At the age of 27, Ida's celebrity status was approaching
its peak. She was praised on the pages of Harper's Weekly, Leslie's,
the New York Tribune and many other popular periodicals of the day.
At least two pieces of music were named for her-the Ida
Lewis Waltz and the Rescue Polka Mazurka. Ida Lewis hats and scarves
flew off store shelves.
It was estimated that 10,000 people visited Lime Rock in
1869. "Of these," reported the Boston Journal, "there were probably not
twenty who compensated her for the trouble they gave. . . . People
would land at the rock, prowl over the house, quiz the family, pry into
the household affairs, patronizingly ask the age of each person and
what they lived on, and how they felt when Ida was saving souls."
Ida and her parents were paid a visit by President
Ulysses S. Grant in 1869. According to some sources, the president's
boat landed on the shore, and he got his feet wet when he stepped out.
"I have come to see Ida Lewis," Grant happily explained," "and to see
her I'd get wet up to my armpits if necessary."
During the same year, Vice President Schuyler Colfax
also visited Lime Rock. Admiral Dewey and General Sherman were among
the others who made the pilgrimage to Lime Rock in this period, and
suffragist Susan B. Anthony twice praised Ida Lewis in her journal.
After an engagement of about four years, Ida was quietly
married in 1870 to William H. Wilson of Fairfield, Connecticut. Ida
went with her husband to Black Rock Harbor. Little is known of Ida's
brief married life, except that she was desperately unhappy and soon
returned to Lime Rock. Ida rejected divorce on religious grounds, but
she and Wilson were permanently separated.
Ida's father, Hosea Lewis, died in 1872, and his widow
became keeper, at least on paper. Ida, of course, had already been the
primary keeper of the station for many years.
By 1877, the health of Ida's mother was failing, leaving
her with increased housekeeping and care giving responsibilities. Her
mother would remain ill and eventually died of cancer in 1887.
In November 1877, Ida saved the lives of three soldiers
whose catboat had run into rocks to the west of the lighthouse. This
rescue was particularly stressful for Ida, and it resulted in an
illness -- probably diphtheria -- that lasted for months.
Ida finally received the official appointment as keeper
in 1879, largely through the efforts of an admirer, General Ambrose
Everett Burnside, the Civil War hero who became a Rhode Island governor
and United States senator. With a salary of $750 per year, Ida was for
a time the highest-paid lighthouse keeper in the nation. The extra pay
was given "in consideration of the remarkable services of Mrs. Wilson
in the saving of lives."
A fanciful depiction of Ida Lewis from
Ripley's Believe it or Not!
Courtesy of Cheryl Easterbrooks
|In 1906, a friend was coming for a
visit in a small boat when she fell overboard, and Ida rowed out and
pulled her friend into her dory. Also in 1906, Ida became the recipient
of a pension of $30 monthly from the Carnegie Hero Fund, and the
American Cross of Honor Society awarded her a gold medal. The 1906
episode is often referred to as Ida's last rescue, but a newspaper
story from August 5, 1909, tells us that Ida saved the lives of five
young women whose rowboat was overturned by the steamer Commonwealth.
Ida wrote in 1907:
Sometimes the spray dashes against these windows so thick I
can't see out, and for days at a time the waves are so high that no
boat would dare come near the rock, not even if we were starving.
But I am happy. There's a peace on this rock that you don't
get on shore. There are hundreds of boats going in and out of this
harbor in summer, and it's part of my happiness to know that they are
depending on me to guide them safely.
Early one morning in October 1911, Ida Lewis
extinguished the light at Lime Rock for the final time. She became ill
that morning and remained in bed for several days. Some say her
apparent stroke resulted from worry over a false report that Lime Rock
Light was about to be discontinued. Artillery practice at nearby Fort
Adams was suspended out of respect for the keeper.
Ida Lewis died on October 25, 1911, at the age of 69.
The bells of all the vessels in Newport Harbor tolled for Ida Lewis
that night, and flags were at half staff throughout Newport. More than
1,400 people viewed her body at the Thames Street Methodist Church.
Among the crowd that gathered to pay its respects were keepers Charles
Schoeneman of Newport Harbor Light, Charles Curtis of Rose Island
Light, O. F. Kirby of Gull Rocks Light, and Edward Fogerty of the
Brenton Reef lightship. The captain and crew of a local lifesaving
station in Newport were also present.
Edvard Jansen became the new keeper at Lime Rock. Shortly
after Jansen became keeper, his wife gave birth to a baby girl,
christened Ida Lewis Jansen. Like his predecessor, Jansen gained fame
as a lifesaver, saving two men whose boat had overturned in a storm in
In 1924, the state legislature voted to change the name of
Lime Rock to Ida Lewis Rock. Jansen remained keeper of Ida Lewis Rock
Light until an automatic optic on a skeleton tower was installed near
the old dwelling in 1927. The automated light was discontinued in 1963,
and the skeleton tower was removed.
The buildings at Lime Rock were sold in 1928 for $7,200
and soon became the Ida Lewis Yacht
Club. A new walkway was built to the property, and the old
dwelling became the clubhouse. The Ida
Lewis Yacht Club can be seen from many of the sightseeing boats
out of Newport.
The original lens, manufactured by L. Sautter of Paris,
is now on prominent display, along with other artifacts and photos of
Ida. A small lamp is still lighted seasonally on the side of the
building, serving more as a memorial than as an aid to navigation.
Lime Rock during the period
when an automated light on a skeleton tower served as the active aid to
navigation. U.S. Coast Guard photo.
In 1995, the first of the new Coast Guard "keeper class"
175-foot buoy tenders was named the Ida Lewis. An actress portraying
Ida was brought by horse-drawn carriage to the launching ceremony at
the Marinette Marine Corporation in Wisconsin. The vessel's homeport is
Newport. In 2001, crewmembers from the vessel spent time sprucing up
Ida Lewis's gravestone is inscribed, "The Grace Darling
of America, Keeper of Lime Rock Lighthouse, Newport Harbor. Erected by
her many friends."
If you're visiting
Newport you might also want
to stop by the Common Ground Cemetery In Newport. Ida Lewis's
grave is near the front entrance of the cemetery on Farewell Street
(near Clarke Ave. in the cemetery).
To learn about the keeper class cutters, click here.
here for photos of the USCGC Ida Lewis.
In the summer of 2001 the crew of the
U.S. Coast Guard cutter Ida Lewis restored the gravesite of their
vessel's famous namesake. U.S. Coast Guard photo.
Keepers: Hosea Lewis (1854-1872); Zoradia Walley Lewis
(1872-1879); Idawalley Zoradia (Ida) Lewis (1879-1911); Edward Jansen