Meet Ida Lewis: the famous lighthouse keeper

By: Aleyna Jones

Can you imagine what it’s like to be a lighthouse keeper? In the 19th century, Ida Lewis was stationed to oversee the Lime Rock lighthouse off the coast of Rhode Island. During that time, Lewis was praised for her many heroic rescues of people drowning in the Atlantic Ocean. Discover how Ida Lewis become the nation’s most famous lighthouse keeper.

Family roots

Born Idawalley Zoradia Lewis in 1842, Ida was raised in Newport, Rhode Island. Lewis and her three siblings were raised by a military sea official. Their father, Captain Hosea Lewis, had served for the Revenue-Marine and was later appointed to the Lighthouse Service. By 1854, Captain Lewis was designated to manage the Lime Rock Light in Newport. He and his family relocated to live at the lighthouse three years later.

Several months after the family’s move, Ida’s father experienced a severe stroke. Since her dad was disabled, Ida was officially in charge of caring for her father and controlling the Lime Rock Light. Her daily tasks included packing the lamp with oil twice a day, snipping its wick, and scrubbing carbon off its reflectors. She even made sure to turn off the light every morning.

Since Lime Rock Light was basically located on an island, its locals had to take a boat to reach the mainland. Therefore, Ida became an extremely good swimmer. She enjoyed taking her little siblings to their school by boat every day and would volunteer to row into town for supplies. When asked her opinion about people who criticized her profession, Ida sassily replied “None – but a donkey, would consider it ‘un-feminine’, to save lives.” When her father died in 1873, Ida and her mother helped to keep the light alive. Then, her mom passed away from cancer in 1878, leaving Ida to become the official lighthouse keeper the following year. Ida’s appointment was made possible by the attempts of her secret admirer General Ambrose Everett Burnside. At an annual salary of $750, Ida became the richest lighthouse keeper in America.

Lightkeeper

By the time that Lewis had become an official lighthouse keeper, she had already saved many lives. Her first rescue occurred in 1854. That’s when the 12-year-old girl rescued four men were struggling in the water after their boat overturned. However, her most well-known rescue took place on March 29, 1869. On that fateful day, soldiers Sergeant James Adams and Private John McLaughlin were traveling through Newport Harbor in a boat with a teenage guide. Suddenly, a snowstorm hit the waters of the harbor and flipped the men’s boat. While their young leader was lost to the waters, the soldiers survived by holding onto to the capsized vessel. Before she could even throw on her shoes, Ida and her brother hoisted the men onto dry land and brought them to the lighthouse.

Ida was awarded a gold watch from one of the rescued soldiers, as well as $218 from the military soldiers of Fort Adams. In the summer of 1881, Ida received the coveted Gold Lifesaving Medal from the government of the United States. Lewis was the first woman to be bestowed such a high honor. This was due to her rescue of two Fort Adams soldiers who plunged through a patch of ice in 1881. Ida quickly became renowned as the premier lighthouse keeper of her time. While she spent over five decades living on Lime Rock, she rescued at least 18 people from drowning. However, the humble woman never kept a log about the lives she had saved.

Lewis was so popular that her lifesaving feats were published in the New-York Tribune, Harper’s Weekly, and Leslie’s magazine. She even received a silver medal from the Life Saving Benevolent Association of New York. In her hometown of Newport, a local parade was celebrated in her name on Independence Day. Following the festivities, she was given an ornately carved mahogany rowboat. By the time that Ida was 64 years old, she had been promoted as Carnegie Hero Fund’s life beneficiary, meaning she received a $30 stipend per month.

Ida’s impact

Known as the “the Bravest Woman in America,” Ida became a bonafide celebrity of her time. She shook hands with President Ulysses S. Grant and Vice-President Schuyler Colfax. Not only that, but Ida was also a friend of the woman’s suffrage movement, and enjoyed visits from suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Lewis’ father once claimed that 9,000 fans came to visit her during one summer. Lewis was bestowed with many presents and notes from her audience, and some even proposed to marry her. She actually ended up marrying Captain William Wilson in 1870, and the two moved to Connecticut. But she left him two years later, choosing to return to Lime Rock alone.

At age 63, Ida made her last known rescue. At that time, her friend took a rowboat out to visit her at the lighthouse. But her acquaintance accidentally tripped and tumbled into the sea. Of course, Ida quickly grabbed her rowboat and rescued her companion. On October 24, 1911, Lewis passed away from a stroke. Every boat in Newport Harbor rung their bell for her on the night of her passing, and all flags were hung at half mast. Over 1,400 admirers attended her viewing at the Thames Street Methodist Church. Ida was interned at the Common Burying Ground. By 1924, Rhode Island officials renamed Lime Rock to Ida Lewis Rock.