by Cantinker Moss
The other day it hit me. It’s March! No, I’m not thinking about the national college basketball tournament known as March Madness, but rather National Women’s History Month. I got to thinking about women who have inspired me, and of course, first on my list is my wife, an RN for almost forty years. What that woman has gone through to care for—or as is rightly implied, nurse the infirm and less fortunate should inspire anyone. And if it were up to me, every nurse in history—from candy-striper (if they still exist) to nurse practitioner—should have people fall at their feet (not to mention receive a hefty pay increase), and then we all should confess what the world would be like without nurses. To put it candidly, and let your imagination drift back to the Civil War, the world would literally be a bloody mess.
But my theme is not about a nurse.
It is about a tiny “slip” of a woman, as one person put it, barely over 5 feet 2 inches tall and weighing in at about 103 pounds. She may have had compassion equal to any nurse, the courage of a Spartan warrior, the strength of a beast of burden, and the eye and resolve of any ship’s captain. Scores of people in and around the harbor of Newport, Rhode Island were indebted to her. As a result, she achieved rock star status for her time, received dozens of marriage proposals and entertained the company of notables such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Gen. William T. Sherman, and President Ulysses S. Grant.
The woman is Ida Lewis, lighthouse keeper at Lime Rock, in Newport Harbor, Rhode Island. Born in 1842, she was barely a teenager when she had to take over lighthouse and rescue duties from her father, Hosea, who had suffered a debilitating stroke. An excellent swimmer, she also mastered the skills needed to turn a rowboat into an effective rescue craft. She rowed everywhere: her siblings to school and back to the island they knew as home; trips into Newport no doubt to acquire supplies because her mother was needed to attend to her invalid father; and of course, when necessary, to conduct a rescue.
It was not unusual for her to attend to victims larger than she was, and not getting the public attention that perhaps she deserved. However, on March 29, 1869, with the help of her younger brother, she rescued two soldiers. These men had hired a young man to row them to and from their destination. The high winds and dangerous seas capsized the boat and drowned the man who rowed. The soldiers might have met the same fate had not their rescuers been prompt, persistent and resourceful. They were brought safely to the lighthouse.
Because these men were part of the military, official reports needed to be filed, and this led to a story about the rescue in the New York Tribune. Though the rescue was extraordinary, Ida was humble enough to chalk it up to “another day’s work.” The visitors began to come to Lime Rock—up to more than ninety a day, and yet Ida consistently kept to her work. She had dozens of suitors and even married. At this point, she left Lime Rock to live on the mainland with her husband, Two years later, though, with the news of her father’s death, she moved back to Lime Rock never to leave again. In 1881, she earned the United States Life-Saving Service Medal, and it is estimated that she may have saved between eighteen and twenty-five lives until 1911 when she, like her father, suffered a fatal stroke of her own.
Though distinguished for her life-saving career, Ida was on Lime Rock for another prominent reason. Her attendance to the lantern in the second floor window of her house, could equally mean safety as any grip of her hand stretched out from her skiff to a drowning victim in the surf. She referred to the lamp as her “child,” and twice a day she maintained the lamp reservoir with oil, trimmed the wick, and cleaned the glass necessary for a full brilliance so mariners could safely navigate into Newport Harbor. In the morning, she would put out the light.
In 1971-75, I was a member of the United States Coast Guard. During the last year of my active service, I was assigned to a light station off the coast of Massachusetts. I knew nothing of Ida Lewis at the time. But as a young twenty-two year old, I confess that I probably knew little of the purpose, which I shared with Ida Lewis. I stayed up all night watching Charlie Chan and Boston Blackie movies, not to mention the early morning news-talk show. I did yard work hoping that the property would not catch fire and plaster our throats with poison ivy residue. We had a dog– part Lab and part Newfoundland who loved to stand at the bow of our Boston Whaler when it was underway. We kept a radio—possibly VHF for communicating with the outside. Our dock was actually a ramp, and it took skill, which our engineer definitely had, to aim the bow full throttle, and pull the outboard engine back lest we tear up the ramp planks as we slid the boat up to the boathouse.
These had nothing to do with Ida Lewis. Well, maybe the boat did, but I never remember rescuing anybody while I was on “my island.”
However, there was the light. We had a foghorn which needed maintenance because we would sustain intense fog in the vicinity, and a boater would be helpless, especially at night without the sound of the horn. I understand that keepers would blow horns (literally) back in the day—horns that you held like a bugle. I don’t know if a horn was ever blown from Lime Rock one hundred and fifty years ago. So Ida and I in a sense are still in separate worlds.
But then there was the light.
I was on a Coast Guard Light Station that at one time used two light towers, going back to the eighteenth century. By the time I got there, only one functioned. But like Ida Lewis, I had to climb stairs to get to the lamp. About one hundred of them. And though I never looked at my light as “my child,” I worked with an attitude somewhere between keeping the C.O. out of my hair, and knowing that a job had to be done. That didn’t mean I was the best cleaner of windows in the tower. But if I did a sufficient piece of work, the view could be breath-taking.
At night, I could go outside and see the light in action. It sent a beam far into the New England night. In fact, it blinked with a distinctive signal for sailors to recognize and consequently sail by peacefully. Never had any shipwrecks when I was there. Ida would have been proud.
Material for this article comes from:
“Ida Lewis Keeper of the Light” by Michelle M. Fortunato, History’s Women, The Unsung Heroines
Newport, Rhode Island, C-Span’s American Cities Tour, on C-Span3, hosts: Ashley Hill, Producer and Marian Gagnon, Documentarian C‑SPAN
Above image courtesy of Library of Congress (Digital ID: (b&w film copy neg.) cph 3b22436 http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b22436)