Idawalley “Ida” Lewis is considered the most famous person ever to serve in the U.S. Lighthouse Service, an agency that evolved into the U. S. Coast Guard. She was born in Newport on February 25, 1842. When she was eleven years old, her father Hosea was appointed keeper of the Lime Rock Light in Newport harbor. In 1856, Ida became her father’s assistant in running the lighthouse. Three years later, he suffered a stroke that left him partially paralyzed, and Ida assumed most of his duties.
After Hosea’s death in 1872, Ida continued to maintain Lime Rock, but she was not officially appointed light keeper until 1879, becoming the first female to hold such a post. By that time she had gained national fame for several daring rescues and the patronage of U.S. Senator Ambrose Burnside who secured her official appointment.
Ida became an expert handler of boats, and it was said she could row a boat faster than any man in Newport. She was visited by President Ulysses Grant, appeared on the cover of Harper’s Weekly, and had a song composed in her honor. In 55 years at Lime Rock (including 39 years as de facto keeper) Ida was credited with saving 18 lives in the choppy waters off Newport by risking her own. During her lifetime Ida Lewis rose above the bias aimed at women and gained national notoriety for her rescues of ship-wrecked sailors earning the title of “The Bravest Woman In America.”
In October 1911, while on duty, Ida suffered a paralytic stroke similar to the one that had felled her father. She died in her beloved lighthouse on October 24, 1911 at the age of sixty-nine and was laid to rest in Newport’s “common ground” on Farewell Street.