In her day, she was the heroine of the Lime Rock Lighthouse, the intrepid young woman who by herself rowed into the stormy waters of Newport harbor in Rhode Island to rescue mariners in distress.
She was Ida Lewis, the shy daughter of a disabled sea captain. And after bold rescues in the late 1800s, she was front page news. She was given awards. VIPs clamored to see her. A polka, “The Ocean Waves Dashed Wildly High,” was written in her honor, and the sheet music bore her image.
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But since she died in 1911, her deeds have been largely forgotten.
As Arlington National Cemetery opens its new $81.7 million section with solemn fanfare on Thursday, she will become the first woman to have one of the cemetery’s drives named for her.
“It’s a big deal,” Karen Durham-Aguilera, executive director of Army National Military Cemeteries, said this week. “It’s a huge commemoration.”
In its 154-year history, all of the more than 40 roadways have been named after men — such as Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and Ulysses S. Grant, and Gens. George Patton and John Pershing, the cemetery said.
The cemetery’s new 27-acre section, the first geographic expansion in 40 years, was designed with two new drives.
“A few years ago we went out and had the senior enlisted advisers . . . of each branch of the armed services basically nominate” a candidate, Durham-Aguilera said. “Then it was looked at by an advisory committee. . . . Then the secretary of the Army approved them.”
The names of Lewis and 34-year-old Marine Gunnery Sgt. Jonathan W. Gifford, who was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross for heroism after he was killed in Afghanistan in 2012, were chosen. Gifford is the first Marine to be honored with a street name at the cemetery.
Lewis was born Idawalley Lewis on Feb. 25, 1842, according to historian Margaret C. Adler. She is believed to have saved at least a dozen people, and perhaps as many as 25, during her service at the lighthouse, which was first operated by her father, Hosea, in the late 1850s.
After he suffered a stroke, the lighthouse was run by his wife and Ida, according to the Rhode Island Lighthouse History website. Ida Lewis became the official keeper in 1879. (The U.S. Lighthouse Service was a precursor to the U.S. Coast Guard.)
By then she had already made a series of dramatic rescues.
“The Heroine of Lime Rock,” the illustrated newspapers called her. Her first rescue occurred when she was 15 and rowed out to save two boys whose boat had capsized, according to newspaper accounts.
She once used a clothesline to rescue two men who had fallen through the harbor’s ice. And in 1867, she saved two more men whose boat was being swamped in a gale and then went back and rescued their sheep, which had also fallen in.
In 1869, after she saved two soldiers from drowning in the harbor, the New York Times reported: “She never hears the voice of distress, night or day, without jumping into her little craft and proceeding to the scene of trouble. . . . It is a pity that no testimonial has ever been given to this lady for the many lives she has saved.”
The Fourth of July that year was declared “Ida Lewis Day,” and Newport presented her with three cheers and a new boat.
She didn’t like the fuss and appeared at the event reluctantly, according to a Times account. The famous abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson spoke on her behalf.
“Miss Lewis desires me to say that she has never made a speech in her life and does not expect to begin now,” he said.
“Miss Lewis is grateful to you for your acknowledgment of what seemed to her a simple act of duty,” he said. “And she is more grateful to the Divine Providence which enabled her to do what she hopes never to have to do again. Miss Lewis . . . thanks you for your kindness and bids you farewell.”
She had visits from Grant, women’s rights champion Susan B. Anthony, and hundreds of others.
By the 1890s, she had experienced bouts of poor health but told a reporter in 1893 that she had recovered thanks to a concoction called Paine’s Celery Compound.
Lewis died Oct. 24, 1911, after she suffered a stroke and collapsed in her room in the lighthouse.
In Newport harbor, bells tolled in tribute.
She is buried in Newport’s Common Burying Ground, under a tombstone with the image of an anchor and crossed oars.