History Bytes: Ida Lewis

April 21, 2020

Carte-de-Visite of Ida Lewis circa 1869, P448, NHS Collection

In 1857, at the age of fifteen, Ida Lewis unofficially took over duties as keeper of the Lime Rock Lighthouse from her father. He had recently suffered a debilitating stroke from which he never fully recovered. Her first recorded rescue came only one year later, when she saved four teenage boys from drowning after they accidentally overturned the small catboat they were sailing.

However, it was not until March of 1869, when she rescued two soldiers from drowning in their attempt to return to Fort Adams, that she received any attention for her efforts. Unlike her other rescues, this endeavor was picked up by the New York Tribune and catapulted Ida Lewis into the national spotlight. In May of 1869 the Rhode Island General Assembly adopted a resolution officially recognizing Ida’s heroism. Two months later, the city of Newport honored her further during their Independence Day celebration, presenting her with a rowboat appropriately named Rescue.

Over the coming years, Ida shied away from the spotlight as she attempted to continue leading a normal life. However, her story continued to elicit interest and she was visited by a number of prominent individuals, including Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, President Ulysses S. Grant and Jay Gould.

She is credited with eight recorded rescues, the last in 1906 at the age of 64, and was recognized for her lifesaving efforts with a number of accolades; in many cases, she was the first woman to receive these awards.

Despite her celebrity and many tokens of admiration and appreciation, Ida continued her life as lighthouse keeper unchanged until she suffered a massive stoke on October 21, 1911, while filling the lighthouse lantern. She died three days later at the age of 69.


Banner: A photograph of Lime Rock lighthouse by Clarence Stanhope (c.1852-1924), P9466, NHS Collection