Kate's Corner · News

Kate’s Corner #31

Navassa Island Lighthouse and dwelling under construction in 1917. National Archives photo 26-LG-41-6A.

Kate Walker here, keeping the light on Robbins Reef.

Did you know that the Lighthouse Service built a lighthouse on Navassa Island? Bet you don’t even know where Navassa Island is. I didn’t until I read about it in the newspaper. It was built in 1917, while I was still keeping the light on Robbins Reef.

Navassa is an uninhabited, 5 km (about 2 square miles) island in the Caribbean Sea between Haiti and Jamaica, administered by the U.S. Department of Interior. In 1857 the phosphorite on Navassa was mistaken for guano by a U.S. sea captain who laid claim to the island under the Guano Island Act passed by the U.S. Congress in 1855. Between 1865 and 1898 almost a million tons of the phosphorite was strip-mined from the island and shipped to Baltimore by the Navassa Phosphate Company. The island was abandoned during the Spanish American War, but by that time it was firmly established as U.S. territory.

Recent view of Navassa Island Lighthouse (U.S. Geological Survey)

The opening of the Panama Canal put Navassa in the middle of the traffic lanes between the Atlantic and Caribbean, and the Coast Guard built a lighthouse on the island in 1917 to help guide ships bound for the Panama Canal. Global Positioning Systems eliminated the need for the lighthouse by 1996, and the Coast Guard turned over to U.S. Department of Interior on January 16, 1997.

The 162-foot lighthouse is now endangered by abandonment and lack of maintenance, and the keeper’s house is in ruins. The importance of the light before the advent of GPS was evident in the fact that it has the twelfth-highest tower and fourth-highest focal plane of all U.S. lights.

A National Wildlife Refuge, under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, was established on Navassa Island in 1999 to preserve and protect the coral reef ecosystems and the marine environment, to restore and enhance native wildlife and plants, and to provide opportunities for wildlife research. This refuge is closed to the public.


21 Dec 1902 - Times Picayune - Kate Walker copy

Information is from https://coastal.er.usgs.gov/navassa/history/lighthouse1.html; and https://www.ibiblio.org/lighthouse/nvi.htm; and Wikipedia.

Kate's Corner · News

Kate’s Corner #30

point arena
The original (1870) Point Arena Lighthouse. National Archives photo 26-LG-63-38-ac.

Kate Walker here, keeping the light on Robbins Reef.

Inspector Snow, when he last visited Robbins Reef, told me about the damage done to the tall masonry tower on Point Arena headland north of San Francisco in the 1906 earthquake. He said that a rare earthquake had struck Pensacola, Florida, in 1885, but earthquakes were much more common in California.

The Point Arena keeper described that experience: “A heavy blow first struck the tower from the south . . ., accompanied by a heavy retort. The tower quivered for a few seconds, went far over to the north, came back, and then swung north again, repeating this several times. Immediately after came rapid and violent vibrations, rending the tower apart, the sections grinding upon each other; while the lenses, reflectors, etc., in the lantern were shaken from their settings and fell in a shower upon the iron floor.”

The earthquake struck before dawn. At least one of the keepers would have been in the watch room at the top of the Point Arena tower. Imagine his thoughts as he made his way down the broken tower. The keepers must have gone up the stairs again because they immediately disassembled the lantern and reassembled it on a temporary tower in order to maintain the light.

The tower was cracked and leaning beyond repair the keepers dwellings uninhabitable and the wind too strong to use tents. The keepers constructed four bungalows for their families.

Letters from the 12th district engineer to the Light-House Board dated May 9 and November 30, 1906, stated, “Experience in this city shows that in order to be earthquake-proof, the new tower must be a steel frame construction or else of reinforced concrete. . . . the cost of a cast-steel tower similar to the Cape Fear tower, but 100 feet high, will exceed the cost of a reinforced concrete tower.”

The new (1908) Point Arena Lighthouse. Photo by Jeremy D’Entremont.

