Ida Lewis: Mother of All Keepers
Here at The Mariners’ Museum and Park, Ida Lewis is no stranger. We’ve blogged, Tweeted, written, and lectured all about our heroine of Lime Rock Light. However, our mission here at the Museum is all about Maritime Connections because we’re all connected by the water. That’s why I chose Ida Lewis. Her acts of heroism are still inspiring women of all ages and created legacies that now bear her name. Out of these legacies have come a personal maritime connection and a story of another young woman with a link to Ida’s legacy. I want to take Ida’s story one step further than all the reasons she had the reputation of being able to “row a boat faster than any man in Newport.” As you can probably tell, I’m excited to share these stories with you just in time for Women’s History Month.
First, I’d be doing you and Ida herself a disservice if I didn’t give you a little background on our brave lightkeeper. Idawalley Zorada (sometimes spelled “Zoradia”) Lewis, the second oldest of four children and eldest daughter of Captain Hosea Lewis. Capt. Lewis became keeper of Lime Rock Light at Newport, Rhode Island, in 1854 when Ida was 12-years-old.
Sadly, in October 1857, he suffered a severe stroke and became unable to continue his duties as lightkeeper. It was then that Ida’s mother, also named Idawalley Zorada Lewis, became the official keeper. Mrs. Lewis maintained the light itself, keeping it trimmed and fed with oil. At age 15, young Ida picked up her oars and took to the sea. She took on the responsibilities of retrieving the family’s supplies from town and fetching her little sister and brothers from school. Rowing in sun and storm, wind and rain, she took to it naturally. Surprisingly, before moving to Lime Rock, she had no boating experience whatsoever.
As keepers of the lighthouse, Ida and her mother would see boaters out at sea, and Ida would row out her boat to save these souls. She made her first rescue of 4 young men at just 16-years-old when their sailboat overturned in the fall of 1858. There are 18 confirmed rescues credited to Ida, but the actual number could be as high as 36. She made her last rescue at the age of 63 and was the keeper of Lime Rock Light until she passed away after a stroke in 1911 at the age of 69.
Sister to Sheep Savior
Some rescues were what one might call “unique.” On Ida’s third rescue one January morning in 1867, three men were driving a valuable sheep when it got away from them and plunged headlong into the waters. The men jumped in Ida’s brother’s new skiff in an attempt to catch the animal, but they were quickly swept up in the tides as well. Ida saw them from the window, rescued the men, then went back for the sheep.
Honors and Awards
All her publicity and fame fell upon her after her fifth rescue in March 1869. Many local and national newspapers picked up on her story, and she became quite the star! After rescuing two soldiers stationed at nearby Fort Adams Army Post, the Humane Society of Massachusetts, and the New York Life-Saving Benevolent Association each awarded silver medals to Ida for her selflessness and heroism. Then, on July 4, 1869, her fellow townspeople of Newport also bestowed upon her a beautiful blue, oak surf-boat, christened the Rescue.
She went on to be awarded the United States Life Saving Medal of the First Class on July 16, 1881, by Secretary of the Treasury, William Windom, for saving two men from drowning on February 4, 1881. Until 2019, she was the only woman to have ever received that tribute.
In 1879, Mrs. Lewis gave the official appointment as lightkeeper to Ida to care for Ida’s sick younger sister. Ida went on to save many more lives in her 32 additional years as keeper of Lime Rock. Her name has since gone on to leave legacies associated with rescue and life-saving assistance.
Ida Lewis Rock and Lighthouse
One of these legacies, formerly Lime Rock, the Rhode Island Legislature, officially renamed Ida Lewis Rock in 1924. Then the U.S. Lighthouse Service (a government bureau that became part of the U.S. Coast Guard in 1939) renamed the lighthouse “Ida Lewis Rock Lighthouse.” It’s still the only such honor ever given to any lighthouse keeper. The white Greek Revival house still stands with a few modern additions that now functions as the Ida Lewis Yachtclub. The yacht club’s burgee (pennant flag used in recreational boating) is that of a lighthouse surrounded by eighteen stars to pay homage to Ida Lewis for the eighteen lives she saved.
