Kate Walker here, keeping the light on Robbins Reef.
Light keepers do much more than keep the light. The water around Robbins Reef is treacherous. Over the years I rescued 50 people.
One such newsworthy incident was the wreck of a three masted schooner that struck the reef and rolled onto its side. I launched my dingy and took aboard the five crew members plus a small Scottie dog, whose survival pleased me immensely.
I almost lost my life in a sudden storm that came up while I was rowing back from Staten Island, a one mile journey. After three hours of struggling through snow and wind, I was rescued by a ferry that towed me as close as possible to my home. By the time I ascended the ladder, I was covered in ice.
Another time, my rowboat, my only transportation, almost came loose from its mooring in a storm. As I struggled to secure it, the chain holding the boat hit me in the eye, and the wind nearly blew me off the deck.
Other keepers faced similar problems. Lake Pontchartrain in Louisiana is an inland lake, but the New Canal Light keepers there were not immune to danger. A hurricane in September 1915 heavily damaged the station with winds estimated at 130 mph. Keeper Caroline Riddle was commended for heroism in showing the light during the storm.
The barometer fell to 28.11 inches, setting a U.S. record, and Lake Pontchartrain rose to the top of the levees and flooded parts of New Orleans. Riddle was forced to douse the main light and hang a small lantern in the rocking tower.
Keeper Maggie Norvell, also at New Canal, helped 200 victims ashore from an excursion boat fire in 1926, treating each of them until they could be evacuated. A Navy pilot who
crashed into the lake near the station owed his life to Norvell, who rowed out to his sinking biplane in a two-hour rescue.
Boon Island in Maine was the site of several shipwrecks. Keeper William C. Williams reported the schooner Goldhunter aground in December 1892. The crew in their yawl boat reached the light station after a six-hour row. Their barking dog alerted the keeper, who guided the boat to the landing and then hauled it through the breakers onto the shore. “The crew was frozen to the thwarts and almost helpless. The keepers and their wives had a desperate task for the next few hours to resuscitate the almost lifeless men,” according to Williams.
Probably the most famous rescues by light keepers involved Marcus Hanna, keeper at Cape Elizabeth Light Station in Maine, and Ida Lewis at Lime Rock Light Station in Rhode Island, both of whom won medals for heroic rescues. Details can be found on the Web.
Information is from Lighthouse Friends; New Orleans Tribune, June 26, 1932; Lighthouse Service Bulletin, Vol. I, p. 186; Robert Thayer Sterling, Lighthouses of the Maine Coast and the Men Who Kept Them (Brattleboro, Stephen Daye Press, 1935).
Candace was the US Lighthouse Society historian from 2016 until she passed away in August 2018. She worked for 30 years with lighthouse history. She also worked with the National Parks System, and the Council of American Maritime Museums. She was a noted historical author and the most knowledgable person on lighthouse historical information at the National Archives. Books by Candace Clifford include: Women who Kept the Lights, Mind the Light Katie, a History of Thirty-eight Female Lighthouse Keepers and Maine Lighthouses, Documentation of their Past.