Ida Lewis Rock Lighthouse was originally known as Lime Rock Light, due to its location atop Lime Rock about 200 yards offshore of the southern side of Newport Harbor. The first tower on the site was built of stone in 1854 and was serviced by a keeper who rowed to the rock each day, a nearly impossible task at times during the winter months. A one-room shack was constructed on Lime Rock to serve as shelter for the keeper when he was unable to return to shore. In 1855, the Lighthouse Board recommended that a permanent keeper’s dwelling be added to the station, and the following year a two-story Greek Revival-inspired structure built with granite and brick was erected on the Lime Rock. A brick tower built into a corner of the dwelling supported a lantern room that housed a sixth-order Fresnel lens.
The station’s present name comes from its famous female keeper, Idawalley (Ida) Zorada Lewis. Ida’s father Hosea Lewis was named the first keeper at Lime Rock when it opened in 1854. In 1857, he had a crippling stroke, leaving the responsibility of minding the light to his wife. Since Mrs. Lewis was busy taking care of Hosea as well as an invalid daughter Harriet, sixteen-year-old Ida eventually took over all duties at the station, becoming keeper in everything but name.
Besides taking care of the demanding keeper’s chores, Ida Lewis ferried her siblings to shore daily so they could attend school and was responsible for rescuing dozens of people from the frigid and dangerous waters near Lime Rock. Her first rescue was in 1858, when four small boys sailing near Lime Rock capsized their small boat. Ida quickly set off in her rowboat and pulled them out of the water, one at a time, over her boat’s stern. Ida was soon a skilled rower. In fact, her brother used to brag “Ida knows how to handle a boat, she can hold one to windward in a gale better than any man I ever saw wet an oar. Yes and do it too, when the sea is breaking over her!”
A number of those she rescued were soldiers from Fort Adams attempting to return to base after a long evening of liquid refreshment in Newport. On March 29, 1869, Ida’s mother saw a boat capsize in the harbor and called for Ida to rush to their aid. Ida, who was suffering from a cold, sprang from her feet, leaving a cozy fire, and rushed from the dwelling without grabbing a coat. Two soldiers had started from Newport to Fort Adams under the guidance of a small boy, when the craft was swamped in the harbor. The boy perished soon after the vessel capsized, but the soldiers clung to the upset boat until they were rescued by Ida.
Hosea Lewis died in 1872, and even though Ida had been keeper for years, it was the custom to appoint the keeper’s widow as replacement, and Ida’s mother was officially given the position. In 1879, with the help of Senator Ambrose Burnside, Ida Lewis was appointed official keeper at Lime Rock Lighthouse when her mother retired. She remained keeper until 1911, when her brother Rudolph found the seventy-two year old lying on the floor in her bedroom. A doctor was summoned to the station from Newport, but Ida passed away two days later.
In 1927, the light was transferred to a thirty-foot steel tower placed in front of the dwelling and automated. The following year, the 100-foot long, 80-foot wide Ida Lewis Rock was sold at auction for $7,200 to Narragansett Bay Regatta Association. The buildings and grounds were transformed into the Ida Lewis Yacht Club, and a boardwalk was built connecting the mainland to the rock. The steel tower light was switched off for good in 1963. In tribute to America’s best-known lighthouse keeper, the lighthouse that bears her name is lighted as a private aid to navigation during the summer months each year.