The history of the Lime
Rock Light Station in Newport Harbor is inseparable from the story of
its famous keeper. Idawalley Zoradia Lewis is the most celebrated
lighthouse keeper in American history.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, passenger
ferries, commercial traffic, and military personnel heading to and from
Fort Adams combined to necessitate a navigational light in Newport's
inner harbor. Congress appropriated the modest amount of $1,000 for a
light on March 3, 1853.
During the following year, a small stone tower was
erected on the largest of the Lime Rocks, a cluster of limestone ledges
about 900 feet from shore, on the southern side of the inner harbor. At
first, the keeper had to row from shore to tend the light. A one-room
shanty was provided near the tower in case bad weather forced the
keeper to spend the night.
Hosea Lewis was appointed keeper on November 15, 1853.
Lewis, a native of Hingham, Massachusetts, was born in 1804 and went to
sea at an early age. He had served as a pilot in the Revenue Cutter
service for about 12 years when he took the lightkeeping job.
early engraving of Newport Harbor and Lime Rock
Lewis lived with his family in a small house at the
corner of Spring and Brewery streets in Newport. His first wife had
died, and Lewis married Idawalley Zoradia Willey, daughter of a
prominent Block Island physician, in 1838. Their first son, Horatio,
died at the age of 10. Their second child, born February 25, 1842, was
named Idawalley Zoradia Lewis, but she would be known to the world as
In 1857, a keeper's house was built at the station. The
hip-roofed brick house with two stories was similar to the dwellings
finished at Beavertail, Watch Hill, and Dutch Island around the same
time. A narrow, square column of brick built into the building's
northwest corner was surmounted by a small lantern, which held a
sixth-order Fresnel lens showing a fixed white light. Access to the
lens was through a second-story alcove in the house.
The Lewis family moved to their new offshore home in
late June. About four months later, Hosea Lewis suffered a paralyzing
stroke that left him unable to fulfill his duties as keeper. His wife
took over much of the lighthouse work and was eventually given the
official title of keeper in 1872. But right from the time of her
father's stroke, young Ida played a substantial role in the management
of the light and household.
By the age of 14 Ida had become known as the best
swimmer in Newport. Ida not only tended the light but also rowed her
younger brothers and sisters to the mainland every day for school and
picked up supplies as they were needed. Ida's rowing skills, strength,
and courage were to come into play many times during her life at Lime
Rock. Officially, she's credited with 18 lives saved, but the number
was possibly as high as 35-the modest Ms. Lewis kept no records of her
originally represented Grace Darling, English lighthouse heroine, but
was used in American publications to represent Ida Lewis.
Her first rescue was in the fall of 1858, when she was only
16. On a cold, dreary day, four local young men were sailing back and
forth between Fort Adams and the Lime Rocks. Ida watched from a window
as one of the youths climbed the mast and began deliberately rocking
the boat back and forth, probably to scare his friends. Scare them he
did, but his tactic proved too successful when the sailboat capsized.
The boat was soon keel up, with the four young men desperately
struggling to stay afloat alongside. Ida rushed to the scene in her
small boat and hauled the four aboard one at a time. They were taken to
the lighthouse, where they soon recovered. The incident received no
attention at the time. Ida later said that she "did not think the
matter worth talking about and never gave it a second thought."
Nearly eight years passed before Ida's next recorded
rescue. In February 1866, three soldiers were walking back to Fort
Adams after some serious downtown imbibing. The men saw an old skiff,
belonging to one of Ida's brothers, tied up at a wharf along the
waterfront, and decided that they were entitled to commandeer the boat
to shorten their trip to the fort. As they reached deep water in the
flimsy skiff, one of the drunken men put his foot right through the
Two of the men were never heard from again. Their bodies
were never found, and it isn't clear if they drowned or deserted. But
the third man drifted helplessly in the sinking skiff until Ida
arrived. Although strong and agile, Ida was not a big woman, and she
had to struggle mightily to pull the half-drowned soldier into her
boat. It took her months to recover from the strain.
Early in 1867, three men were walking along the Newport
shore, transporting a valuable sheep that belonged to wealthy banker
August Belmont. The sheep suddenly decided to make an escape. Despite a
harsh southeast wind and heavy seas, the animal dove into the harbor
and swam for all it was worth. The two men found a new skiff belonging
to Ida's brother and launched it in hot pursuit.
The wind-whipped waves quickly swamped the little boat, and
the men found themselves fighting to stay alive. Always alert, Ida
sprung into action and rescued all three. After the men were safely at
the lighthouse, Ida saw the sheep, fighting against the waves to reach
shore. She rowed back out, got a rope around the animal, and hauled it
Ida's most fanous rescue occurred about two years later. On
March 29, 1869 two soldiers were passing through Newport Harbor towards
Fort Adams in a small boat. The men, Sgt. James Adams and Pvt. John
McLaughlin, had enlisted the help of a 14-year-old boy who claimed to
know his way through the harbor.
A snowstorm was churning the harbor's waters, and the boat was
soon overturned. The two soldiers clung to their overturned boat, but
the boy was lost in the icy water. Ida's mother saw their predicament
and called to Ida, who was suffering from a cold.
Ida ran to her boat without taking the time to put on a coat
or shoes. With the help of her younger brother, Ida was able to haul
the two men into her boat and bring them to the lighthouse. One of the
men later gave a gold watch to Ida, and for her heroism she became the
first woman to receive a gold Congressional medal for lifesaving. The
soldiers at Fort Adams showed their appreciation by collecting $218 for
Years later, Ida recalled this rescue.
I don't know if I was ever afraid. I just went, and
that was all there was to it. Now my mother, she wasn't like me. That
night when the two soldiers were tipped out of their boat, I was
sitting there with my feet in the oven. I had a bad cold. But when I
heard those men calling, I started right out, just as I was, with a
towel over my shoulders, and mother begged me not to go. She was so
nervous that she nearly fainted away while I was out there. But then,
she was sickly quite a time. It was my father who showed me how to take
people into my boat. You have to draw them over the stern or they will
tip you over.
In the Fourth of July parade in 1869, the citizens of
Newport presented Ida with a new mahogany boat named Rescue.
Ida declined to make a speech. Her reaction as the crowd cheered was
simply, "Thank you. Thank you-I don't deserve it."
The boat -- complete with gold-plated oarlocks and red
velvet cushions -- was put on wheels for the parade, and Ida rode it
past throngs of admirers lining the streets of the city.