US Coast Guard Cutter Ida Lewis
Yet another legacy would be the Coast Guard Cutter Ida Lewis. A 175-foot “Keeper Class” coastal buoy tender, commissioned April 12, 1997. She was the first of 14 ships of her class named in honor of famous lighthouse keepers from the U.S. Lighthouse Service. Homeported in Newport, Rhode Island, as an homage to Ida Lewis herself, its area of responsibility spans from Long Island Sound, New York, to Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Her crew’s primary mission is the buoys for aiding navigation, conducting search and rescue operations, domestic icebreaking, port, waterway, and coastal security. She does it all!
Connected by the Water
I didn’t choose Ida Lewis by accident. In June 2010, straight out of Coast Guard basic training, at 20-years-old, a fresh new Coastie named Victoria receives orders aboard the US Coast Guard Cutter Ida Lewis. But what’s the connection between this Coastguardsman and myself? She happens to be my younger sister! Serving on the USCGC Ida Lewis until September 2011, she left to finally go to “A” School just down the road in Yorktown, VA, where she earned her rate as an MK (Machinery Technician). While on the Ida Lewis, Victoria worked on deck, maintaining and replacing the buoys and other navigational aids.
Certainly, the Cutter and her crew have lived up to her namesake. When they were on their way to Baltimore, MD, from Rhode Island to go into drydock, they received a distress call of a boat taking on water. The Ida Lewis was the closest boat and responded. The MKs (Machinery Technicians) boarded the vessel from their small boat and temporarily patched the leak. They towed them astern (towed behind) through the night to the closest port, where Victoria stood the tow watch.
For two weeks in March 2011, they veered from normal operations when icebreakers in New York needed support. They assisted with ice-breaking to keep the waterways open and clear for barges to transport goods and supplies. Those are but a few examples during Victoria’s time aboard the IDA LEWIS when the Cutter and her Coastguardsmen quietly served and protected the United States’ Northeast waters.
Maritime Moments Continue
In April 2014, Victoria left the Coast Guard, but her maritime connection didn’t end there. A few months later, she began an apprenticeship program at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard, where she’ll be a journeyman Outside Marine Machinist upon completion! As it so happens, the Norfolk Naval Shipyard is where USS Merrimack’s resurrection occurred, re-christening it the CSS Virginia by the Confederacy. This ship gained its fame when it sank in the Civil War ironclad Battle of Hampton Roads against none other than the USS Monitor. Now, you can find the turret and artifacts from the Monitor at The Mariners’ Museum in the USS Monitor Center!
Two sisters took this photo aboard the USCGC IDA LEWIS. Now, ten and a half years later, one of them happens to work as a photographer in a maritime museum. Its mission to connect people to the world’s waters. The association between Ida Lewis, her legacies named for her, my sister on her namesake vessel, and my job at a maritime museum to tell photographic stories about maritime connections is so exciting! The nerd in me HAD to share this neat story! Our mission here at the Mariners’ Museum and Park is to show others that through our shared maritime heritage, through the water, we’re all connected. Although, sometimes you just can’t help but become swept up in the discoveries too!
I believe Ida Lewis would be proud of Victoria and her fellow maritime guardians. They carry within them attributes that everyone today, especially women and girls, can strive to be. As they both show that women can do non-traditional female jobs and be successful. Even Ida herself seemed to live up to the Coast Guard motto – Semper Paratus, “Always Ready.”
Lighthouse Women Continued
By the way, if you’d like to learn more about the lives of heroic lighthouse women, then I think you’ll be interested in one of the Museum’s upcoming virtual evening lectures on April 8th. Author, Shona Riddell, will be telling fascinating stories about these incredible keepers, past and present, near and far. The program is totally FREE! And you can get more info and register here! Hope to “see” you there! 😉