Location: Rhode Island
Date Built: 1854
Height(Approximate): 13 Feet (4 Meters)
Open For Tours: No
Over 150 years old, the Ida Lewis Rock Lighthouse is located on Lime Rock in the Newport Harbor in Rhode Island. The lighthouse is named after one of the first lighthouse keepers of this lighthouse and one of the most famous lighthouse keepers in maritime history, Ida Lewis.
James Stockbridge Lewis helped build the lighthouse, originally called Lime Rock Lighthouse, in 1854. His father, Hosea Lewis, took over six months later, moving his family to the lighthouse keeper house on the island. Unfortunately, soon after moving in, Hosea suffered from a stroke, leaving his family to keep the lighthouse. Hosea’s wife, Ida Lewis, and the Lewis children took over the responsibilities of maintaining the lighthouse. The oldest daughter, also named Ida, officially became the lighthouse keeper of the Lime Rock Lighthouse in 1879, although her mother was officially given the first. The lighthouse was renamed in Ida’s honor in 1924, 33 years after she left the position.
Ida nursed her sick father and sister while keeping up with her duties maintaining the lighthouse, which included refilling the lamp oil twice a day, polishing the reflectors, maintaining the wick and putting out the light every morning. Ida was known for her physical endurance, and was considered the best swimmer in Newport at the young age of 14. Ida would skillfully row her siblings to school every day during the week in a heavy wooden boat, which was an impressive feat as it was rare to see a female row a boat at all.
Ida became known for her daring rescues. Harper’s Weekly even discussed the femininity of rowing boats, but eventually excused this perceived masculine behavior in Ida’s case due to her heroic life-saving acts. The first of these heroic acts occurred when Ida was just 16, as a boat carrying four young men capsized in cold weather after one of the men decided to rock the boat in order to give his friends a scare. Ida had been watching the boat travel from Fort Adams to the Lime Rocks and quickly responded to the men’s plight by rowing out and pulling them from the water.
A year later, a small boat carrying two soldiers and a young boy that was acting as their guide was heading to Fort Adams when it overturned. Running to her boat without even putting shoes or a coat on, Ida and her brother rescued the soldiers, but the boy was sadly lost in the water. For this feat, Ida received a Congressional Gold Lifesaving Medal. Ida was the first woman to receive this distinctive award. In 1881, she received an award from the Humane Society of Massachusetts. In Ida’s more than 39 years as lighthouse keeper, it is believed that she saved anywhere from 18-36 lives.
For a time, Ida was receiving the largest lighthouse keeper salary in the country at $750 a month. Many speculated that the high salary was in part due to Ida’s admirer, the governor of Rhode Island, Ambrose Everett Burnside. However, it is unclear whether this affected her salary. It is worth nothing that along with being the best paid, she was known as the best lighthouse keeper around. She became renowned after articles appeared in several newspapers following her acts of bravery. Ida was given a parade in her honor one 4th of July, when she was gifted a mahogany rowboat with a velvet interior. The famed keeper also started receiving a pension of $30 per month from the Carnegie Hero Fund after turning 64. She was often referred to as the “Bravest Woman of America.”
Ida kept her post as lighthouse keeper of Lime Rock until 1911, when she passed away following an illness at 69 years old. Newport flags were sailed at half-staff and over 1,400 people attended her viewing, including many area lighthouse keepers.
Evard Jansen became the lighthouse keeper of Lime Rock after Ida, and kept this post until 1927,when the lighthouse was automated. However, the original lens can be seen at the Museum of Newport History.
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