Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2012-12-16.
About 300 yards offshore in Newport Harbor is a grouping of limestone rocks that pose a navigational hazard to movement within the harbor. With the increased traffic in and out of harbor in the 1800s, the Lighthouse Board determined that a lighthouse would prove advantageous.
On March 3, 1853, an act of Congress appropriated $1,000 for a lighthouse on Lime Rock in Newport's inner harbor. The following year, a small square tower was built on the largest of the rocks in the harbor and outfitted with a sixth-order Fresnel lens. The station's first keeper was Hosea Lewis, being appointed on November 15, 1853.
Keeper Lewis lived with his family in town and was required to row out to the lighthouse each night. As occasional strong storms would make reaching or leaving the lighthouse difficult and sometimes impossible, a small one-room structure was provided for the keeper.
Realizing the difficult position that Keeper Lewis was sometimes to face, the Lighthouse Board put forth a measure in 1855 asking for $1,500 which would provide a dwelling on-site at Lime Rock and a foot bridge to provide safe passage to the structure. Congress agreed and appropriated the funds on August 18, 1856.
The structure was completed in June of 1857. Keeper Lewis, along with his wife Idawalley Zoradia Lewis and their daughter, also named Idawalley "Ida" Zoradia Lewis, moved in. The two-story brick structure topped with a hip-roof was connected to the original granite tower built in 1853. Illumination was still provided by a sixth-order Fresnel lens.
Several months later, Keeper Lewis suffered a debilitating stroke that would leave him mostly paralyzed and unable to handle the duties of lighthouse keeper. As his wife would be kept busy tending to his needs, almost all other duties would fall on their teenage daughter, Ida. These duties included tending the light as well as rowing her younger siblings to shore every day to attend school.
Ida's first rescue took place in the fall of 1858 when she was only sixteen years old. Four boys were sailing in the harbor when their boat capsized. As the boys were struggling to stay afloat, Ida launched her boat, rowed out to them, and yanked each one out of the water.
Over the years, Ida was attributed to saving many lives; however, the one that made her famous occurred on March 29, 1869. Two soldiers were on their way to Fort Adams under the guidance of a fourteen year old boy, when their boat overturned in the tumultuous harbor. Ida's mother saw the event unfold, and called to Ida who was under the weather.
Ida, without putting on shoes or a coat, ran to and quickly launched her boat. The two soldiers were quickly rescued with the help of her brother, however, the boy was never found. One of the men later returned to the lighthouse and presented Ida with a gold watch. Her deed was recorded in The New York Tribune, Harper's Weekly, and many other popular magazines of the day. A parade was held in her honor that Independence Day, and the residents of Newport presented her with a mahogany rowboat named Rescue. That same year, President Ulysses S. Grant came to Lime Rock to meet Ida Lewis.
Ida Lewis married William H. Wilson of Connecticut in 1870. Although she returned to Connecticut with him, she stayed only briefly having been very unhappy. Soon after, she returned to Lime Rock having been separated from Wilson.
Her father, Hosea Lewis, passed away in 1872. At that point, Lewis's wife was appointed as the keeper of Lime Rock; however, the duties still largely fell on Ida.
Lime Rock (Ida Lewis) Lighthouse (Courtesy Coast Guard)
Ida's mother became ill in 1877, and by 1879, Ida was appointed keeper of Lime Rock Lighthouse. Her salary was $750 a year, making her the highest paid lighthouse keeper in the nation. Additional pay was given "in consideration of the remarkable services of Mrs. Wilson in the saving of lives."
Ida Lewis would again rescue several soldiers from Fort Adams on February 4, 1881. The two soldiers were walking across the ice of Newport Harbor when the ice let go and they fell through. Ida ran across the ice, and used a clothesline to pull them out. For her effort, she would become the first female recipient to receive a gold Congressional medal for lifesaving.
She would receive other awards and medals over the years. In 1906, Ida was awarded a pension of $30 a month from steel magnate Andrew Carnegie. Another gold medal would also be bestowed upon her later that year from the American Cross of Honor.
Ida Lewis would service the lighthouse for the last time in October of 1911. Shortly after extinguishing the light one morning, she became ill. After several days in bed, she passed away on October 25, 1911 at the age of 69. That night, flags in Newport were at half-staff, and all the vessels in the harbor tolled their bells.
The Reports of the Department of Commerce and Labor for the year 1912 had and entry that told of her legacy:
On October 24, 1911, Mrs. Ida Wilson Lewis, keeper of the Lime Rock Light Station, R.I., died at her station, aged 69 years. She resided at the station from the age of 12, and succeeded her mother (who had previously succeeded her father) as keeper in 1879. She was perhaps the most widely known lighthouse keeper in the United States, having saved at least 13 persons from drowning on different occasions, for which she was presented with medals and other tokens.
Edward Jansen would transfer from the Sandy Hook Lighthouse and accept the keeper position at the Lime Rock Lighthouse after Ida Lewis's passing. Shortly after moving in, Jansen's wife gave birth to a baby girl at the lighthouse on December 7, 1911. The couple chose to name the baby Ida Lewis Jansen.
The state legislature of Rhode Island voted to change the name of the Lime Point Lighthouse to Ida Lewis Rock in 1924. This is the only lighthouse in the United States to ever be renamed in honor of a keeper. Edward Jansen would continue to serve as keeper until the site was automated in 1927. At that time, the light was transferred to a skeletal tower that was erected next to the old two-story dwelling. Keeper Jansen was then transferred to the Borden Flats Lighthouse in Massachusetts.
Sold off in 1928 for a sum of $7,200, the buildings of the Ida Lewis Rock were purchased by the Narragansett Bay Regatta Association with the exception of the skeletal tower and light which were still in use. The group soon organized themselves under the name Ida Lewis Yacht Club to pay honor of the past keeper.
The skeletal tower was deactivated in 1963 and the skeletal tower was torn down.
Directions: The lighthouse is part of the private Ida Lewis Yacht Club. The best view is from the water. Rhode Island Bay Cruises offers a 10 lighthouse cruise that passes by the lighthouse. A decent view is possible from a pier located on Wellington Avenue just south of Newport.
Access: Grounds and tower closed to the public.View more Ida Lewis (Lime Rock) Lighthouse pictures