A reinforced concrete tower was chosen for Point Arena, the first in the nation, completed and lit with a new first-order lens the largest of the Fresnel lenses in 1908. It was electrified in 1928 and automated in 1977. It is now managed by the Point Arena Lighthouse Keepers, Inc., who provide overnight accommodations in the keepers dwellings.

The first-order Fresnel lens, now on display on the museum at Point Arena. Photo by Jeremy D’Entremont.

The inspector said that other California lighthouses were damaged by the 1906 earthquake. It s a dramatic story, worth Googling, if you want to learn more about it.


Information is from National Archives Record Group 26, Entry 80 and Entry 48, File #550; and Cipra, Lighthouses, Lightships, and the Gulf of Mexico, p. 64.

Kate's Corner · News

Kate’s Corner #29

Sand Island Light Station, Alabama, in 1893. National Archives photo 26-LG-38a-81A.

Kate Walker here, keeping the light on Robbins Reef.

Danville Leadbetter (Wikimedia Commons)

Third District Inspector A.S. Snow told me the sad story of the Sand Island Light Tower, located three miles south of Mobile Point at the entrance to Mobile Bay, Alabama. Before the Civil War, Mobile was the South’s second-largest cotton exporting port. A lighthouse was built on Sand Island in 1838 to mark the entrance to Mobile Bay. A new, 200-foot-tall Sand Island tower was completed in 1858 by Army Engineer Danville Leadbetter — the tallest lighthouse ever built on the Gulf Coast.


In the first months of the Civil War, Confederate States collector T. Sanford hired a contractor to remove the nine-foot-tall, first-order lens for storage, first at Mobile and later at Montgomery. The empty tower was used repeatedly as a lookout post as forces of both sides spied on each other’s strengths from aloft. Union glasses searched for weaknesses at the forts commanding the bay entrance and stood careful watch for the dreaded ram CSS Tennessee. Southern forces occasionally studied movements of the fleet from the tower.

The CSS Tennessee (Wikimedia Commons)

To keep the tower out of Union hands, Confederate Lieutenant John W. Glenn decided that the tower should be destroyed. On January 31, 1863, he sailed his yawl down the bay and begun a hurried reconnaissance of the island. When his movements were detected and a Union boat approached, “As hurriedly as possible I set fire to the five frame buildings on the island and then returned to my boat and by keeping the island between

John W. Glenn (Wikimedia Commons)

me and the enemy’s vessel, I managed to get a mile away from her before she discerned my exact position.”

He added that,” The island is now a barren sand waste. Even the grass and brush is burned off and at such a time as I shall judge expedient, I will tumble the lighthouse down in their teeth.” He followed up his threat on February 23. He sapped the lighthouse with 70 pounds of gunpowder buried under its base and lit the fuse. He reported that, “Nothing remains but a narrow shred about fifty feet high.”

Glenn’s gleeful report was addressed to Confederate States Brigadier General Danville Leadbetter, the U.S. Light-House Board engineer who had built the magnificent tower on Sand Island only a few years earlier. How do you suppose General Leadbetter felt about a brash young lieutenant destroying his masterpiece?

The 1872 Annual Report of the Light-House Board noted that “a temporary frame tower, with fourth-order lens, was erected to replace a brick tower destroyed during the war . . .. The island lies three miles south of the mouth of Mobile Bay and is merely a bank of sand, about four hundred acres in extent, constantly changing its outline. . . . The foundation, consisting of a double course of sill timbers resting on one hundred and seventy-one piles and overlaid with a depth of 12 feet of concrete, was put down.”

(From Thompson Engineering Sand Island Light House Report)

Have you seen pilings supporting a dock or pier? Can you picture 171 piles sunk in a solid circle to hold the concrete base of this lighthouse (Sand Island)? You can see the base of the lighthouse in this drawing. It is surrounded by stone riprap to cut the force of water washing against it. Is riprap a new term to you?

