Preface: In continuing with my articles on influential members of the Coast Guard, I thought it fitting to write about another hero, this time a female, during National Women’s Month.
Idawalley (Ida) Lewis was born February 25th, 1842 in Newport, Rhode Island. Her father was a Captain in the Revenue Cutter Service (modern day Coast Guard). In 1854 her father was transferred to the Lighthouse Service. From there he was sent to Lime Rock Light in Newport to be its keeper, bringing Ida, her mother and her three younger siblings. Captain Lewis had been at the lighthouse less than four months when he suffered a massive stroke that left him unable to tend the light. The responsibility fell to his wife and his daughter Ida. Ida took on many responsibilities including caring for her disabled father, a sick sister and all the duties of the
Light. This turn of events destined her for a life devoted to the sea and to protecting its mariners.
She filled the Light’s oil at sundown and again at midnight, she trimmed the wick, polished the carbon off the reflectors and put the Light out at dawn. Lime Rock was completely surrounded by water, when supplies were needed Ida would row into town. She became very apt at handling the heavy wooden boat, as she rowed her siblings to and from school every day. By 14 years old she became known as the best swimmer in Newport.
These talents led her to perform her first rescue in 1858 when she was only 16 years old. Four young men were sailing near the light when their boat capsized. Ida, seeing the whole thing, rushed to them in her boat and pulled each of the men to safety one at a time.
Her most famous rescue was in 1869 when two soldiers stationed at Ft. Adams were making their way through Newport Harbor as a winter storm rolled in and overturned their boat. Ida moved quickly, even forgetting to put on a coat and shoes. She and her younger brother began rowing to the struggling men and after getting them aboard, she took them to the lighthouse to recover. Because of her heroism, she received a gold Congressional Medal for Lifesaving. In 1881, after rescuing two soldiers also from Ft. Adams who fell through the ice, she was awarded the rare Gold Lifesaving Medal from the U.S. Government, the highest award given by the Life Saving Service.
Ida continued caring for her family and keeping the light through both her parents deaths and was officially appointed it’s keeper in 1879. Ida was paid $750 per year, making her the highest paid lighthouse keeper in the country at that time. Throughout her 39 years at Lime Rock Lighthouse she had 18 confirmed lives saved, though unofficial reports say the number is closer to 36, making her the most well known lighthouse keeper of her time.
During her lifetime she was called “the bravest women in America”. Ida, however, was ever humble and never kept track of her saves or understood her fame. Her final save was when she was 63 years old and a friend overturned her boat in the harbor. Ida did as she always had and sprang into action, saving her friend.
In 1911 Ida Lewis died of illness at 69 years old. She got up one October morning, put out the light for the final time and became very ill, eventually dying several days later. More than 1,400 people attended her service, a testament to her impact on the community of Newport and Ft. Adams. In 1924 in honor of its greatest keeper, Rhode Island legislature officially changed the name of Lime Rock to Ida Lewis Rock and the Lighthouse Service changed Lime Rock Light to Ida Lewis Lighthouse, the only time it was ever done in United States history.
In 1995 The U.S. Coast Guard honored Ida’s memory and dedication to lifesaving by naming a new class of Buoy Tenders for her. The USCGC Ida Lewis, the lead ship in her class, is currently stationed in Newport, Rhode Island.
Ida Lewis was truly an American lifesaver and a hero. She selflessly put her life on the line to save those in distress.
Lenore Skomal, The Keeper of Lime Rock, Running Press, Philadelphia, PA, 2002, ISBN 0-7624-1309-3.