February 25, 1842 to
October 24, 1911
"Burning the midnight oil"
Born Idawalley Zorada Lewis, she preferred
to be called Ida. Ida's father was a coast pilot in failing health who became
the first light keeper at Lime Rock in Newport Harbor, Rhode Island in 1853. Originally
there was only a Temporary lantern in a rough shed which provided shelter for
the keeper while he was on the island. A Greek Revival building with a hip roof
was built in 1857 and he moved Ida, then only 15, and the family to Lime Rock.
Less than four months later, Hosea Lewis was struck down by a stroke and Ida took upon herself the added responsibility of the lighthouse. She had already been caring for a seriously ill sister, and she now also had her father and the lights to add to that responsibility. The lamp had to be filled with oil at sundown, again at midnight along with trimming the wick, polishing the carbon from the reflectors, and extinguishing the light at dawn. These added responsibilities cut short her formal education.
Being completely surrounded by water, the only way to the mainland was via boat, and Ida, the oldest of four children rowed the other children to school every day and returned with whatever supplies were needed from the town. Ida and her mother handled the responsibilites of the Lime Rock Lighthouse from 1857 until 1872, when her father died. Her mother was then appointed as the official lighthouse keeper until 1879, although it was Ida who was actually doing the keeper's work. In 1879, Ida was officially appointed and received her own salary of $500.00 per year.
Ida was the best known lighthouse keeper of her time because of many rescues that she performed. In 1858 or 1859 four young men capsized their boat in the harbor, when one of them foolishly climbed the mast and started rocking the boat to tease his friends. Since none of the boys could swim, they would have surely drowned if Ida had not saved them as they clung to the hull of their boat screaming for help. In the dead of winter 1866, she came to the rescue of a drunken sailor. In 1867 during a storm, 3 sheepherders had gone into the water after a valuable sheep. Ida not only saved them but the sheep as well. On March 29,1869 Ida came to the aid of two soldiers from Fort Adams. Their sailboat had overturned in a storm. That particular rescue has been immortalized in a painting which was commissioned by the U.S. Coast guard.
Her fame spread quickly after the 1869 rescue. Ida appeared in the New York Tribune, Harper's weekly, Leslie's Magazine and several other leading newpapers. The "Life Saving Benevolent Association of New York" sent her a medal and one hundred dollars (a large sum in those days). In Newport, on July 4, a parade was held in her honor which was followed by the gift of a Mahogany rowboat with red velvet cushions, gold braid around the gunwales, and gold plated oarlocks. The boat was named the Rescue.
Visitors and sightseers became so numerous to the lighthouse trying to catch a glimpse of the now famous "heroine of Newport", that a Newport journalist was commissioned to write a pamphlet about her. For this she was quite grateful, as it relieved her of answering so many repetitious questions.
The stories about Ida spread so quickly that President Grant and Vice-President Colfax (whose sister was also a light keeper in Michigan), went to visit Ida in 1869. Colfax went to the lighthouse to meet her, however history has two different versions of the meeting with the President. One states that when Grant landed on Lime Rock, he stepped out of the boat, into the water getting his feet wet, and said "I have come to see Ida Lewis, and to see her I'd get wet up to my armpits if necessary." The other version says that Ida rowed to the mainland and was "conducted" to the President's carriage.
In 1870, she married a Captain William Wilson from Black Rock, Connecticut, but after two years they separated. The "Annual Report of the U.S. Lifesaving Service" in 1881 reported that the highest medal awarded by them had been presented to Mrs. Ida Lewis-Wilson.
During her 39 years on Lime Rock Ida was credited with saving 18 lives. Unofficial records put it as high as 25. Her last recorded rescue occurred in 1906, when a close friend who was rowing out to visit, stood up in her boat, lost her balance and fell overboard. Ida, as youthful as ever, launched her lifeboat and rescued the woman. When asked where she found the strength, her reply was, "I don't know, I ain't particularly strong. The Lord Almighty gives it to me when I need it, that's all."
On the night of October 24, 1911 Ida's death at Lime Rock brought all the vessels that were anchored in Newport Harbor to toll their bells in her honor.
In 1924 the Rhode Island legislature changed the name of Lime Rock to Ida Lewis Rock and the lighthouse service renamed the lighthouse "Ida Lewis Lighthouse". (The only time this honor has ever been given to a keeper)