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Determining the Facts

Reading 3: Keeping the Light

Lighthouse keepers’ lives were often isolated, lonely, routine, and sometimes dangerous. Some lighthouse keepers lived in stations located on land near small towns, like those who worked at Navesink Lighthouse located in Highlands, New Jersey. Others lived on offshore lighthouses, like Robbins Reef, many located miles from land. In some instances, the keeper and the keeper’s family were stationed on a desolate island or coastal location. Keepers had many responsibilities. Everyday tasks included maintaining the light, cleaning the lens, and operating the fog signal.  In addition, keepers frequently had to row to the mainland for supplies, to work in severe climates and through harsh storms, and often to conduct heroic rescue missions. A keeper’s salary varied greatly from one lighthouse to the next, and could be quite small, considering the risks associated with the job. In 1867, an Act of Congress fixed the average annual salary of a lighthouse keeper at $600.1

By 1852, the newly formed Lighthouse Board began distributing written instructions to lighthouse keepers. These instructions described the duties, rules, and regulations associated with the job. The Board’s instructionsstated, “The Keeper is responsible for the care and management of the light, and for the station in general. He must enforce careful attention to duty on the part of his assistants; and the assistants are strictly enjoined to render prompt obedience to his lawful orders.” The manual also specified that “watches must be kept at all stations where there is an assistant. The keeper on watch must remain in the watch room and give continuous attention to the light while he is on duty. When there is no assistant, the keeper must visit the light at least twice during the night between 8 p.m. and sunrise; and on stormy nights the light must be constantly looked after.” Keepers were instructed to keep the station tidy, carefully monitor supplies, and record the quantities of oil and other supplies used daily, as well as submit monthly reports on the condition of the station. Keepers were required to promptly report shipwrecks, and the manual reminded them that “it is the duty of light-keepers to aid wrecked persons as far as lies in their power.”2

 

The Lighthouse Board employed one principal keeper and three assistant keepers at Navesink Light due to the size of the lighthouse and the difficulty of maintaining two lights. Eighteen rooms in the 228-foot long, castle-like, keepers’ dwelling that connected the north and south towers housed the four keepers. In 1875, the three assistant keepers requested in writing to “divide the nights into three watches, owing to the extreme cold and dampness existing in the towers of the lighthouses, and certifying that no fires can be used in the towers as such would cause steam to arise and settle on the lantern panes and cause the light to be obscured from the sea… And also do desire the use of the Keeper’s kitchen as a Watch Room.” In response, the principal keeper of Navesink Light, Gersham Van Allen wrote “… that the lamps can be as well attended by the men on watch in the room below stairs as if they were in the ‘towers’ and knowing it to be injurious to the health to remain in the towers during the watches and believing this to be the better way for the good of health and as well for the light, I have granted the above request.”3

 

A principal keeper and one assistant keeper were assigned to Robbins Reef Lighthouse in the late 1800s. Their living quarters consisted of a kitchen and dining room on the first level and bedrooms on the second and third levels.  The fourth level served as the watch room. A boat sent by the Lighthouse Service twice a year delivered basic requirements for the light (such as coal and oil), but the keepers at Robbins Reef had to row approximately one mile to shore to get personal supplies.

 

Lighthouse keeper positions were not entirely reserved for men. Women also served as assistant keepers and principal keepers under the direction of the Lighthouse Board. However, the practice of appointing women as keepers at offshore lighthouses was rare. More commonly women served as unofficial lighthouse keepers at land-based lighthouses while their husbands, the actual government-appointed lighthouse keepers, were engaged in other paid work.

 

One woman who did receive a government appointment was Katherine (“Kate”) Walker—Robbins Reef’s most famous lighthouse keeper. After emigrating from Germany to America, she met John Walker, then assistant keeper at Sandy Hook Lighthouse. He taught her English and also showed her how to tend the light at Sandy Hook. The couple married, and John Walker soon received a keeper’s appointment at Robbins Reef Light with Kate as his assistant keeper. Kate recalled her initial impression of the isolated lighthouse in an interview stating, “When I first came to Robbins Reef, the sight of water, which ever 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.”6 Her husband died of pneumonia in 1890 just a little more than four years after the Walkers’ initial appointment. Upper New York Bay was covered in a thick layer of ice at the time, so Keeper Walker could not receive medical attention immediately. Kate believed that he might have lived if access to the mainland had been available sooner. With the help of her young son, Kate continued serving as an unofficial keeper. The Lighthouse Board tried to hire several men for the position, who all refused due to the lighthouse’s isolated location. Government regulations strongly discouraged hiring women as principal keepers on offshore lighthouses at this time. Although she was a woman and an unlikely candidate for a light keeper, Kate proved she could perform the job. The Lighthouse Board finally appointed her as acting keeper in 1894. She received a permanent position the following year.

