By Carla Charter
NEWPORT HARBOR, R.I.- A newly constructed road, part of a 27-acre, $81.7-million-dollar expansion of Arlington National Cemetery, has been named after Rhode Island Lighthouse Keeper Ida Lewis. Lewis is the first woman to have a road named after her at Arlington National Cemetery.
“These streets are dedicated to and named in recognition of U.S. Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Jonathan W. Gifford and Ida Lewis, U.S. Lighthouse Service (later absorbed into the U.S. Coast Guard),” according to Kerry Meeker, Media Chief at Arlington National Cemetery. “Gifford was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross for his heroic actions in Afghanistan on June 29, 2012. He is the second enlisted member and the first U.S. Marine to be honored with a street name at Arlington National Cemetery. Lewis is the first female and first representative of the U.S. Coast Guard to be honored with a street name at Arlington National Cemetery. Former Executive Director of Army National Military Cemeteries Kathryn Condon ceremoniously unveiled these signs during a historic dedication event on Sept. 6, 2018, placing Gifford and Lewis among the 43 other service members whose names are etched onto signs designed to honor and remember their service for generations to come,.“
Lewis’ story began when her father was appointed as Lime Rock Lighthouse Keeper in 1854. Within four months of being there, he had a stroke, became disabled and in 1873 he died. Ida and her mother took over their father’s lighthouse duties with Ida officially being appointed lighthouse keeper in 1879.
Ida, who was 5 foot 4 inches and 103 pounds, had 18 documented rescues to her name and is believed to have had 25 rescues over her career. Ida’s rescues all took place while she was corseted and wearing a bustle, popular with women at the time. Of those Ida rescued, many were soldiers coming back from town to nearby Fort Adams.
Ida became famous in 1869, when she rescued two soldiers from drowning. As a consequence of the rescue, the government was required to file a report and the news picked up the story. The two men that she rescued were twice her size and were fighting her as she brought them on to the skiff, as they were drunk.
The town honored Lewis by renaming July 4, 1869, Ida Lewis Day in her honor. Lewis died in 1911 at the age of 69 years old. The lighthouse keeper after her was only there for two years before the lighthouse was decommissioned as navigational aids had changed and it was not needed. The lighthouse still exists and is now known as the Ida Lewis Yacht Club.
“The Coast Guard consider her almost a patron saint. They have a soft spot for her. She embodies the whole idea of the Coast Guard,” according to Lenore Skomal, author of The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter: The Remarkable True Story of American Heroine Ida Lewis. “They named a Coast Guard Cutter after her which is based in New London, (Ct.)“ she continued.
Skomal continued that when she found out the road at Arlington was going to be named after Lewis she was stunned. “I wondered how they knew about her. I am glad she is being brought back to the history books.” Skomal said.
“Gifford and Lewis join a short list of service members with distinguished military careers,” Meeker stated. “When plans were finalized for the Millennium expansion project, it provided the cemetery a unique opportunity to add two more service members to an already prominent list.”
“ In 2015, the Advisory Committee on Arlington National Cemetery asked the senior enlisted advisors from each branch of service to compile recommendations for service members to be memorialized with street names. After significant deliberation and vetting, names representing each of the services were presented to the Committee.
During the March 15, 2016 meeting, the committee deliberated and voted unanimously to recommend approval of signage honoring Gifford and Lewis, and the Secretary of the Army approved the decision,” she continued.
Skomal first became aware of Lewis’ story when her sister was attending Salve Regina College. “I heard her (Lewis’) name and thought what is the story of this woman. I was also looking for a book idea at the time. There was nothing else written about her.” Skomal’s book, The Lighthouse Keepers Daughter, The Remarkable True Story of Heroine Ida Lewis is available at Amazon and has also been optioned for a movie.