Abbie Burgess Grant was a well-known, romantic figure in her day, but Ida Lewis may have been the most famous of the lighthouse daughters.
Idawalley (Ida) Zorada Lewis’s father was appointed keeper of the beacon on Lime Rock in 1853, but he did not move his family there until 1857, after the government constructed a dwelling on the tiny island. The oldest of four children, Ida was 15 when they moved to the lighthouse.
Four months later, Ida’s father had a paralyzing stroke. Between them, Ida and her mother managed both the lighthouse and a household that included Ida’s paralyzed father and an invalid sister. Because of these responsibilities, Ida did not have time to attend school. She did play an important role in her siblings’ education, however.
The lighthouse was surrounded by water. The only way to make the one-third mile trip to shore was by boat. Ida was already an excellent swimmer, and she now became an excellent rower as she ferried her siblings to and from school. She also picked up supplies when needed.
A newspaper article credited Ida’s father with this quote:
Again and again I have seen the children from this window as they were returning from school in some heavy blow, when Ida alone was with them, and old sailor that I am, I felt that I would not give a penny for their lives, so furious was the storm.
But Ida always got them home safely.
Ida’s rowing and swimming skills were to make her famous. She is officially credited with saving 18 lives, but she kept no records and the actual count is probably much higher.
The first recorded rescue occurred in 1858, when Ida was sixteen. Four boys went out for a sail, and one of them decided to show off by climbing to the top of the mast and rocking the boat back and forth. The boat capsized, and the four youths struggled to hold on to the overturned boat. Ida rowed over and pulled each of the four into her own boat.
Several of Ida’s rescues occurred when soldiers were returning to Fort Adams after a night of too much drinking. It strained the wiry Ida to pull these uncooperative men into her boat, but she never thought twice before helping them.
At one of those times, Ida was sick with a cold and was warming her feet at the fire when her mother cried out that a boat had overturned. Ida ran to the soldiers’ aid without taking time to put on a coat or shoes. With the help of a younger brother, she pulled two men into her boat in the middle of a snowstorm. She later received a Congressional medal for this rescue.
Because the lighthouse was so close to shore, and with Ida’s growing fame as a rescuer, tourists swarmed over the tiny island, interrupting the family's solitude and leaving litter and destruction everywhere. Ida also had some famous visitors, including President Ulysses S. Grant.
After a four-year engagement to William Wilson, Ida married him in 1870 and quickly regretted it. Although she never got a divorce, she soon returned—alone—to Lime Rock.
Ida and her mother continued to keep the Lime Rock Light for Ida’s father until his death in 1872, when Ida’s mother became the official keeper. Ida received the appointment in 1879 and continued it until her death in 1911.
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For more information on Ida Lewis and Lime Rock Light Station, see pages 42-48 of Mind the Light, Katie and/or check out the following websites:
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The illustration shows Ida Lewis on the cover of the July 31, 1869 issue of Harper’s Weekly.