Ida Lewis and the Keepers of the Light

Ida Lewis and the Keepers of the Light

Shannon Quinn - September 30, 2018

In 1869, a 21-year-old Rhode Island woman named Ida Lewis rowed a boat through a snow storm in the middle of the night. The choppy waves didn’t stop her from pulling drowning sailors out of the black water, and rowing them back to shore. On that day, she became a nationally recognized hero. However, she had already spent her entire life saving people’s lives and being an undercover female “keeper of the light” on Lime Rock Island.

Ida Lewis and the Keepers of the Light
Ida Lewis rowed a boat every single day on and off the island. Credit: Rhode Island Lighthouse History Museum

As a Teen, Ida Lewis Had To Take Her Father’s Job

Ida Lewis’ father was a man named Captain Hosea Lewis. After years of working as a sea captain on a boat, he joined The Lighthouse Service earned the honorable position as a “Keeper of the Light”. Back in the 1800’s, lighthouses had huge glass bulbs made with reflective mirrors. Oil lamps needed to be lit all night. Every few hours, the wick would have to be cut and placed into the oil lamp, and the light would illuminate the rocks at the coast line. This prevented ships from getting too close to the shore and crashing in the middle of the night. The light needed to be illuminated all night, every night, so the nocturnal keeper would have to stay awake. This was an important job with a huge amount of responsibility, because missing even one night of lighting the oil lamps could mean that an entire ship full of men would die.

In 1857, Captain Lewis got a job as a lighthouse keeper, and moved his wife and four children to live on Lime Rock Island off the coast of Rhode Island. This was a small, rocky piece of land with a house sitting on it, and it was only accessible by boat. Ida Lewis was just 15 years old at the time, and she was his oldest child in the family. Shockingly, just four months after moving to the island to start their new life, Captain Lewis had a stroke.

Ida Lewis and the Keepers of the Light
Ida Lewis spent the majority of her life living on Lime Rock Island. Credit:

Captain Lewis became permanently disabled after his stroke. This was years before modern physical therapy, and since they had to row on a boat to leave the island, it wasn’t easy to transport him to a hospital, either. His wife had to tend to his needs full-time as well as take care of her three younger children while Ida took over the duties of the keeper of the light. At just 15 years old, she had to drop out of school and take on the responsibility of people’s lives. She stayed awake all night long and made sure the oil light was always lit, staring out to the sea for any oncoming ships.

Ida Lewis would stay up through the night. At sunrise, her younger siblings would wake up to get ready for school. She rowed a boat with the kids to school, and dropped them off before returning home. She would sleep, and then picked them up when school was over. Over the years of rowing her siblings to school every single day, her arms became very strong.

Before moving to the island, her father taught her how to swim at a very young age. When she was only 12, she saved a group of men who capsized their boat and did not know how to swim. This would not be the last time that Ida Lewis saved lives. As the keeper of the light, she spent the rest of her life rescuing men out at sea.

Ida Lewis and the Keepers of the Light
Illustration of Ida Lewis rowing in a choppy sea. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

As a Young Woman, She Saved Multiple Lives

Even though Ida Lewis did a great job of keeping the lights on every night, there is still always the chance that human error can end in disaster. For years, Ida saved men’s lives without getting very much public recognition for it, until one of her rescues finally made it into the national news.

In the winter of 1877, a small sailboat was carrying two soldiers, Sergeant James Adams and Private John McLaughlin. They were on their way back to the nearby Fort Adams. A 14-year old boy who owned the boat claimed to be experienced in sailing, and he agreed to transport the two soldiers to the fort in the middle of a snow storm. The blizzard was so intense, they ended up crashing into the side of Lime Rock Island.

When the crash happened, Ida Lewis was standing in her home wearing her nightgown with bare feet. She was already sick with a cold, too. But when she saw the crash, she did not hesitate even a moment to get shoes on. She knew that in the freezing water, she had very little time to swim out and rescue three men. After they were rescued, they were brought inside of the house to warm up by the fire and change out of their clothes. Unfortunately, since her immune system was already weak when she jumped in the frozen water, Ida contracted an infection in her nose and throat called diphtheria.

Ida Lewis and the Keepers of the Light
Painting of Ida Lewis saving soldiers in a storm. Credit: The Coast Guard Collection

The soldiers at Fort Adams were all so grateful to this young woman who saved their leaders, that they all gathered money together and gave Ida Lewis $218 and a golden watch as a token of their appreciation. She also got a gold medal for bravery. The money was used to help take care of her medical expenses, and she was able to recover from diptheria.

That same year, her mother spotted a man drowning near the island, and she saved him, as well. It turns out that the lone man was a boat thief, and he was being hasty and reckless, which is why he crashed. A couple years later, she saved two more soldiers from Fort Adams who had attempted to walk across the frozen ice and fell into the water. Again and again, Ida Lewis was proving that she was a hero.

Ida Lewis and the Keepers of the Light
This portrait of Ida Lewis was published in magazines around the country. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Rescue That Made Ida Lewis Famous

The story of her daring rescues were published in several magazines, including Harper’s Weekly, and Life. Celebrities began to visit the island, asking to meet her, since she was now a famous. Even President Ulysses S. Grant stopped by to say hello and shake her hand, thanking her for her bravery. Nearly one hundred people would show up to the island every single day to meet her, because she was like a real-life superhero.

Not only was she brave and strong, but Ida Lewis was genuinely beautiful. Photographs and illustrations of her circulated in the newspapers. She was 21 years old, famous, single, and living on a tiny island without very many options for dating. So it’s really not so surprising that dozens of men showed up with flowers, asking to court her as a potential marriage prospect. Many of them were probably soldiers from the nearby Fort Adams, while others traveled far just to meet her.

Of course, Ida Lewis turned down all of these strange suitors. Someone once commented to her that if she got married, she should keep her maiden name. They knew that if if she changed her name, she would no longer recognized as the famous Ida Lewis. She responded that she has always, and will always do her duty, and that the fame truly doesn’t matter. If she were ever to get married, she would take on his last name.

A yacht captain named William Heard Wilson had been docking his boat near the island for three years. When he heard about Ida Lewis, he wanted to meet her, too. But unlike the rest, he was equally as capable out at sea as she was. They fell in love, but their marriage only lasted for two years, before they separated. She kept his name, and she was “Ida Wilson”. But everyone knew of her story, and the island she lived on became known as the “Ida Lewis Lighthouse”.

When her father died, her mother became the official lighthouse keeper. This became a new custom for widows and wives to take over their husband’s job if they passed away, or if they were called off to war. When her parents died, Ida Lewis became the new keeper of the light. She had more than proven herself worthy of the position, and she lead the way for other women to become new keepers of the light around the United States.

She made $750 per year, which was actually the highest salary for any lighthouse keeper in the country- even men. While it may not seem like a lot today, it was a tremendous amount of money for a woman to make in the 1800’s.

Ida Lewis and the Keepers of the Light
After years of only being accessible by rowboat, they finally added a bridge and a yacht club. Credit: Bing

She continued to keep herself physically fit, and saved drowning people well into her 60’s. Historians estimate that she has saved 23 people that we know of, but there may be even more. She had a stroke, just like her father, and died at 69 years old. During her funeral, all of the boats in the harbor lined up around the island and rang their bells in her honor.

A man named Edward Jansen moved his family from New Jersey to become the new keeper of the light on Lime Rock Island. He had named his own daughter Ida, after Ida Lewis. She also grew up to be a lifeguard, and continued the legacy of saving lives.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter: The Remarkable True Story Of American Heroine Ida Lewis. Lenore Skolman. Rowman & Littlefield. 2010.