Ida Zoradia Lewis lived an extraordinary life, becoming America’s most famous woman lighthouse keeper and national heroine. She is also eulogised as the ‘bravest woman in America’ for taking care of the light on Lime Rock in Newport, R.I., for more than 50 years, and also bailing out more than 25 people from death.
Ida, irrespective of her age, gender, class, and lack of education, managed to rise above the overwhelming bias and discrimination against women to fulfil her true potential and her life’s work.
She began her life’s calling of saving lives at sea when she was just 12 and continued doing so until she was in her 60s. Let’s take you on a journey through the story of America’s bravest woman, Ida Lewis, the lighthouse hero of old Rhode Island.
10 need to know facts about Ida Lewis
- Ida Lewis was born to Captain Hosea Lewis and Idawalley Zoradia Wiley on 25 February 1842 in Newport, Rhode Island, as one of four children.
- She lived with her family on the small near-island Lime Rock and began her life’s calling of saving lives at sea when she was just 12.
- Ida began tending to the lighthouse after her father suffered a stroke and eventually died after a couple of years, and she lost her mother to cancer in 1878.
- When Ida was 15 years old, she was recognised as the best swimmer in Newport, and she would row her younger siblings to school every weekday while fetching supplies that the family needed.
- She saved many lives at sea, including a young soldier’s, who was sailing in a skiff near the lighthouse and got overturned in 1866.
- She married William Wilson in 1870, and the pair got separated two years later in 1872.
- Ida Lewis had no children of her own.
- The Rhode Island legislature in 1924 officially renamed Lime Rock to Ida Lewis Rock in her honour.
- She took care of the light on Lime Rock in Newport for more than 50 years and died of a stroke in 1911.
- Ida Lewis is revered as America’s bravest woman, and her exploits were detailed in the National Press and have been retold many times since then.
Early life, family background and rescue feats
Ida Lewis is the second oldest of four children of Captain Hosea Lewis of the Revenue-Marine. She was born on 25 February 1842 in Newport, Rhode Island.
Her father was appointed keeper of Lime Rock Light on the small near-island Lime Rock in Newport in 1854 following his transfer, but shortly into his tenure at the Lighthouse Service, he suffered a stroke.
Hosea Lewis could no longer tend to the lighthouse because of his predicament, and the responsibility fell on the shoulders of Ida Lewis and her mother. They both undertook all duties required of the keeper of the lighthouse while also tending to the newly disabled Hosea and a critically ill younger child.
The duties of the lighthouse keeper included tending the light by filling the lamp with oil at sundown and again at midnight, trimming the wick, polishing carbon off the reflectors, and extinguishing the light at dawn. They did this for a few years, and Ida continued after she lost her mother.
At just 12 years old, Ida Lewis performed her first rescue operation. She helped out a group of four boys who were sailing near the lighthouse when their vessel capsized. She had been known as a very good swimmer from childhood, which was expected because Lime Rock, their home, was almost completely surrounded by water and the only way to reach the mainland was by either swimming or taking a boat.
By the time Ida was 15 years old, she had become widely known as the best swimmer in Newport. She would row her younger siblings to school every weekday, and would also head to town to fetch supplies for the family.
Since it was a routine, it became part of her as practice makes perfect. Ida Lewis became very skilful at handling even heavy rowboats. She once said, “None – but a donkey, would consider it ‘un-feminine’, to save lives”, while responding to criticism that it was un-ladylike for women to row boats.
Sometime in 1866, Lewis was once again involved in another feat of bravery when she saved a young soldier’s life after his Skiff overturned near the lighthouse. She spotted him from the lighthouse and rushed out to pull him from the water. And she was said to have saved not just two men, but a sheep as well, from the icy waters the following year. The two sheep owners ran into trouble while searching for their lost animal, and Lewis went into the water to rescue both the men and their sheep from drowning.
She and her mother continued to tend to Lime Rock Light for her disabled father from 1857 until 1873 when Captain Hosea Lewis gave up the ghost.
The official title of keeper was passed on to Lewis’ mother after her husband’s demise. However, a few years later, her mother’s health began to deteriorate, leaving Ida Lewis in charge of caring for her mother as well as tending to the lighthouse.
Ida Lewis became the official keeper in 1879 after her mother died of cancer in 1878. She received the official appointment as keeper from Rhode Island governor General Ambrose Everett Burnside, who was an admirer of her valiant efforts. General Ambrose Everett Burnside was a Civil War hero, who governed Rhode Island, and later became a United States senator.
