Ida Lewis: Lighthouse Keeper Famous for Rescues

Lime Rock (Lewis Rock), Rhode Island

Ida Lewis, Lighthouse Keeper of Lime Rock
Ida Lewis, Lighthouse Keeper of Lime Rock. Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

Ida Lewis (February 25, 1842 - October 25, 1911) was lauded as a hero in the 19th and 20th century for her many rescues in the Atlantic Ocean off the shore of Rhode Island. From her own time and for generations after, she was often featured as a strong role model for American girls.

Background

Ida Lewis, born Idawalley Zorada Lewis, was first brought to the Lime Rock Light lighthouse in 1854, when her father was made lighthouse keeper there.

He became disabled by a stroke only a few months later, but his wife and his children kept up the work. The lighthouse was inaccessible by land, so Ida early learned to swim and to row a boat. It was her job to row her younger three siblings to land to attend school daily.

Marriage

Ida married Captain William Wilson of Connecticut in 1870, but they separated after two years. She is sometimes referred to by the name of Lewis-Wilson after that. She returned to the lighthouse and her family.

Rescues at Sea

In 1858, in a rescue that was given no publicity at the time, Ida Lewis rescued four young men whose sailboat capsized near Lime Rocks. She rowed  to where they were struggling in the sea, then hauled each of them aboard the boat and rowing them to the lighthouse.

She rescued two soldiers in March of 1869 whose boat overturned in a snowstorm. Ida, though she was herself sick and didn't even take time to put on a coat, rowed out to the soldiers with her younger brother, and they brought the two back to the lighthouse.

Ida Lewis was given a Congressional medal for this rescue, and the New York Tribune came to cover the story. President Ulysses S. Grant and his vice president, Schuyler Colfax, visited with Ida in 1869.

At this time, her father was still alive and officially the keeper; he was in a wheelchair, but enjoyed the attention enough to count the number of visitors who came to see the heroine Ida Lewis.

When Ida's father died in 1872, the family remained at Lime Rock Light. Ida's mother, though she too became ill, was appointed keeper. Ida was doing the work of the keeper. In 1879, Ida was officially appointed the lighthouse keeper. Her mother died in 1887.

While Ida didn't keep any records of how many she rescued, the estimates range from a minimum of 18 to as high as 36 during her time at Lime Rock. Her heroism was touted in national magazines, including Harper's Weekly, and she was widely considered a heroine.

Ida's salary of $750 per year was the highest in the United States at that time, in recognition of her many acts of heroism.

Ida Lewis Remembered

In 1906, Ida Lewis was awarded a special pension from the Carnegie Hero Fund of $30 per month, though she continued working at the lighthouse. Ida Lewis died in October, 1911, shortly after suffering from what may have been a stroke. By that time, she was so well-known and honored that nearby Newport, Rhode Island, flew its flags at half staff, and more than a thousand people came to view the body.

While during her lifetime there were some debates as to whether her activities were properly feminine, Ida Lewis has often, since her 1869 rescues, been included in lists and books of women heroines, especially in articles and books aimed at younger girls.

In 1924, in her honor, Rhode Island changed the name of the tiny island from Lime Rock to Lewis Rock. The lighthouse was renamed the Ida Lewis Lighthouse, and today houses the Ida Lewis Yacht Club.