New England Lighthouses: A Virtual Guide
Lime Rock Light
(Ida Lewis Yacht Club)
Newport, Rhode Island
Lime Rock Light main page / History / Bibliography / Cruises / Photos / Postcards

History - Page One
  Jeremy D'Entremont. Do not reproduce any part of this website without permission of the author.
click here for history page two

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.

 
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."

 drawing of Ida Lewis

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 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 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 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 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.

click here for history page two
Most of the images on this page are from the collection of Edward Rowe Snow and are used with the permission of Dorothy Bicknell
  Jeremy D'Entremont. Do not reproduce any part of this website without permission of the author.
Lime Rock Light main page / History / Bibliography / Cruises / Photos / Postcards
Rhode Island Menu / New England Menu / Back to Contents
 
Vote for this site on Top 25 Lighthouse Web Sites List!
lighthouse banner