Idawalley Zoradia Lewis was about 12 years old when she saved her first lives at sea.
Ida’s father, Hosea Lewis, was a retired captain who became the keeper at Lime Rock Light in Newport, Rhode Island. Just four months after the family moved to the island in Newport Harbor, Hosea had a stroke. Ida had to help her mother tend the lamp at dusk and midnight to keep approaching sailors safe from The Lime Rocks, a series of limestone ledges about 900 feet from shore. At the time, the harbor was filled with everything from steamships to sailing vessels, what with Newport being a major port and a summer getaway for the wealthy. Amid all that traffic, Ida also had to row her younger siblings to school before bringing provisions back out to the island for the family.
In autumn 1854, young Ida saw four men capsize on a sailboat. By then, her rowing skills were strong. She took the boat out, pulled them into it, and saved what became the first of many lives. Depending on whose records you believe, she ultimately saved anywhere from 18 to 36 souls. Among them were two soldiers trying to row to Fort Adams when their boat capsized in a storm; their fellow soldiers at the fort took up a collection and thanked her with $218—the equivalent of about $7,400 today. In 1881, Ida received the Gold Lifesaving Medal from the U.S. Coast Guard, after she saved two more soldiers who fell through ice.
By then, Ida was the lighthouse keeper herself, with the title having passed after her father’s death to her mother, and then after her mother’s death to her. Ida’s last rescue took place when she was 63 years old. By that time, her efforts in Newport had landed her on the cover of Harper’s Weekly and in other magazines and newspapers, including The New York Tribune. Some called her the bravest woman in America, right up until her death from a stroke while on duty in 1911 at age 69.
Today, the Ida Lewis Yacht Club uses the former Lime Rock Light—now known as Ida Lewis Lighthouse—as its clubhouse. The structure is on the National Register of Historic Places, and the yacht club’s burgee features a blue lighthouse with 18 white stars arranged in a cross, representing the number of lives she officially saved.
This article was originally published in the July 2022 issue.