The 1873 Annual Report of the Light-House Board indicated that the total height to the focal plane of the light will be 125 feet, or 132 feet above sea level, and the visibility of the light will extend to a distance of seventeen and one-half nautical miles.

The light was deactivated in 1971. The island has since eroded away, and the tower is exposed to the sea. The Sand Island Lighthouse Preservation Group hopes to restore the lighthouse.


Information is from David Cipra, Lighthouses, Lightships, and the Gulf of Mexico, p. 72, and this web page.

Education · Kate's Corner · News

Kate’s Corner #27

Kate Walker here, keeping the light on Robbins Reef.

If I don’t write English too good, you’re probably wondering how I write these blog posts. Voice recognition software. It’s wonderful. I just say what I want to and the computer records it. Then my son Jacob goes through what I’ve said and straightens out my awkward sentences. I rely constantly on Jacob and don’t know what I would do without him. He was also my postman, marketman, and general courier.

Jacob was officially appointed assistant keeper in 1896. He married and brought his bride to Robbins Reef to live, using the second bedroom. When I retired in 1919, Jacob became principal keeper. He was in charge when the Lighthouse Service began experimenting with radio.

The first radio beacons, installed after 1921 to allow navigators to pinpoint their position, must have seemed almost miraculous. Marine radio beacons were non-directional; the signal was sent to the whole horizon. The first signals used were short and distinctive for each station. Sending minutes were alternated and frequencies varied so that signals would not interfere with each other. Ships needed only a simple direction-finder or radio compass to pick up the signals.

Circa 1930s postcard of Highland Lighthouse on Cape Cod with radio beacons. (Collection of Jeremy D’Entremont)

The navigator on the bridge of the transatlantic steamer, when he was 200 miles or so off the coast, began to take radio bearings on Nantucket lightship. For most of the vessels crossing the Atlantic this was the first radio outpost of America. When he picked up the signal four dashes (—-) repeated continuously, he knew he had the lightship, and in a few seconds by rotating the coil first from one side and then from the other, until the signal fades away, he obtained accurately the direction of the Nantucket Beacon. After passing Nantucket safely, the navigator could at once pick up the two dash (- -) radio signal of Fire Island Light ship, and later the continuous dot ( . . . . . . ) signal of Ambrose Lightship, anchored off the entrance to the Ambrose Channel into New York Harbor.

The Ambrose Lightship (WAL-512), now a tourist attraction at the South Street Seaport in New York City, received one of the earliest radio beacons in the U.S. in 1921, greatly assisting navigation of the congested channel in dense fog. Photo by Jeremy D’Entremont.

A vessel equipped with a radio direction-finder could take a bearing on another ship sending radio signals, and thus determine its direction at sea by the same method it would use with the radio beacon on shore. This taking of bearings between ship and ship diminished the risk of collision and fog and it also helped one ship to find another which may be in distress.

Introduction of the radio was an enormous boon to mariners. With the ability to communicate with land and other vessels, mariners could send distress calls and share weather forecasts and notices of moved buoys or defects in aids to navigation. Jacob enjoyed experimenting with his radio beacon.


Information is from Annual Reports of the Light-House Board and George R. Putnam, Sentinel of the Coasts (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1937), pp. 199 – 215.

Education · Kate's Corner · News

Kate’s Corner #26

Kate Walker here, keeping the light on Robbins Reef. It may surprise you to know that I spent part of every day on paperwork. John taught me how to keep the records and make the reports, but after he died, I relied on my son Jacob to put my words onto the report forms because writing in English was difficult for me. I always signed them.

I had to submit a monthly report on the condition of the station and make explicit specifications for any needed repairs. Expenditures of oil, etc., and salary vouchers were to be submitted quarterly. Property returns were submitted annually along with receipts for extra supplies and for their delivery. I signed a receipt for all the station property when I took charge.

