Digest>Archives> February 2000

Autographed Photo of Heroine Donated

By Timothy Harrison


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This photograph of Ida Lewis, autographed on the ...

A rare autographed photograph of Ida Lewis, one of America's most famous lighthouse heroines has been donated to the American Lighthouse Foundation.

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This beacon at the Ida Lewis Yacht Club, formerly ...
Photo by: Timothy Harrison

Ida Lewis was born in 1841, the second of four children of Capt. Hosea Lewis. Capt. Lewis became keeper of Rhode Island's Lime Rock Lighthouse in the early 1850's. At that time, Lime Rock was merely a collection of boulders with a small shed on it that served as the lighthouse. Capt. Lewis would row out to the lighthouse twice a day to light and extinguish the light.

In the mid-1850's a house was built on Lime Rock and the family moved into the station. Shortly thereafter Capt. Lewis suffered a stroke and was unable to preform his duties. His wife and daughter took over the duties and eventually daughter Ida was officially appointed keeper of the light in 1887.

Her feats of amazing rescues started when she was only 17 when she rescued four young boys whose boat had capsized in Newport Harbor. Many times she would row out, sometimes in freezing weather, intense waves and powerful winds to make her daring rescues.

In 1869, the residents of Newport presented her with the gift of a boat named Rescue. That same year she became the first woman to receive the gold Congressional medal for lifesaving. Shortly thereafter she married William H. Wilson and went to Connecticut with him. Apparently she felt an immense attachment to the lighthouse and a couple of months into the marriage, she left her husband and returned as the Keeper of the Lime Rock Lighthouse to continue preforming her extraordinary rescues.

The sometimes exaggerated but mostly true reports of her rescues were reported in newspaper stories and magazines around the world and she was called the Grace Darling of America, (referring to England's famous lighthouse heroine as you read about in last month's issue of Lighthouse Digest.)

An 1870 story in the Boston Journal estimated that over 10,000 people went to the lighthouse that summer alone to meet the famous heroine. Among her famous guests were Civil War hero President Ulysses S. Grant, Vice President Schuyler Colfax, Susan B. Anthony, and Mrs. William Astor.

When she died in October 1911 flags were flown at half staff and nearly 1,500 people attended her funeral.

Ida's brother Rudolph who had helped her maintain the lighthouse for 25 years assumed the position of temporary keeper. However, much to the publics dismay, the government for reasons unknown did not appoint him the new keeper. Soon after her death Rudolph Lewis turned the keys of the lighthouse over to Edward (Evart) Jansen who had been transferred from the Sandy Hook Lighthouse. As a tribute to Ida Lewis, Keeper Jansen and his wife named their daughter, the first child to ever be born at the lighthouse, Ida Lewis Jansen. Interestingly enough one of Ida's nieces, Ida Lewis David, was also named after her.

Several years before Ida's death, Andrew Carnegie, one of the wealthiest men in the world at that time, became concerned about Ida's future and how she would support herself in old age. He set up a bank account to assure that she would have money in her retirement years. When Carnegie found out that Ida's brother was not allowed to replace her as keeper of the light, the money in the fund was given to him.

As well as the gold Lifesaving medal, Ida received a number of other awards in her lifetime, all of which were donated by her brother to the Newport Historical Society.

In the early 1920's, by Congressional order, the name of Lime Rock Lighthouse was changed to Ida Lewis Rock Lighthouse. Unfortunately, the light became obsolete and was discontinued in 1927. The property which is now joined to the mainland by a causeway is owned by the Ida Lewis Yacht Club which maintains a beacon as a private aid to navigation in her memory.

Ida Lewis is buried at the Common Ground Cemetery in Newport, RI. Her gravestone is inscribed with the words, "The Grace Darling of America, Keeper of Lime Rock Lighthouse, Newport Harbor."

This story appeared in the February 2000 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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