Digest>Archives> Nov/Dec 2015

Collecting Nautical Antiques

Ida Lewis items

By Jim Claflin


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Ida Lewis relaxes on her porch, where she often ...

We are constantly getting in interesting items. Recently we obtained a wonderful lot of photographs including one of the Lime Rock Light Station in Newport, Rhode Island. You may remember that this light station was the home of famed lighthouse keeper and life-saver Ida Lewis.

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Ida Lewis, the “Grace Darling of America”. Photo ...
Photo by: J.A. Williams

Ida Lewis overcame the biases of the time, through skill and professional ability, to become the official keeper of Lime Rock Light Station, a position she held until her death. She was officially credited with saving some 18+ lives during her 39 years at Lime Rock and was awarded the Congressional Gold Lifesaving Medal. Ida’s father, Captain Hosea Lewis of the Revenue Cutter Service, was transferred to the Lighthouse Service and appointed keeper of Lime Rock Light Station in Newport in 1854. Hosea Lewis had been at Lime Rock less than four months when he was stricken by a disabling stroke. Ida and her mother tended the Lime Rock Light for her father from 1857 until 1872, when he died. Her mother was appointed keeper until 1879, although Ida continued to do the keeper’s work. By 1877, the health of Ida’s mother was failing, leaving Ida with increased housekeeping and care giving responsibilities. Her mother would remain ill and eventually died of cancer in 1887. Ida finally received the official appointment as keeper in 1879 and remained until her death in 1911.

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This is the Burgee of the Ida Lewis Yacht Club, ...

This rare photo of the light station was probably taken about 1927. Note the unusual pennant flying from the mast. The photo was taken about 1927, after the skeleton tower was erected but possibly before 1928 when the Newport yacht club purchased the property.

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Lime Rock Light Station in Newport Harbor, ...

The pennant is NOT the later yacht club burgee consisting of a lighthouse with 18 stars, one for each of Ida’s rescues (see photo). Rather, it appears to be a Lighthouse Service pennant to which 23+ stars have been sewn on, possibly denoting additional rescues by Ida Lewis. Or, is may be a very early version of the yacht club burgee. I have never seen a LHS pennant modified in such a way and I wonder if it was done by the government as a tribute to Keeper Ida Lewis, etc ?

By the age of 27, Ida’s celebrity status was approaching its peak following numerous well-publicized rescues. She gave a lengthy interviews including one to George D. Brewerton, which he published in a booklet entitled IDA LEWIS, THE HEROINE OF LIME ROCK. (Newport, RI. 1869. 66pp.) He described his account as: “...Being a history of her life and rescues, with the public and private testimonials her humane exertions have called forth, to which is added interesting extracts from the numerous letters received by Miss Lewis from almost every state in the Union, prepared from information and documents furnished by herself.” Includes statement by Ida Lewis that “...having listened to ...the manuscript...matters connected with my history and parentage are truly told....I commend this book to those who may be curious to know more of my life...as a faithful record, and the only one I have authorized to be given to the world. IDA LEWIS. Oct. 2, 1869.” When this rare interview can be found it sells in the $100 to $200 range depending on condition.

In 1890 a wonderful article entitled “A Day With Ida Lewis” was published in The Ladies’ Home Journal (Ellen LeGarde. July 1890). In this detailed 1 ½ page article the author spends a day with Keeper Lewis, describing her life and work in great detail. The author includes most interesting details about each room in her house, the furnishings and the efforts that Ida makes to provide a comfortable and clean home for visitors and friends. In addition, of course, is her work to maintain on the second floor the fixed red light that can be seen for twelve miles. Mariners rated the light kept by Ida Lewis as “First Quality” and her constant vigil and devotion to duty as extraordinary.

Other published items of the day included numerous CDV photographs and stereo views, as well as engravings in Harper’s Magazine and numerous other publications of the day. By the turn of the century as Keeper Lewis added additional rescues to her credit, souvenir china was produced with various images of Lime Rock Lighthouse to be sold to the throngs of Victorian visitors to the Newport area.

Ida Lewis passed away on October 25, 1911, at the age of 69 and was succeeded by Edward Jansen as Keeper (1911-1927). Her record of rescues will never be forgotten and will probably never be equaled.

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Jim Claflin is a recognized authority on antiques of the U.S. Lighthouse Service, Life-Saving Service, Revenue Cutter Service and early Coast Guard. In addition to authoring and publishing a number of books on the subject, Jim is the owner of Kenrick A Claflin & Son Nautical Antiques. In business since 1956, he has specialized in antiques of this type since the early 1990s. He may be contacted by writing to him at 1227 Pleasant Street, Worcester, MA 01602, or by calling 508-792-6627. You may also contact him by email: jclaflin@LighthouseAntiques.net or visit his web site at: www.LighthouseAntiques.net

This story appeared in the Nov/Dec 2015 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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