 

During her time at Robbins Reef, Kate Walker was the subject of many articles in local newspapers and magazines. In an article that appeared in the New York Times in 1905, Mrs. Walker described her life at the lighthouse.

 

I have no time to get lonesome … I have meals to get regularly, although there is often nobody but myself here to eat them. Then there are the beds to make, the floors to scrub, the windows to clean … This lamp in the tower—it is more difficult to care for than a family of children. It need not be wound more than once in five hours, but I wind it every three hours so as to take no chances. In 19 years that light has never disappointed sailors who have depended upon it. Every night I watch until 12 o’clock. Then, if all is well, I go to bed leaving my assistant in charge. I am always up to put the light out at sunrise. Then I post my log from which monthly reports to the Government are made out. We have to put everything down, from the amount of oil consumed to the state of the weather. Every day I clean the brasswork of the lamp, and every month I polish the lenses. The latter is a two days’ job.4 

 

When fog rolled in, Mrs. Walker would descend to the basement to start the engine, which sent out signals from a foghorn at intervals of three seconds. The foghorn could be heard for miles and made sleep at the lighthouse nearly impossible. If the machinery broke, Kate or her son would climb to the top of the tower and ring a bell by hand until someone from the Lighthouse Depot could be summoned to fix the equipment. During the winter months ice would often accumulate on the lantern room glass and would need to be constantly scraped in order that the light signal not be diminished.

 

In a Harper’s Weekly article printed four years later, a reporter asked Kate if she was afraid of the storms to which she replied:

 

Oh no, never. The storms don’t amount to much. Once we were worried—about ten years ago when the bay was jammed solid with ice from here to the Jersey shore, and the ice was piled high as the railing of the platform here. We were cut off from the shore for a week and we thought maybe the lighthouse would be swept away, but it came out all right.5

 

Kate Walker remained at the light until retiring in 1919 at the age of 73. By her own count, she rescued as many as 50 persons during her time at Robbins Reef.

Questions for Reading 3

1. What personal characteristics or qualities might have been useful to someone aspiring to be a lighthouse keeper?

2. What were some of the duties a lighthouse keeper was expected to perform? What were some of the hardships they had to endure?

3. Why might the Lighthouse Board not have considered hiring women to tend lighthouses? Why might they have changed their minds about hiring women?

4. How do you think life differed for keepers of offshore lights versus keepers on the mainland?

5. Would you rather be a keeper at Navesink Lighthouse or Robbins Reef Lighthouse? Why?

Reading 3 was compiled from materials in the collections of the National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.; U.S. Coast Guard Historianís Office; the National Park Serviceís Maritime Heritage Program; the Library of Congress; and Mary Louise Clifford and J. Candace Clifford, Women who Kept the Lights: An Illustrated History of Female Lighthouse Keepers (Alexandria: Cypress Communications, 2000) .

1 George R. Putnam, Lighthouses and Lightships of the United States (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1933), 238; and Francis Ross Holland, Jr., America’s Lighthouses: An Illustrated History (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1988), 43.

2The Lighthouse Board, Instructions to the Employees of the Lighthouse Service, 1881 quoted in J. Candace Clifford and Mary Louise Clifford, Nineteenth-Century Lights: Historic Images of American Lighthouses (Alexandria: Cyprus Communications, 2000), 185.

3H.C. Van Allen, George Lewis, and Charles Murphy quoted in “Keeper Gersham Van Allen,” The Keeper’s Log 8, no. 1 (Fall 1991): 25.

4Kate Walker quoted in Cliff Gallant, “Mind the Light, Katie,” The Keeper’s Log 3, no. 3 (Spring 1987): 16.

5“Kept House Nineteen Years on Robbin’s Reef,” New York Times, 5 March 1905, SM7.

6 Hemmingway, “The Woman of the Light,” 12.

 

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