During the late 1860s, one of the most famous women in America was not a singer or actress or writer—she was a lighthouse keeper.
Idawalley Zorada Lewis, born in 1842, lived with her family on Lime Rock Light in Newport Harbor, Rhode Island. Her father was the official keeper, but due to his ill health, his duties many times fell to his teenage daughter. She was one of thousands of women—wives or daughters of keepers or keepers in their own right—who lived and worked on the lonely and isolated light stations along the coasts. But what made Ida a national celebrity was her indomitable courage in saving the lives of people who had been swept into the sea.
The rescue that brought Ida to national attention happened in March 1869. Sick with a severe cold, Ida raced into freezing waters to help passengers whose boat had capsized. Battling the towering waves, she guided her lifeboat to the struggling soldiers and pulled them aboard. The story of her dramatic and selfless action, along with her portrait, appeared in newspapers and magazines across the country, prompting an outpouring of attention in the form of visits from the rich and famous—everyone from the Astors and Vanderbilts to President Ulysses S. Grant and General William Tecumseh Sherman—and marriage proposals from men all over the country.
Ida Lewis is credited with saving at least 25 lives in the course of her work at Lime Rock. In 1879 she was appointed the light’s official keeper. She joined the ranks of the women—more than 120 strong—known to have been official lighthouse keepers between 1828 and 1905. When Ida passed away, after 50 years of service at the lighthouse, the name of the island that housed Lime Rock Light was changed to Ida Lewis Rock.
The New England Coastal Lighthouses Forever® stamps were released earlier this month. You can find them online, by calling 800-STAMP24 (800-782-6724), and at Post Offices around the country. Have a story about another amazing lighthouse keeper? We’d love to hear it!