Ida Lewis: The Bravest Woman in America

Sep 3, 2021 0 comments

In the Newport harbor in Rhode Island, America’s smallest state, stands a small, squat lighthouse named after Ida Lewis, the fearless lighthouse keeper who manned this outpost for more than fifty years. During this period Ida Lewis was known to have saved countless lives from drowning.

Ida Lewis was born in 1842 in Newport, Rhode Island, the second oldest of four children of Captain Hosea Lewis of the Revenue-Marine. She was first brought to Lime Rock in 1854, when her father was made the lighthouse keeper there. Initially called the Lime Rock Lighthouse, it was a square granite tower equipped with a sixth order Fresnel lens and an oil-burning lantern. To reach the light, Hosea had to row 200 meters each day, which was not possible at all times especially when the sea was rough. So In 1857, a two-story house was built for the lighthouse keeper, and Ida and her family moved into her new house on the island.

Ida Lewis

Ida Lewis rescues two drowning soldiers from Fort Adams

Less than than four months after the family had been at Lime Rock, Ida’s father suffered a debilitating stroke. In the aftermath, Ida and her siblings took on many of the lighthouse tasks, including 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. She also took care of her younger siblings and rowed them to school every weekday and fetched supplies from town as they were needed. She became very skillful at handling her heavy rowboat, and by age 15, Ida had become known as the best swimmer in Newport.

For more than twenty years, Ida assisted her mother to keep the light, until 1879 when she finally received the official appointment as keeper with a generous salary of $750 per year. For a time, Lewis was the highest-paid lighthouse keeper in the nation. The extra pay was given in recognition of her remarkable services and going beyond the call of duty and saving lives.

Ida Lewis

Ida made her first rescue when she was just 12 years old, pulling four men out of the water after their boat capsized. Her most famous rescue for which Ida became nationally known happened in 1869, when she saved two soldiers after their boat was swamped during a winter storm. Ida’s mother saw the two soldiers clinging to the overturned boat and woke up Ida, who jumped out of bed and ran towards the lighthouse boat without taking the time to put on a coat or shoes. When Ida reached the stricken soldiers, one of them saw her and uttered in surprise —”It's only a girl.” The soldier nearly lost his grip when Ida grabbed him by the hair and pulled him into her boat. Later, the soldiers gave Ida a gold watch for saving them, and the citizens of Newport presented her with a boat.

Ida’s fame spread quickly following the 1869 rescue, and she appeared in the New-York Tribune, Harper's Weekly and Leslie's magazine, among others. The Life Saving Benevolent Association of New York sent her a silver medal. A parade was held in her honor in Newport on Independence Day, followed by the presentation of a sleek, mahogany rowboat with red velvet cushions, gold braid around the gunwales, and gold-plated oar-locks.

In 1881, she was awarded the rare Gold Lifesaving Medal from the United States government – the first woman to receive it – for her rescue on February 4, 1881, of two soldiers from Fort Adams who had fallen through the ice while attempting to return to the fort on foot.

Ida Lewis

Woodcut of Ida Lewis, light-house keeper

During her 54 years on Lime Rock she is credited with saving 18 lives, although unofficial reports suggest the number may have been as high as 25. Ida made her last recorded rescue when she was 63. A friend was rowing out to the lighthouse, stood up in her boat, lost her balance, and fell into the water. Lewis rowed out to her and hauled her aboard.

During her lifetime, Lewis was called “the Bravest Woman in America” and her exploits were detailed in the national press. Thousands of people came to meet her on the island. In one summer, Ida’s father counted nine thousand. She also received numerous gifts, letters, and even marriage proposals.

Ida Lewis died in 1911 after suffering a stroke. As Ida’s body left the Lime Rock Lighthouse for the last time her brother Rudolph said, “That is the way poor Ida wanted to leave; she never wanted to part from the lighthouse until she was taken to her grave.” She was buried in the Common Burying Ground.

In 1924 the Rhode Island legislature officially changed the name of Lime Rock to Ida Lewis Rock. Three years later, the lighthouse was automated, and finally in 1963, the lighthouse was deactivated.

Ida Lewis Rock Light

The lighthouse today. Photo: Kenneth C. Zirkel/Wikimedia Commons


More on Amusing Planet


{{posts[0].date}} {{posts[0].commentsNum}} {{messages_comments}}


{{posts[1].date}} {{posts[1].commentsNum}} {{messages_comments}}


{{posts[2].date}} {{posts[2].commentsNum}} {{messages_comments}}


{{posts[3].date}} {{posts[3].commentsNum}} {{messages_comments}}