Newport’s Lighthouse Keeper Ida Lewis in Her Adult Years
Continued from last month’s writing of Ida Lewis:
As Rhode Island’s most famous lighthouse keeper of Lime Rock light, Ida Lewis had saved the lives of at least eight men by May of 1869. At the age of 21, she had become a national hero when the magazines, Harper’s Weekly, Leslie’s Weekly, Life, and Look published her rescues in their publications. Many of the rich and famous would visit, and she even met President Ulysses S. Grant, who came to visit to give thanks. She was a very humble person, feeling she was only doing her duty.
Ida continued to assist her father over the years as his health continued to fail until his death in 1872. Ida and her mother tended the Lime Rock Lighthouse afterwards with her mother accepting the position as Keeper to replace her father.
In November 1877, Ida saved the lives of three soldiers whose catboat had run into rocks to the west of the lighthouse. This rescue was particularly stressful for Ida, and it resulted in an illness believed to be diphtheria, that lasted for months.
One cold early morning in February, in 1877, Ida’s mother noticed a sailor stranded on an underwater ledge called Little Lime Rock, located close to the lighthouse. She yelled out to the struggling mariner that help was coming and called to Ida to assist him. The waves had risen with the tide as the man clung to the submerged ledge, with only his head above water. Ida quickly ran to the boathouse to launch her lifeboat. She pulled the sailor into the boat and brought him to safety at the lighthouse. They offered to give him dry clothing and food, which he graciously declined and asked to quickly be brought to the nearest wharf. They obliged the young man’s request, feeling a little suspicious of his actions. As it turned out, when Ida returned the wrecked sailboat the sailor had destroyed to its rightful owner who lived nearby, the owner had been looking for it, as it had been stolen. The angry owner told Ida he would have gladly paid her fifty dollars if she had let the scoundrel drown. The authorities never found the culprit.
In 1879, with her mother’s health failing, and with the help of General Sherman from a special act of Congress, Ida Lewis was appointed Keeper of Lime Rock Lighthouse. She remained as Keeper at the lighthouse until 1911.
In 1881, she performed one of her most daring rescues. Two soldiers from Fort Adams decided to walk across the half frozen Newport Harbor when they fell through the ice into the freezing waters. Ida heard their cries, and on instinct, ran across the cracking ice, tossing her lifeline to the struggling men. One of the soldiers was able to grab hold of the line and try to position himself on the ice, but the thin ice kept breaking away and he would slide back into the water. After many exhausting efforts, as the ice continued to crack and break away from the frightened survivors, Ida finally managed to pull one of the soldiers to a safe thicker area of ice, then quickly tried to get the second soldier to grab hold of the lifeline. By this time, Rudolph, her brother, had also reached the scene and together they pulled the panicking second man out of the frigid waters onto the safe area of ice. Frozen from the experience, both soldiers and their rescuers recovered from the incident. The Lighthouse Board presented Ida Lewis with a Gold Lifesaving Medal for her courageous efforts.
One of her last acts of bravery occurred in 1905, at the age of 64. A close friend of hers, who was not used to using a rowboat, was making her way out to the lighthouse. She inadvertently stood up to reposition herself, and lost her balance, falling overboard. Ida, who was watching her friend from the lighthouse, immediately sprang into action. She ran to the boathouse and quickly launched the boat with all the strength her aged body could muster. She brought the boat alongside her friend struggling in the waters, and, as she had done countless times before, was able to haul her grateful companion into the boat and row her to the safety of the lighthouse. This rescue effort would make her friend the twenty-third documented person she had saved from drowning.
She continued at her post at Lime Rock lighthouse until 1911. The years of hard work at the lighthouse, and the strain of her rescues were starting to catch up with her. Her health started to fail, as there was news about decommissioning the lighthouse, which worried her immensely. It had turned out to be a false report.
One morning, on October 24, she became ill from an apparent stroke. The commanding officer at Fort Adams, upon hearing the news, had the coast artillery practice temporarily suspended. Idawalley Zoradia Lewis died on October 25, 1911, at the age of 69. The bells of all the vessels in Newport Harbor tolled for Ida Lewis that night.
After her death, Edward Jansen transferred from Sandy Hook Light in New Jersey to become Lime Rock’s new keeper. His wife had a daughter whom they named Ida Lewis Jansen. This little girl grew up to also become a lifesaver as well in rescuing two men whose boat had capsized in a storm.
In 1924, Congress decided to change the name of Lime Rock to Ida Lewis Rock, and the lighthouse be known as Ida Lewis Light.
Today the lighthouse is part of the Ida Lewis Yacht Club, which manages and owns the property. To honor Ida Lewis, the Coast Guard and built a buoy tender and named it the Ida Lewis in 1995. She will always be known as Rhode Island’s most famous lighthouse keeper.
About Artist John Witt – Amazing Artist The painting above is created by artist John Witt who graciously provided permission to use his work of Ida Lewis for my lighthouse books. No story of Ida Lewis could be told without this amazing visual. Thank you for your help and inspiration, and thanks to the Coast Guard. John Witt was twice commissioned by the U.S. Marine Corps as a civilian artist in Vietnam during 1968 and 1969. His works are also included in the U.S. Air Force, Army, Navy, and Coast Guard art collections. His art has been on exhibition at the Smithsonian Institute, Society of Illustrators, Museum of American Illustrators, and other museums. He is also included in the permanent collection of the New Britain Museum of American Art.
Exploring Newport, Rhode Island
Newport is Rhode Island’s tourist capital with waterfront concerts and events happening during the summer season. Tourists from all over the world come to visit Newport’s famous elaborate mansions of the rich and famous that shaped America’s 19th and 20th centuries. The area is also referred to as the sailing capital of the world with yachts and ships touring all around Narragansett Bay and its lighthouses. Although Ida Lewis (Lime Rock) light is not accessible to visitors as it is part of the Ida Lewis Yacht Club, views of the beacon can be found from any boats that enter or leave the harbor. Other Newport lighthouses you can visit include Newport Harbor lighthouse, Castle Hill lighthouse, or you can take the Jamestown-Newport Ferry across the harbor to Rose Island light and explore the lighthouse and grounds there.
Enjoy your summer in Newport and along the New England coast!
My 300-page book, Lighthouses and Coastal Attractions of Southern New England: Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts, provides special human interest stories from each of the 92 lighthouses, including stories about Ida Lewis, along with plenty of indoor and outdoor coastal attractions you can explore. These include whale watching excursions, lighthouse tours, windjammer sailing tours and adventures, special parks and museums, and lighthouses you can stay overnight. You’ll also find plenty of stories of haunted lighthouses. Lighthouses and their nearby attractions are divided into regions for all you weekly and weekend explorers.
New England Lighthouses: Famous Shipwrecks, Rescues, and Other Tales. Lots of detailed stories of famous incidents and folklore that occurred near the beacons of the New England coast, including the story published here about Ida Lewis and her famous rescues. The book also contains, along with my photographs, vintage images provided by the Coast Guard and various organizations, and paintings by six famous artists of the Coast Guard, including artist John Witt mentioned above.
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