's Reef Lighthouse, she refused to unpack her belongings and threatened to leave her husband. Little by little, she unpacked, and before she knew it, all her boxes were empty, so she decided to stay on.
Soon after moving to the Robbin's Reef Lighthouse, John Walker developed pneumonia and died on February 28, 1886. On his death bed, his last words to his wife were "Mind the light, Kate." These words motivated her to stay on as keeper of the lighthouse.
Although she was the assistant keeper and had proven herself capable at the lighthouse, objections were raised when she applied for the position. The objections were most likely due to her diminutive size. She was only 4'10" tall and barely weighed 100 pounds.
Over the next four years, the head keeper position was offered to and refused by many men due to the isolated location. Finally, in 1890, President Benjamin Harrison appointed Kate Walker as the official keeper of the Robbin's Reef Lighthouse. Her salary was $600 per annum.
Kate became very comfortable at the lighthouse, leaving the station only to row her children to and from school on Staten Island. When asked about New York City, only a short distance from the lighthouse, she 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!"
Although she was uncomfortable with big city life, on the seas, she was fearless. Although there are no official records, by her own estimates she has saved the lives of 50 people whose ships hit the reef. Most were fishermen whose boats were blown onto the reef by sudden storms.
As her son Jacob got older, he officially took on assistant keeper duties. Once married, he moved with his wife to the mainland, and would deliver mail and supplies to the station while helping his mother tend the light.
Kate's daughter Mary began spending more time on mainland as she got older. To be closer to school, she began boarding with a family on Staten Island, and would only return to the lighthouse on the weekends and holidays.
Although her husband had passed away and both of her children were living on the mainland, she said during an interview in 1906 with the New York Times that there was too much work to be done to become truly lonesome.
Kate explained that the light was to be lit each night immediately following the gunfire from nearby Governor's Island, which signaled sunset. To maintain the blinking light, the lamp needed to be wound every five hours, however, Kate would do it every three to ensure it "never disappointed sailors who have depended on it."
If fog had rolled in, she would go to the basement to start up an engine that would drive the fog signal, if the fog signal failed, she would manually have to strike a bell with a hammer, this signaled to the mainland that the fog signal needed repair.
On top of all that, there were detailed notes that had to be taken for monthly government reports and hours of housework to be done each day. Despite all the work and the isolated location, Kate Walker stayed on as keeper for 33 years, retiring in 1919 at age 73.
After retirement, Kate Walker lived in a small cottage on Brook Street in Staten Island. She passed away on February 5, 1931 at the age of 83. Her obituary in the New York Evening Post contained the following 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."
In the 1990s, the U.S. Coast Guard commissioned a new class of coastal buoy tenders dubbed the "Keeper Class," each named after lighthouse keeper. The keeper class ships are involved in a variety of missions, including maintaining aids to navigation, search and rescue, law enforcement, and many others.
The first ship, launched on October 14, 1995, was named the Ida Lewis (WLM-551), named for the heroic keeper of the Lime Rock Lighthouse in Newport Harbor. The Katherine Walker (WLM-552) was the second such ship deployed, which was launched on September 14, 1996 and is appropriately based out of Bayonne, New Jersey.
The Robbin's Reef Lighthouse was declared surplus by the Coast Guard in 2009. Through the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000, it was offered free of charge to eligible entity which included federal, state, and local agencies, non-profits, or educational resources.
Although three groups expressed interest in the Robbin's Reef Lighthouse, only the Noble Maritime Collection submitted the full paperwork. Their plan to restore the lower level of the lighthouse to the era when Kate Walker was the keeper and turn the lighthouse into a museum to educate people about Kate and her life as the keeper.
The Lighthouse was officially transferred to the Noble Maritime Museum in 2011. Once the group had access, volunteers repaired the access ladder, outer railings, and the removed the sheet metal that covered the windows. Inside, they scraped and bleached the interior of the tower, and strung up lights, which were attached to a donated generator.
The group was making progress in the restoration when Hurricane Sandy struck in October of 2012 unleashing devastating winds and water in the greater New York City area. The hurricane destroyed parts of the railing and caisson, an exterior steel door and interior wooden door were both blown in, the floor boards were torn up, and both the basement and the main floor were flooded. Any equipment that was left on site, was damaged beyond repair due to the infiltration salt water.
Cleaning up from the hurricane was no small feat, however, the crew continues to press on. Island Housewrights, a local restoration company, removed debris and installed a new floor. The old furnace in the basement had to be demolished with a sledge hammer and a sawzall, then carried out to the dumpster.
Next on the agenda for the Noble Maritime Museum is to replace the canopy that once stood over the caisson, which will then house the donated solar panels.
Directions: This lighthouse sits off shore from Staten Island. The best view is from the Staten Island Ferry as it passes right by the lighthouse.