Newport’s Lighthouse Keeper Ida Lewis in Her Adult Years (Part 2)
Continued from last month’s writing of
Heroism of Young Ida Lewis: Lighthouse Keeper of Rhode Island (Part 1):
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 became 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 afterward, with her mother accepting the position of 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, resulting 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 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 be brought to the nearest wharf quickly. They obliged the young man’s request, feeling slightly 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 gladly pay 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 ran across the cracking ice on instinct, tossing her lifeline to the struggling men. One of the soldiers could 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 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, who was not used to using a rowboat, was going 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 started catching up with her. Her health began to fail as news about decommissioning the lighthouse worried her immensely. It had turned out to be a false report.
One morning, on October 24, she became ill from an apparent stroke. Upon hearing the news, the commanding officer at Fort Adams 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 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 built a buoy tender named the Ida Lewis in 1995. She will always be known as Rhode Island’s most famous lighthouse keeper.
Ida Lewis Rescue Painting Created by Artist John Witt:
The painting above is created by combat artist John Witt, who graciously allowed me to use his work of Ida Lewis for my lighthouse books. No story of Ida Lewis could be told without this amazing visual. The U.S. Marine Corps twice commissioned John Witt as a civilian artist in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969. His works are also included in the U.S. Air Force, Army, Navy, and Coast Guard art collections and displayed in the U.S. National Archives. 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 New Britain Museum of American Art collection. Thank you for your help and inspiration, and thanks to the Coast Guard.
Exploring Newport, Rhode Island
Newport is Rhode Island’s tourist capital, with waterfront concerts and events happening during summer. Tourists from all over the world 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.
Enjoy your summer in Newport and along the New England coast!
The Rise and Demise of the Largest Sailing Ships: Stories of the Six and Seven-Masted Coal Schooners of New England. In the early 1900s, New England shipbuilders constructed the world’s largest sailing ships amid social and political reforms. These giants were the ten original six-masted coal schooners and one colossal seven-masted vessel, built to carry massive quantities of coal and building supplies and measured longer than a football field! This book, balanced with plenty of color and vintage images, showcases the historical accounts that followed these mighty ships.
My 300-page book, Lighthouses and Coastal Attractions of Southern New England: Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts, provides extraordinary human interest stories from each of the 92 lighthouses, along with plenty of indoor and outdoor coastal attractions you can explore. These include whale-watching excursions, lighthouse tours, windjammer sailing tours, adventures, unique parks and museums, and even lighthouses where you can stay overnight. You’ll also find plenty of stories of shipwrecks and rescues and about famous keepers like Ida Lewis mentioned above. Lighthouses and their nearby attractions are divided into regions for weekly and weekend explorers. You’ll also find plenty of stories of hauntings around lighthouses.
My 300-page book, Lighthouses and Coastal Attractions of Northern New England: New Hampshire, Maine, and Vermont, provides memorable human interest stories from each of the 76 lighthouses, along with plenty of indoor and outdoor coastal attractions you can explore and tours. Lighthouses and their nearby attractions are divided into regions for weekly and weekend explorers. Attractions and tours also include whale watching tours, lighthouse tours, windjammer sailing tours and adventures, special parks and museums, and lighthouses where you can stay overnight. There are also stories of haunted lighthouses in these regions.
Included are more details of the life and legacy of Keeper Ida Lewis, and her most famous rescues at Lime Rock Light, along with over 50 other stories in my book New England Lighthouses: Famous Shipwrecks, Rescues & Other Tales. This image-rich book also contains vintage images provided by the Coast Guard and various organizations and paintings by six famous artists of the Coast Guard.
Copyright © Allan Wood Photography, do not reproduce without permission. All rights reserved.
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