Ida Wilson Lewis, lighthouse keeper and fearless Federal worker

Today’s post comes from Ashley Mattingly, who is an archivist at the National Archives at St. Louis, where she manages the collection of archival civilian personnel records.

The most well-known lighthouse keeper in the world was an American woman who was a Federal civil servant. Ida Wilson Lewis, lighthouse keeper of Rhode Island, saved somewhere between 13 and 25 lives, including men stationed at Fort Adams and a sheep.

Ida Wilson Lewis was born Idawally Zorada Lewis in 1842. In 1870, she married Capt. William Wilson. Although they separated two years later, Ida used “Wilson” as her middle name for the rest of her life.

Photograph of Ida Wilson Lewis, from her official personnel folder. The image is from "New Idea Woman's Magazine," vol. XXI, January 1910. The magazine captioned the image "As Miss Lewis looked in 1869."
Photograph of Ida Wilson Lewis, from her official personnel folder. The image is from New Idea Woman’s Magazine, vol. 21, January 1910. The magazine captioned the image “As Miss Lewis looked in 1869.”

In 1853, Ida’s father, Capt. Hosea Lewis, was appointed the first lighthouse keeper at Lime Rock, an island in Newport Harbor. A few months after his appointment, Captain Lewis was stricken by a paralytic stroke. As a result, his wife, Zorada, and Ida carried out the lighthouse duties in addition to their everyday household chores.

Performing numerous lighthouse and domestic duties groomed Ida for an appointment as the official lighthouse keeper of Lime Rock in 1879 and sent her down the path to becoming a renowned rescuer. Ida was an expert oarswoman and had developed exceptional boat-maneuvering skills from making countless trips back and forth between the island and the mainland to transport supplies and her four siblings.

Ida’s first rescue occurred in 1854. The 12-year-old girl came to the aid of four men who had capsized a small sailboat. But it was the 1869 rescue of Sergeant Adams and Private McLaughlin of Fort Adams that made her famous. Because Ida (a woman) saved two men from drowning in the midst of a squall, she was deemed the “Grace Darling of America,” after Grace Darling, a famed English lighthouse keeper’s daughter who helped save several people from a 1838 shipwreck.

For her bravery, Ida was awarded a silver medal from the Life-Saving Benevolent Association of New York and presented with a new boat by the citizens of Newport. She was featured on the cover of Harper’s Weekly magazine (the only lighthouse keeper ever to receive such a distinction).

Throughout her life, Ida received numerous other awards, including the Gold Lifesaving Medal (awarded to an individual who attempts rescue at the peril of his or her own life) and the congressionally awarded American Cross of Honor.

Ida Wilson Lewis’s career ended only when she died at the Lime Rock Light Station on October 24, 1911, at the age of 69. In 1924 the Rhode Island legislature renamed Lime Rock as the Ida Lewis Rock. The Lighthouse Service then officially changed the light station’s name to the Ida Lewis Lighthouse, the only time a lighthouse has been renamed for a keeper. The lighthouse was converted to a yacht club in 1928 and is still known as the Ida Lewis Yacht Club.

Many of Ida Wilson Lewis’s personal items, including her Gold Lifesaving Medal, were bequeathed to the Newport Historical Society following her death.

As for that sheep she saved? In 1877, a sheep jumped from the wharf during a gale. Three men attempted to rescue the sheep, but when their boat met with trouble, Ida rescued all four.

The official personnel folder documenting Ida Wilson Lewis’s remarkable Federal service—including the rescue of the sheep!—is open to the public.

Visit to learn more about requesting this and other official personnel folders of former civil servants.

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