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Ida Lewis

Idawalley Zorada Lewis (later Lewis-Wilson) (February 25, 1842 – October 24, 1911) was an American lighthouse keeper noted for her heroism.

Ida Lewis was born in Newport, Rhode Island, the daughter of Captain Hosea Lewis of the Revenue Cutter Service. Her father was transferred to the Lighthouse Service and appointed keeper of Lime Rock Light in Newport in 1854. Hosea Lewis had been at Lime Rock less than four months when he was stricken by a disabling stroke. Like many wives and daughters of lighthouse keepers before and after, Ida expanded her domestic duties to include the care of and a seriously ill sister and disabled father to the light-filling the lamp with oil at sundown and again at midnight, trimming the wick, polishing the carbon off the reflectors, extinguishing the light at dawn.

Since Lime Rock was completely surrounded by water, the only way to reach the mainland was by boat. By the age of 14 Ida had become known as the best swimmer in Newport. Ida, the oldest of four children, rowed her siblings to school every week day and fetched needed supplies from town as they were needed.. The wooden boat was heavy, but she became very skillful in handling it. In the mid-19th century it was highly unusual for a woman to handle a boat. Ida’s rowing skills, strength, and courage were to come into play many times during her life at Lime Rock. An article in Harper’s Weekly, written after Ida had made several daring rescues, debated whether it was “feminine” for women to row boats, but concluded that none but a “donkey” would consider it “unfeminine” to save lives.

Ida and her mother tended the Lime Rock Light for her father from 1857 until 1872, when he died. Her mother was appointed keeper until 1879, although Ida continued to do the keeper’s work. By 1877, the health of Ida’s mother was failing, leaving her with increased housekeeping and care giving responsibilities. Her mother would remain ill and eventually died of cancer in 1887. Ida finally received the official appointment as keeper in 1879, largely through the efforts of an admirer, General Ambrose Everett Burnside, the Civil War hero who became a Rhode Island governor and United States senator. With a salary of $750 per year, Ida was for a time the highest-paid lighthouse keeper in the nation. The extra pay was given “in consideration of the remarkable services of Mrs. Wilson in the saving of lives.”

Her first rescue was in the fall of 1858, when she was only 16. On a cold, dreary day, four local young men were sailing back and forth between Fort Adams and the Lime Rocks. Ida watched from a window as one of the youths climbed the mast and began deliberately rocking the boat back and forth, probably to scare his friends. Scare them he did, but his tactic proved too successful when the sailboat capsized. The boat was soon keel up, with the four young men desperately struggling to stay afloat alongside. Ida rushed to the scene in her small boat and hauled the four aboard one at a time. They were taken to the lighthouse, where they soon recovered. The incident received no attention at the time. Ida later said that she “did not think the matter worth talking about and never gave it a second thought.”

da’s most famous rescue occurred on March 29, 1869 two soldiers were passing through Newport Harbor towards Fort Adams in a small boat. The men, Sgt. James Adams and Pvt. John McLaughlin, had enlisted the help of a 14-year-old boy who claimed to know his way through the harbor.

A snowstorm was churning the harbor’s waters, and the boat was soon overturned. The two soldiers clung to their overturned boat, but the boy was lost in the icy water. Ida’s mother saw their predicament and called to Ida, who was suffering from a cold.

Ida ran to her boat without taking the time to put on a coat or shoes. With the help of her younger brother, Ida was able to haul the two men into her boat and bring them to the lighthouse. One of the men later gave a gold watch to Ida, and for her heroism she became the first woman to receive a gold Congressional medal for lifesaving. The soldiers at Fort Adams showed their appreciation by collecting $218 for Ida.

