Here is a book that should be drenched by the heavy waves of the sea in a
storm, but it 's dry as dust. A story full of novelistic potential that has
been offered up like a newspaper account. Just the facts.
The facts are these: Ida Lewis (born with the marvelous moniker Idawalley
Zoradia Lewis) was a lighthouse keeper in Newport, Rhode Island. She
received a medal by act of Congress for her heroic rescue of two soldiers
whom she pulled off a cracking ice floe. This was but one of many
recognitions Ida tucked away, modestly, along with a medal from the Life
Saving Benevolent Association of New York, a gold watch, lace white
stockings from the Chicago White Sox, a silver teapot, and innumerable
smaller gifts and remembrances from a grateful populace. She even received
a rowboat. In addition, she was, probably, the first formally appointed
female lighthouse keeper in the United States, and was paid at the time
higher than any other person with the same job. She met President Grant and
General Sherman among many notaries who wanted to shake her hand. She
became a buddy of Admiral Dewey for whom she named one of her beloved cocker
spaniels. Andrew Carnegie gave her a private pension when no government
resource was forthcoming. The lighthouse and its little island were bought
and preserved by the Ida Lewis Yacht Club, and a Coast Guard buoy tender is
named for her.
Ida banked the pension and left it all in her will to her brother Rudolph.
She did not display her awards, and sadly, did not keep a diary. She wasn't
that kind of woman.
Lamentably the photos in this small book are fuzzy, but one rather close shot
shows a young woman with a strong face not lacking in humor, clear eyes and
unruly curls. We are assured that Ida was a small person, weighing but 103
pounds, but was touted the best swimmer in Newport by the time she was fourteen
years old, and was known to be able to row as well as any man. When her
father was invalided and her mother had sole care of him and her ailing
sister, it was left to Ida at an early age to effect the rescues which were
to bring her fame. As one rescued soul recounted, "When I saw the boat
approaching and a woman rowing, I thought, she's only a woman and she will
never reach us. But I soon changed my mind."
Ida 's hand was sought in marriage by Schuyler Colfax, Grant's
Vice-President, possibly on the strength of her heroism. She had had music
named for her and been asked to go on the road as a vaudeville performer.
The offer of matrimony, one of many, was refused, as Ida had agreed to be
engaged to a local man. The marriage was a complete failure, ending after
only a few months. This intriguing fact could be explored at length.
Certainly Ida was the darling (some would say the "Grace Darling," after her
English counterpart) of the feminists of the day.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B, Anthony took it upon themselves to visit
her on the little island of Lime Rock where she lived and died and tended
from early adolescence the light which guided mariners into and out of the
harbor. Stanton and Anthony concluded succinctly that "Ida Lewis is a girl
of rare common sense and self respect." And "Ida later expressed her
exasperation regarding the meeting, commenting that she would rather have
conducted another rescue than a visit with Anthony and her companion."
Another mysterious tidbit that could have breathed greater life into the
biography of this fascinating woman.
Lenore Skomal's The Keeper of Lime Rock provides only the basics. A lot of research went into its
making, and it cries for someone to render the story more cinematic. As it is,
the book was nearly 100 years late in commemorating the boldness and
persistence of this heroine of the shore. Regarding her daily, nay hourly,
care of the lighthouse flame as her greatest service, far more important
than the many rescues attributed to her, Ida stated plainly, "There are
hundreds of boats going in and out of this harbor. It's part of my
happiness to know that they are depending on me to guide them safely."