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It wasn’t until perhaps my fourth or fifth visit to the littlest state of Rhode Island that I spotted the unassuming lighthouse nestled on a tiny island of its own in Newport’s harbor. Usually the title “lighthouse keeper” conjures images of men in beards wearing stiff blue coats, so I was absolutely delighted to learn that Rhode Island’s most famous lighthouse keeper was Idawalley Zorada Lewis. Declared “America’s Bravest Woman” before her tenure was through, Ida had been hailed as Newport’s best swimmer and one of its strongest rowers ever since taking over for her ill father as as guardian of the harbor. She made her first save at twelve and didn’t stop until the age of sixty-three.
There are no definitive records of Ida’s rescues and she was too modest to recount them herself, though some were documented in local newspapers and at least one garnered national attention; in February of 1881 she ventured into the bitter winter winds to rescue two soldiers who had fallen through the ice while traveling on foot. This act of bravery caught the attention of President Grant who shortly thereafter awarded her the prestigious Gold Lifesaving Medal. Eleven years after her death, the Rhode Island legislature voted to rename her former home, Lime Rock Lighthouse, as Ida Lewis Lighthouse in her honor.
It’s important to remember that being a lighthouse keeper required unwavering courage, sheer physical strength, constant diligence, and a willingness to put one’s own life on the line. Ida was so dedicated that supposedly she would rush into inclement weather without shoes or coat so as not a waste a single second. Her life and legacy were not only an honor to research and illustrate, but truly a source of inspiration.
Happy 175th birthday, Ida Lewis!
Lydia Nichols, Doodle Artist