Robbins Reef NY NA RG 26 Entry 1 nc-63 601 files-15
From National Archives RG 26 Entry 1 (NC-63)

The 1880 Laws and Regulations Relating to the Light-House Establishment of the United States listed 68 different types of forms used in managing the Lighthouse Service. I was to forward to District Inspector Commander A.S. Snow reports of shipwrecks, any damage to station apparatus, and any unusual occurrence. I kept a daily expenditure book, a general account book, and a journal in which I recorded the work I’d done that day, any visit of the Inspector or Engineer or of the lampist or machinist, or any delivery of stores.

Also any item of interest occurring in the vicinity, such as the state of the weather, or other similar matter. Although it wasn’t specified, I recorded every visitor who came to the lighthouse, because there weren’t many.

Among my unexpected visitors was a box containing a dead baby, which I rowed to the coroner on Staten Island. On another day a young couple out rowing were carried onto the reef by the tide and stove a hole in the bow of their rowboat. The girl was frantic because she couldn’t get home that night. Fortunately a friend of my daughter Mamie rowed out to the lighthouse that evening to pay a call. He agreed to take them ashore, where they promptly got married and avoided a scandal.

didn’t report these to the Light-House Board.


Information is from the 1881 Instructions to Lightkeepers, National Archives Record Group 26 Entry 1, Volume 753; and the New York Times, March 5, 1906.

Education · Kate's Corner · Keepers

Kate’s Corner #25

Kate Walker here, keeping the light on Robbins Reef on the edge of New York Harbor.

Kate Walker at Robbins Reef Lighthouse, from a nineteenth century newspaper

Fog was frequent at Robbins Reef. When I saw it coming, I went down into the deep basement and started the engine that sent out siren blasts from the fog signal at intervals of three seconds. What a huge advance from the cannon that was used as a fog signal at Boston Harbor 200 years ago. Fog bells run mechanically were introduced in the early 1850s. They were operated by a striking mechanism and weight that was raised by either a flywheel or clockwork. Steam-powered whistles were introduced in the late 1850s. In 1866 the reed horn signal powered by a caloric engine was also introduced.


On April 25, 1893, our fog bell was removed and a blower siren was installed, operated by a Priestman engine. This engine only lasted for a few years before a Hornsby-Akroyd oil engine replaced it in 1896. Two years later, a larger trumpet for the fog siren was installed, and the fog-signal apparatus was overhauled and repaired.

Children of Keeper Ralph Norwood atop Boston Light’s fog cannon in the 1930s; photo courtesy of Willie Emerson. This cannon, North America’s first fog signal, went into service in 1718 and is still on display at the lighthouse on Little Brewster Island in Boston Harbor.

The siren made so much noise that Jacob and I didn’t even try to sleep.

A siren installed at Alcatraz Light Station in San Francisco Bay caused a storm of complaints from residents who found it grating.

Bakers Island Lighthouse, Salem, Massachusetts. When a powerful new fog siren replaced a fog bell in 1907, the complaints of island residents over the noise were vehement. Eventually, the signal was aimed at the sea through a megaphone, seen above, so that it was barely audible on the island. From the collection of Edward Rowe Snow, courtesy of Dolly Bicknell.

Juliet Nichols tended the Angel Island Light and Fog Signal Station in San Francisco Bay while I was at Robbins Reef. A new striking apparatus was installed on Angel Island in 1905. In 1906 Juliet was watching the fog roll in through the Golden Gate, as it regularly does, and listening to the fog signals start up in the lighthouses on both sides of the channel. She rushed to start her own equipment, only to have the machinery cough into silence. Juliet struck the bell by hand for 20 hours and 35 minutes.

Occasionally my fog horn machinery broke down, and then I climbed to the top of the tower and banged a huge bell. When the men at the nearby lighthouse depot on Staten Island heard the bell, they knew they must visit Robbins Reef and make repairs to the fog signal as soon as wind and weather permitted.

Mechanical fog bells were notorious for breaking down. The mechanical pounding of the bell produced strong vibrations, which caused tension bars and hammer springs to break, even snapping the rope attached to the clockwork weight. Juliet Nichol’s whole career at Angel Island [1902 – 1914] was a battle with fog. Her log recorded periods of fog as long as 80 hours at a time and the many times she was forced to strike the bell by hand.

