In an era when most women were expected to look for a husband, practice their needlepoint, or pursue a womanly career like governess or lady’s maid, Ida Zorada Lewis was swimming, rowing boats, and saving people from drowning in the sea.
Lewis became known for her impressive rowing and swimming skills after her father relocated the family to Lime Rock in 1857 so he could be keeper of the lighthouse. She rowed her siblings back and forth to school on the mainland every day, and it wasn’t long before she was rescuing people who were drowning.
When her father’s health failed when she was a teenager, Lewis began learning how to perform his duties. When he died, his wife briefly became lighthouse keeper. However, her health was failing and the real responsibility fell to Lewis. Upon her mother’s death in 1878, Lewis was given the position.
For a time, she was the highest-paid lighthouse keeper in the United States. The unofficial record of lives Lewis personally saved during her 54 years running the light house may have been as high as 25, but documented records credit her with saving a minimum of 18 lives. She made her last rescue at age 63.
Lewis received numerous medals and awards for her daring rescues, including the Gold Lifesaving Medal from the U.S. Government and a silver medal from the Life Saving Benevolent Association of New York. She also was the first woman to receive the gold Congressional medal for lifesaving. In 1907, industrialist Andrew Carnegie, founder of the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission, added her to his private pension list.
Despite her many accomplishments and fame, Lewis was a woman and was not even allowed to vote. She was visited by many members of the women’s suffrage movement, who used her as an example of women’s inherent strength.
In 1924, Rhode Island officially changed the name of Lime Rock to Ida Lewis Rock and re-christened the lighthouse Ida Lewis Lighthouse. To bypass a longstanding rule that lighthouses shouldn’t be named after anything other than their geographical location, the entire island was named after Lewis so the lighthouse could honor the woman who devoted her life to its service.