A small boat was pushed into the icy waters of Newport Harbor by two soldiers and a young boy. on March 29, 1869.
The soldiers needed to get to nearby Fort Adams, and the boy assured them that he knew how to navigate the harbor’s turbulent waters quickly and safely. The trio hadn’t been at sea for long when a snowstorm hit Rhode Island.
The waves became increasingly choppy, and the boat eventually capsized. The boy was quickly lost, drowning in the icy waters. The soldiers were able to grasp the upside-down boat and cling to it helplessly.
A twelve-year-old girl saw the capsized boat from the shore and knew immediately what she needed to do. The girl dashed into the perilous harbor and began rowing towards the dying men., not pausing to put on her coat or shoes.
That girl was Ida Lewis.
Ida Lewis Biography
Ida Lewis, the second of four children born to Captain Hosea Lewis of the Revenue-Marine, was born in Newport, Rhode Island in 1842. Her father died when Ida was twelve years old. She was appointed keeper of the Lime Rock Light, a lighthouse located on the small island of Lime Rock in the waters outside of Newport.
The Lewis family as a whole eventually relocated to Lime Rock. Ida Lewis’ father suffered a crippling stroke a few months after they arrived. Following the disaster, Ida and her siblings took on many lighthouse responsibilities, including lighting and extinguishing the light at the very top of the tower.
Lime Rock was a small island completely surrounded by water. Rowing to the mainland was the only way to get supplies or meet other people. Ida Lewis, a young teen, quickly learned how to navigate the waters around her island, earned a reputation as the best swimmer in Newport, and rowed her siblings to school every day. To the surprise and disgust of her neighbors, Ida mastered the handling of her heavy rowboat.
Ida Lewis: Lighthouse Keeper or Lightning Rod?
Many people in Ida Lewis’ community disapproved of her swimming and rowing abilities. They told Ida that rowing boats was un-ladylike.
Ida wasn’t deterred.
In response to her critics, Ida stated, “None but a donkey would consider saving lives ‘un-feminine.”
Ida Lewis persevered in her work at Lime Rock Light and in the surrounding waters, unfazed by the criticism leveled at her. I da and her mother took care of the lighthouse until her father died in 1873.
Ida’s mother became the official ward of Lime Rock at that point, and she died only five years later.
Ida became the sole keeper of Lime Rock after her mother died in 1878. Her role was formalized in 1879. Ida became the highest-paid lighthouse keeper in the country, earning $750 per year.
Ida Lewis Rock Light Rescues
The main reason Ida Lewis was paid so well was because of her history of rescues.
Ida had already established a reputation for daring and difficult rescues by the time the two soldiers rowed into her harbor in 1869. Her first person was saved in 1854, the same year her father arrived at Lime Rock Light.
Ida had at least 18 confirmed rescues by the end of her long career. Historians believe the true number is more than 25 because she kept no official records.
Ida’s fame grew after she rescued the two soldiers from the harbor. The New York Tribune, Harper’s Weekly, and Leslie’s all ran articles about her.
The Life Saving Benevolent Association awarded her a silver medal, and a parade was held in her honor in Newport. The soldiers raised over $200 to thank Ida, which was a large sum at the time.
Ida received accolades from the day’s most prominent figures. She met President Ulysses S. Grant and was visited by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and other women’s suffrage activists who saw Ida Lewis as a key figure in the fight for equality.
Throughout her life, dozens of people came to Lime Rock Lighthouse hoping to meet the “Bravest Woman in America.”
The Legacy of Ida Lewis
At the age of 63, Ida Lewis completed her last recorded rescue. Six years later, at the age of 69, she died of a stroke.
In the years following her death, the Rhode Island legislature renamed Lime Rock Ida Lewis Rock and the Lime Rock Lighthouse Ida Lewis Rock Lighthouse, which now houses the Ida Lewis Yacht Club.
Ida Lewis is the only lighthouse keeper in US history who has a lighthouse service named after her.
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