Robbins Reef Lighthouse
The Noble Maritime Collection is the proud steward of Robbins Reef Lighthouse. Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, Robbins Reef is of historical significance to Staten Island and New York Harbor because of its location, history, and architecture. A well-preserved example of an offshore "spark plug" style lighthouse, Robbins Reef primary historical significance lies in the story of Katherine Walker, keeper from 1895-1919.
Frequently Asked Questions
Where is Robbins Reef Lighthouse?
The lighthouse is located between Staten Island's North Shore and the Statue of Liberty.
How old is it?
Originally constructed of granite in 1839, the station was rebuilt of cast iron in 1883. The tower is 48 feet tall.
What's it like inside?
The lighthouse has six levels: the cellar, equipped with a cistern; the first and largest floor, was used as a kitchen; the second floor was the sitting room and office; the third and fourth floors, used as bedrooms; and the fifth floor, which opens on to a balcony overlooking the Harbor and leads up to the lantern gallery.
Who maintains the light?
Since the mid-20th Century lighthouses have been automated, but up until then a keeper maintained the light for passing ships. The most famous keeper of Robbins Reef was Katherine Walker. Today the Noble Maritime Collection maintains the structure; the US Coast Guard maintains the solar-powered light, which blinks every six seconds; and NOAA maintains weather-data equipment there.
When did Katherine Walker arrive at Robbins Reef?
Accompanied by her young son Jacob, Katherine Walker, nee Gortler (1848-1931), came to America from Germany as a widow in 1882 and settled in Sandy Hook, New Jersey where she met Captain John Walker, keeper of the land-based Sandy Hook Lighthouse. In 1885, after they wed, Kate and John moved out to Robbins Reef. In 1890, Captain Walker died of pneumonia. His last words to his wife were "Mind the light, Kate," and she heeded them and remained at Robbins Reef for 33 years. She earned $600 a year, which she received once a year when an official dropped off a year's supply of coal and barrels of oil for the light.
What were Kate's duties?
Tending to the light was arduous. It had to be lit each night immediately following the gunfire from Governor's Island which signaled sunset. Until dawn, it would blink every six seconds; on a clear night, it could be seen from twelve miles away. In fog, Kate would start an engine in the basement that sent out foghorn blasts at three-second intervals; if it malfunctioned, she had to hammer on a bell at the top of the tower to signal to the mainland that the foghorn was in need of repair. She also had to keep detailed records and submit them to the government each month.
Was Kate's job dangerous?
The water around Robbins Reef is treacherous. By her own count, over the years Kate rescued 50 people and one dog. She herself almost lost her life in a sudden storm that came up while she was rowing back from Staten Island. After three hours of struggling through snow and wind, she was rescued by a ferry that towed her as close as possible to her home, and by the time she ascended the ladder, she was covered in ice. Another time, her rowboat, her only transportation, almost came loose from its mooring in a storm. As she struggled to secure it, the chain holding the boat hit her in the eye, and the wind nearly blew her off the caisson. In 1919, after 33 years at the station, Kate retired and moved into a little cottage with a garden on Brook Street, Staten Island. Her son replaced her as keeper.
Who owns the lighthouse now?
In 2009, the federal government declared Robbins Reef surplus property and in 2011 it awarded ownership to the Noble Maritime Collection under the United States Lighthouse Preservation Act. The museum is restoring the lighthouse as a museum.
If you would like to donate your time or services toward this project please contact the museum at (718) 447-6490.