Career as official keeper
Ida Lewis inherited her career as keeper of the lighthouse from her parents. Her father was transferred to the Lighthouse Service and appointed keeper of Lime Rock Light on the small near-island Lime Rock in Newport back in 1854.
After he suffered a stroke, the duties passed to his daughter and wife. Upon his demise, Idawalley Zoradia Wiley, his wife, became official lighthouse keeper. However, when she passed in 1878, the official title of keeper was conferred on their daughter, Ida Lewis.
And with a salary of $750 per year, Ida Lewis was the highest-paid lighthouse keeper in the nation at some point. She was given an extra pay “in consideration of the remarkable services of Mrs. Wilson in the saving of lives”, a publication wrote. A price converter values her salary to be about $15,411.93 in 2021.
Ida Lewis accomplishments
As the keeper of the lighthouse and even before then, Ida Lewis had always had the penchant for rescuing those in need. Here, we look at her heroics chronologically:
1854 – Her journey started when she was just 12 years old, known as a very good swimmer, Ida Lewis rescued a group of four boys whose vessel capsized while sailing near the lighthouse.
1857 – At 15, she was widely known as the best swimmer in Newport and she performed several undocumented successful rescue attempts.
1869 – Many of her rescue operation had relatively gone unnoticed but in 1869, she earned national recognition after rescuing two soldiers, Sgt. James Adams and Pvt. John McLaughlin, whose boat overturned in the middle of a cold March snowstorm.
1881 – She was featured in Harper’s Weekly for her commendable effort and later on, she was granted a silver medal from The Life Saving Benevolent Association of New York. Ida Lewis was also awarded the Gold Lifesaving Medal from the United States government for her bravery in 1881, becoming the first woman to receive the award.
During her days, Ida Lewis was the most popular lighthouse keeper, and for 54 years which she spent on Lime Rock, she saved 18 lives officially, but unofficial reports suggest the number may have been as high as 25.
She never kept personal records of her lifesaving exploits. And after her fame spread quickly following the 1869 rescue, a reporter from the New York Tribune was sent to record her deeds. A parade was also held to honour her in Newport on Independence Day. She was also presented with a sleek, mahogany rowboat with red velvet cushions, gold braid around the gunwales, and gold-plated oar-locks.
Ida Lewis Yacht club
The Rhode Island legislature in 1924 officially renamed Lime Rock to Ida Lewis Rock. The lighthouse service also changed the name of the Lime Rock Lighthouse to the Ida Lewis Rock Lighthouse, and she became the only keeper to be paid such honour in the United States. The Ida Lewis Yacht Club has now made it their clubhouse with the burgee of the Ida Lewis Yacht Club featuring a lighthouse with 18 stars, representing the 18 people rescued by Ida Lewis.
In 2017, on what would have been her 175th birthday, a Google Doodle was made to commemorate her birthday. The United States Coast Guard Northeast division also posted a tweet honouring her birthday the same day, and the US Coast Guard main handle retweeted it.
Neptune’s Car had a folk song titled “Lighthouse Keeper” which was about her and other female lighthouse keepers. English folk singer Reg Meuross also has a song titled “The Eyes of Ida Lewis” on his 2019 RAW album, which tells a version of her story. We did not find any movie made about her yet.
Ida Lewis is one of four children, and she shared a deep connection with her parents and siblings, the Lighthouse. Early on during her years, she would tend to the lighthouse in the place of her father, who was bedridden due to a stroke.
She also took care of her siblings, and at some point, she had to be the sole caregiver to her ill mother while also tending to the lighthouse. Ida Lewis started swimming at a very young age, and when she was 15, she was regarded as the best swimmer in Newport.
She was briefly married to William Wilson. The pair were joined together in holy matrimony in 1870, but they got divorced in 1872. There is no record of her having any children.
She passed on 24 October 1911 at the age of 69 due to a stroke, the same ailment that took her father. All the vessels in Newport Harbor tolled their bells for her on the night she passed, and flags were at half-staff throughout Newport. Also, over 1,400 people came to see her body at the Thames Street Methodist Church.
Ida Lewis is a legend and an idol to many. Her life-saving exploits were one of the positives of her era, with an official number of 18 rescues made during her time.
Many of those people she rescued definitely idolize her for helping them stay alive, and many other women worldwide tried to emulate her.
She was regarded as the bravest woman in America, and it’s no wonder she broke many grounds and continues to live on despite leaving the world many decades ago.
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