Coast Guard Heroes: Keeper Ida Lewis

Written by Petty Officer 2nd Class Diana Honings

Ida Lewis

The U.S. Lighthouse Service was established in 1716 until it consolidated with the U.S. Coast Guard in 1939. Throughout the years, thousands of lighthouse keepers had to shoulder the responsibility of what is now known as Aids to Navigation to keep the waters safe for mariners. Of those thousands of lighthouse keepers, if you were to ask any member of the Coast Guard who the most famous lighthouse keeper was, you’d most likely get the name Ida Lewis.

Ida Lewis

Ida Lewis

Lewis was a famed lighthouse keeper and is credited with saving 18 lives. She was born Feb. 25, 1842, and began helping her parents tend the Lime Rock Light in Rhode Island when she was 15 years old.

Living on the tiny island wasn’t easy as Lewis had to care for her invalid father and sister as well as row her siblings to school every week day as well as fetch needed supplies from town. She became very skillful in handling the small boat and its oars and was reputed to be the best swimmer in all Newport.

In 1879, Lewis officially received an appointment and salary of $500 a year to run the lighthouse, which she continued to do at Lime Rock until her death in 1911. In February 1881, two soldiers belonging to the garrison of Fort Adams near Newport, Rhode Island were crossing on foot between the fort and Lime Rock when they suddenly fell through weak ice. Lewis ran to them with rope and hauled one man out before her brother came to her aid to help her save the second. At the imminent risk of Lewis’s life, she was awarded the Gold Lifesaving Medal.

Ida Lewis

Ida Lewis

Her last recorded rescue occurred when she was 63 when one of Lewis’s friends lost her balance and fell overboard. Lewis launched a small boat and hauled her friend aboard.

Lewis was featured in the New York Tribune, Harper’s Weekly, Leslie’s magazine, Putnam Magazine, and also met President Ulysses S. Grant and Vice President Schuyler Colfax. At 64, she became a life beneficiary of the Carnegie Hero Fund.

Lewis died of a stroke Oct. 24, 1911. In 1924 the Rhode Island legislature officially changed the name of Lime Rock to Ida Lewis Rock and in 1995, a new class of Coast Guard buoy tenders, 175-foot Keeper Class Coastal Class Buoy Tenders, were named for different lighthouse keepers starting with Ida Lewis.

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