Because of her many rescues, Ida Lewis became the best-known lighthouse keeper of her day. During her 39 years on Lime Rock, Ida is credited with saving 18 lives, although unofficial reports suggest the number may have been as high as 36. She kept no records of her lifesaving exploits. Ida’s fame spread quickly after the 1869 rescue, for a reporter was sent from the New York Tribune to record her deeds. Articles also appeared in Harper’s Weekly, Leslie’s magazine, and other leading newspapers. The Life Saving Benevolent Association of New York sent her a silver medal and a check for $100-a substantial sum to a young woman who then earned $750 a year. A parade was held in her honor in Newport on Independence Day, followed by the presentation of a sleek mahogany rowboat with red velvet cushions, gold braid around the gunwales, and gold-plated oarlocks. When she was 64, Ida became a life beneficiary of the Carnegie Hero Fund, receiving a monthly pension of $30. She was awarded a Gold Lifesaving Medal for her work.

During her lifetime Ida Lewis was called “the Bravest Woman in America”, and her exploits were detailed in national newspapers such as Harper’s Weekly, the New York Tribune, and Putnam’s Magazine. She met President Ulysses S. Grant, Vice-President Schuyler Colfax, General William Tecumseh Sherman and Admiral George Dewey, plus many of the wealthy and prominent people who summered in Newport. At least two pieces of music were named for her-the Ida Lewis Waltz and the Rescue Polka Mazurka. Ida Lewis hats and scarves flew off store shelves.

Fame brought countless other visitors to the island to stare at Ida. Her wheelchair-bound father entertained himself by counting their numbers often a hundred a day; nine thousand in one summer alone. Ida also received numerous gifts, letters, and even proposals of marriage (some of them offering to supply references as to good character). Ida was distressed by all the attention and fended off her many unknown admirers as best she could. Although few details are known, she did marry a Captain William Wilson of Black Rock, Connecticut, in 1870, but they separated after two years. She spent most of her career alone at Lime Rock.

In 1881 the Annual Report of the U.S. Life Saving Service reported that the highest medal awarded by the Life Saving Service had been presented to Mrs. Ida Lewis-Wilson. Ida’s last recorded rescue occurred when she was 63 years old. A close friend, rowing out to the lighthouse, stood up in her boat, lost her balance and fell overboard. Ida, with all the vigor of her past youth, launched a lifeboat and hauled the woman aboard.

Early one morning in October 1911, Ida Lewis extinguished the light at Lime Rock for the final time. She became ill that morning and remained in bed for several days. Some say her apparent stroke resulted from worry over a false report that Lime Rock Light was about to be discontinued. Artillery practice at nearby Fort Adams was suspended out of respect for the keeper. Ida Lewis died on October 25, 1911, at the age of 69. The bells of all the vessels in Newport Harbor tolled for Ida Lewis that night, and flags were at half staff throughout Newport. More than 1,400 people viewed her body at the Thames Street Methodist Church. Among the crowd that gathered to pay its respects were keepers Charles Schoeneman of Newport Harbor Light, Charles Curtis of Rose Island Light, O. F. Kirby of Gull Rocks Light, and Edward Fogerty of the Brenton Reef lightship. The captain and crew of a local lifesaving station in Newport were also present. Ida Lewis was buried in the Common Burying Ground and Island Cemetery.

In 1924 the Rhode Island legislature officially changed the name of Lime Rock to Ida Lewis Rock. The lighthouse service changed the name of the Lime Rock Lighthouse to the Ida Lewis Lighthouse—the only such honor ever paid to a keeper in the United States. It is now the home of the Ida Lewis Yacht Club.

In 1995 the United States Coast Guard dedicated a new class of Coast Guard buoy tender for Ida Lewis. The USCGC Ida Lewis, WLM 551, the first of her class is currently stationed in Newport, Rhode Island.

The Keeper of Lime Rock is a short biography of Ida Lewis and her service at Lime Rock Lighthouse. The folk song, “Lighthouse Keeper,” by Neptune’s Car was inspired by Lewis’s experiences. There are additional pictures of Ida Lewis available from the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog at the Library of Congress.


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