Over the space of 46 years, Ida Lewis faithfully kept the lamp lit at Lime Rock Light Station and rescued as many as 36 people from drowning.
Ida Lewis was born Idawalley Zorada Lewis on Feb. 25, 1842, in Newport, R.I., to Hosea Lewis, a Revenue Cutter Service captain, and Ida Zordia Lewis. In 1854, Hosea Lewis was appointed lighthouse keeper at Lime Rock Light in Newport. Four months after he moved his wife and four children to the small island in Newport Harbor, he suffered a debilitating stroke. Twelve-year-old Ida helped her mother tend the lamp in the short stone tower.
They had to climb the tower, fill the lamp with oil at dusk and at midnight, trim the wick, polish carbon off reflectors and put out the light at dawn.
Ida rowed her younger siblings to school every school day and brought provisions from town. She got so good at rowing it was said she could row a boat faster than any man in Newport.
In the autumn of 1854, when she was 12, she saw four young men capsize their sailboat. She rowed out to rescue them and pulled them into her rowboat. That was the first of many rescues.
Officially, she saved 18 lives during her years at Lime Rock Light. Unofficially, she saved 36. She made her last rescue at 63, when a friend fell overboard while rowing out to visit her.
Her father died in 1872, and Ida’s mother was appointed official keeper. When her mother died in 1879, the title went to Ida.
Ida Lewis was best known for her rescue of two soldiers rowing across the harbor to Fort Adams during a snowstorm. A 14-year-old boy was with them to guide their way. The boat capsized in the rough water and the boy disappeared, but the two soldiers clung to the boat. Ida and her younger brother rowed out and saved the men. One soldier gave her a gold watch, and the soldiers at Fort Adams passed the hat and collected $218 for her.
In July 1881, she was awarded the Gold Lifesaving Medal from the U.S. Coast Guard for her courageous rescue of two soldiers who fell through the ice.
The news media began reporting on her heroics. She was called the bravest woman in America, and she met many of the famous people who summered in Newport, including President Ulysses S. Grant.
She received letters, gifts and proposals of marriage. She accepted one, from a Capt. William Wilson of Bridgeport, Conn., but they separated after two years.
Ida Lewis died of a stroke while on duty, Oct. 24, 1911. All the bells in Newport Harbor tolled for her that night.
The Lime Rock Light was renamed Ida Lewis Lighthouse in 1924, the only lighthouse named after a keeper. It is now on the National Register of Historic Places and is maintained as the Ida Lewis Yacht Club clubhouse.
Read the full story of Ida Lewis in Rowing to the Rescue: The Story of Ida Lewis, Famous Lighthouse Heroine. You can buy it at the New England Historical Society bookstore here.
This story was updated from the 2014 version.