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A savior to boats and men

She was the dedicated keeper of Lime Rock Light Station in Newport, Rhode Island, and an expert small-boat handler. Admired by a U.S. president for her courage, she was a 19th century rock star, featured in Harper’s Weekly and Putnam’s magazines. She earned the Gold Lifesaving Medal and was officially credited with saving at least 18 lives.

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Ida Lewis was known as the “Bravest Woman in America.” The title, bestowed upon her by the Society of the American Cross of Honor, reflected her long, hard life. When her father — the keeper of the Lime Rock station — was disabled by a stroke in 1879, Ida took over. She learned how to run the light, hauling oil up the winding stairs to fuel the beacon, and how to handle a boat by rowing her younger siblings to school.

In 1858, at age 16, she made her first rescue, plucking four sailors out of Newport harbor. Another rescue earned her a congressional medal. Two soldiers, caught on the water during a snowstorm, were seen capsizing. Though sick with a fever, Lewis braved the gale and pulled the pair from the freezing water, rowing them to the lighthouse. The New York Tribune covered the story. President Ulysses S. Grant and Vice President Schuyler Colfax paid their respects with a visit to Newport.

Ida to the Rescue (author unknown) paints the word picture:

But Ida, ready and prompt at need,

Has rescued many before;

Nor heeds the gale as o’er stone and weed

She flies to the rock-bound shore.

Ida Lewis died in 1911. Flags flew at half-mast all over Newport, and more than 1,000 people paid their respects at a public viewing.

May 2015 issue