Keeper of the Light
By Michelle M. Fortunato
“Help! Please help us! Over here!”Fifteen-year-old Ida Lewis expertly guided her heavy wooden rowboat across the harbor toward the young men clinging to a capsized vessel. Her white shawl, tied loosely about her neck, fluttered in the brisk autumn breeze.
“Take hold of my hand!” ordered the slender, blue-eyed teen to the four shivering youths. She pulled each of them over the stern and into her boat, then safely returned them to the mainland.
The year was 1858. Ida and her family had moved to the lighthouse on Lime Rock, a tiny island in Newport Harbor in Rhode Island, less than a year before. Several months after the move, her father, Captain Hosea Lewis, had suffered a paralyzing stroke. The teenage Ida had taken over her disabled father’s duties as lighthouse keeper.
Each day, regardless of weather conditions, Ida rowed her three siblings about one third of a mile to school on the mainland. She returned later to row them back home. The brown-haired girl, who was also an expert swimmer, had learned valuable rowing skills. In the 1800s, people considered this to be unfeminine and highly unusual.
There was no time for Ida to continue her own education. In addition to household duties and helping her mother take care of her father, she kept watch of the harbor and tended the lighthouse lantern. The lantern was located on the second floor of the house. A door led to an elevated “closet” containing a narrow, slightly protruding window with glass on three sides. This window held the lantern. Each day at dusk and again at midnight, Ida filled the lamp with oil, trimmed the wick, and polished the reflectors to remove the carbon that had built up. At dawn, she extinguished the light.
Thanks to Ida’s efforts, the light in the window served its purpose: guiding boats safely through the harbor in the darkness.
“I firmly believe, sir, that God would frown upon your drunken condition!” Ida scolded an intoxicated man, who was struggling to keep his head above water. In 1866, she brought him and two others to shore after their small boat overturned.
In 1867, at age 25, the young woman rescued three Irish herders and their prized sheep. Later that year, she saved a man stranded on a rock.
None of these courageous acts attracted much attention. Then, on a blustery March 29, 1869…
“Climb into the rowboat, Hosea!” a barefooted and coatless Ida shouted to her younger brother. “The men’s sailboat has capsized!”
“ ’Tis useless, Ida; we will not reach them!” Hosea cried out moments later as the two battled raw, gale-force winds.
“We must try!” Ida yelled through chattering teeth. Her rain-soaked hair whipped across her reddened cheeks.
Waves crashed over the bow as the pair struggled to reach the two soldiers. A lashing wind tossed the rowboat from side to side.
“Row, Hosea, row!” screamed Ida.
Finally coming upon the shivering soldiers, the sister and brother stretched overboard and fought for some time to free the panicky men from the water’s icy grip. At last they were safely aboard, heading back to the lighthouse.
Upon hearing of the daring rescue, a reporter wrote about the incident for the New York Tribune newspaper. Visitors from across the country flocked to Lime Rock to meet Ida – sometimes as many as 100 in one day. Even President Ulysses S. Grant paid her a visit!
During a July 4 celebration later that year, the people of Newport presented their heroine with a special gift – a custom-built, mahogany rowboat called the Rescue. The seat cushions inside were covered in red velvet.
Between 1877 and 1881, Ida saved five more lives. In 1881, the United States Life-Saving Service awarded her its highest medal.
Ida’s last rescue occurred when she was 64 years old. A friend rowing out to visit her at the lighthouse stood up in the boat, lost her balance, and tumbled into the water. Ida expertly rowed to the rescue.
Noticing her friend’s astonished expression, Ida said, “God always gives me the strength to help others in need.”
Ida died five years later, on October 24, 1911, at Lime Rock Lighthouse. Later that night, bells were rung in her memory on every boat anchored in the harbor.
During the years she lived on Lime Rock, this fearless woman was credited with saving the lives of at least 18 people, possibly as many as 25.
In 1924, the lighthouse service changed the name of the Lime Rock Lighthouse to the Ida Lewis Lighthouse. No other lighthouse keeper, male or female, has ever been honored in this way.
The Ida Lewis Lighthouse (now the Ida Lewis Yacht Club) still stands today. It remains a memorial to one of the bravest women in maritime history – a woman who trusted God for courage and strength in moments of crisis.
Michelle M. Fortunato is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in GUIDE, The Family Digest, and My Walk With Jesus, as well as in The New American Poetry Anthology. She and her husband reside in Connecticut; they have two daughters and a brand new son-in-law.