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
An 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 "Ida."
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 lifesaving exploits.
- This drawing 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 floor.
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
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 to safety.
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
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 Ida.
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.