The fog signal building at Point Knox, Angel Island. (U.S. Lighthouse Society)

On the fourth of July, 1906, the machinery [at Angel Island] went to pieces., the great tension bar broke in two and I could not disconnect the hammer to strike by hand. I stood all night on the platform outside and struck the bell with a hammer with all my might. The fog was dense, with heavy mist, almost rain.

What a way to celebrate Independence Day!


Information is from Clifford, Nineteenth Century Lights, p. 83; National Archives Record Group 26 Entry 1, Volume 755; Annual Report of the U. S. Light-House Board; National Archives Record Group 26 Entry 8 (NC-63); Clifford, Women Who Kept the Lights

Kate's Corner · Keepers


Kate Walker here, tending the light on Robbins Reef.

Once a year a lighthouse tender brought six tons of coal to burn in my stoves, a few barrels of oil for the lamps I put in the lantern every night, and a pay envelope. The tenders regularly brought supplies and workmen to make repairs, and the district inspector. My tenure at Robbins Reef was supervised by four inspectors: Inspector Commander Henry F. Pickering from 1890-1895; Inspector Commander A.S. Snow from 1895 to 1912; Inspector Commander C. D. Stearns for first six months of 1912; and in June 1912 Inspector Joseph T. Yates, the first civilian inspector, who served through the rest of my term in 1919.

Keeper George V. Codding (right) with 10th District Inspector Roscoe House in the lantern of the Charlotte-Genessee Lighthouse. Photo courtesy of Thomas A. Tag.

Lampists visited every light in their charge at least once a quarter, to accompany the inspector during his tour of inspection, should he require their services, to visit and remain several days at those lights to which new keepers had been appointed, and made frequent inspections of the steam fog-signal in their charge.


The inspector visited all the stations in his district and reported on repairs needed to the tower and buildings; needed renovations and improvements; condition of the station, lantern, illuminating apparatus, and related equipment. Comparisons were made of the interval of flashes and eclipses and their duration, with the intervals given in the Light List. The inspector was responsible for making sure the keeper understood the printed instructions for operating all equipment and other attendant duties. The inspector also reviewed the keeper’s journal and records relating to expenditures, shipwrecks, and vessels passing. The inspector assessed the attention of the keeper to his duties, and his ability to perform them well. Both inspectors and engineers had authority to dismiss a keeper or other employee found in a state of intoxication.

Goat Island Light Station, at the entrance to Cape Porpoise Harbor in Kennebunkport, Maine. National Archives photo 26-LG-2-25.

On August 11, 1887, the Inspector of the 1st Lighthouse District reported that he had inspected Goat Island Light Station, Maine, on July 6, 1887, and found it in an indifferent condition, its dwelling being dirty from top to bottom. The Inspector directed the Keeper s attention to his neglect of duty and instructed him to improve the condition of his station.

When a second inspection was made, the whole station was found in a dirty condition. The lantern and tower appeared not to have been swept or dusted for weeks; the lens was covered with lint and dust, the reflector was dirty and the plate glass of the lantern was streaked with dust and spotted with fly specks. The dwelling was filthy — “offensive,” the Inspector states — to sight and smell. The Board did not consider Keeper John Emerson a competent person for the position he held and asked his removal.

A woman may be more inclined than a man to keep her lighthouse neat and clean. I always looked forward to the inspector s visit because he brought news and told lighthouse stories, which I always enjoyed.

21 Dec 1902 - Times Picayune - Kate Walker copyInformation is from National Archives Record Group 26, Entry 1, Volume 753; Lighthouse Service Bulletins; U.S. Treasury Department, Organization and Duties of the Light-house Board; and Regulations, Instructions, Circulars, and General Orders of the Light-house Establishment of the United States (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1871); National Archives Record Group 26 Entry 24 (NC-31); and Clifford, Maine Lighthouses, p. 160.