Ida Lewis (lighthouse keeper)

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Ida Lewis

Idawalley Zorada Lewis (later Lewis-Wilson) (February 25, 1842 – October 25, 1911) was an American lighthouse keeper noted for her heroism in rescuing people from the sea.


Ida Lewis was born in Newport, Rhode Island, the oldest of four children of Captain Hosea Lewis of the Revenue Cutter Service. Her father was transferred to the Lighthouse Service and appointed keeper of Lime Rock Light on Lime Rock in Newport in 1854. When he had been at Lime Rock for less than four months, he had a stroke and became disabled. Ida expanded her domestic duties to include caring for him and a seriously ill sister and also, with her mother's assistance, tending the light: filling the lamp with oil at sundown and again at midnight, trimming the wick, polishing carbon off the reflectors, and 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 15 Ida had become known as the best swimmer in Newport. She rowed her younger siblings to school every weekday and fetched supplies from town as they were needed. She became very skilful at handling the heavy rowboat. An article in Harper's Weekly after Ida had rescued several people 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 1853 until 1873, when he died. Her mother was then appointed keeper, although Ida continued to do the keeper's work. By 1877, her mother's health was failing, leaving Ida with increased housekeeping and care-giving responsibilities. Her mother 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, a 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 17. On a cold, dreary day, four local youths were sailing back and forth between nearby Fort Adams and the Lime Rocks. Ida watched from a window as one climbed the mast and began deliberately rocking the boat back and forth. The sailboat capsized and was soon keel up, with the four young men struggling to stay afloat alongside. Ida rushed to the scene in her small boat and hauled them aboard one at a time, then took them 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".

Illustration of Ida Lewis rowing

Her most famous rescue occurred on March 29, 1869. Two soldiers, Sgt. James Adams and Pvt. John McLaughlin, were passing through Newport Harbor toward Fort Adams in a small boat, guided by 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 overturned. The two soldiers clung to it, while the boy was lost in the icy water. Ida's mother saw the two in the water 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, she was able to haul the two men into her boat and bring them to the lighthouse. One of them 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, she 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 and Leslie's magazineamong others. The Life Saving Benevolent Association of New York sent her a silver medal and a check for $100—at that time she 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.

On July 16, 1881, she was awarded the rare and prestigious Gold Lifesaving Medal from the United States government for her daring rescue on February 4, 1881, of two soldiers from Fort Adams who had fallen through the ice while attempting to return to the fort on foot.[1]

During her lifetime Ida Lewis was called "the Bravest Woman in America", and her exploits were detailed in the national press. She met President Ulysses S. Grant, Vice-President Schuyler Colfax, General William Tecumseh Sherman, and Admiral George Dewey, in addition to many of the wealthy and prominent people who summered in Newport.[2] Members of the Women's suffrage movement including Elizabeth Cady Stanton came to visit her and used her as an example of the inherent strength of women.[3] At least two pieces of music were named for her: the Ida Lewis Waltz and the Rescue Polka Mazurka. Ida Lewis hats and scarves were sold.

Her father amused himself by counting the people who came to the island to see Ida: there were often a hundred a day, and in one summer there were 9,000. She also received numerous gifts, letters, and even marriage proposals. In 1870 she married Captain William Wilson of Black Rock, Connecticut, but they separated after two years. She spent most of her career alone at Lime Rock.

Ida made her last recorded rescue when she was 63. A friend was rowing out to the lighthouse, stood up in her boat, lost her balance, and fell into the water. Ida rowed out to her and hauled her 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. She may have had a stroke; some have said from worry over a false report that the lighthouse was about to be discontinued. Artillery practice at Fort Adams was suspended out of respect for her. She died on October 25, 1911, at the age of 69. The bells of all the vessels in Newport Harbor tolled for her 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 in a prominent location so her grave can be seen by passers by.


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 Rock 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.[4]

In 1995 the United States Coast Guard named the first of a new class of buoy tenders for Ida Lewis. The USCGC Ida Lewis (WLM-551), the lead ship of the Keeper-class buoy tender, is currently stationed in Newport, Rhode Island.

The folk song "Lighthouse Keeper" by Neptune's Car was inspired by Lewis's experiences.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Ida Lewis-Wilson: Awarded 16 July 1881, U.S. Coast Guard Awards, November 17, 2014, retrieved October 22, 2015.
  2. ^ Mary Louise Clifford and Candace Clifford, Women Who Kept the Lights: An Illustrated History of Female Lighthouse Keepers, Alexandria: Cypress Communications, 2001, excerpted in About Ms. Ida Lewis, Ida Lewis Yacht Club, retrieved October 22, 2015.
  3. ^ Adler, Margaret C. (Spring 2014). "To the Rescue: Picturing Ida Lewis". Winterthur Portfolio 48 (1): 75–104. 
  4. ^ About ILYC, Ida Lewis Yacht Club, retrieved October 22, 2015.

Further reading[edit]

  • Lenore Skomal, The Keeper of Lime Rock, Philadelphia: Running Press, 2002, ISBN 0-7624-1309-3.

External links[edit]