Ira M. Lewis was a Coast Guard chief who was in charge of the Montauk Lighthouse from February 1957 to August 1959. Chief Boatswain’s Mate (BMC) Lewis, who grew up in a “waterman” family on the east coast of North Carolina, was an accomplished swimmer and boatman, who became a Surfman at the age of 18.
A Coast Guard term deriving originally from the American Life-Saving Service, “Surfmen … [are] qualified to operate rescue boats in the unforgivably treacherous, almost unnavigable areas where ocean surf is starting to break on shore” (www.uniforms-4u.com). During the 1938 Hurricane, Lewis braved his boat into the wild surf to save a struggling pair of mariners off the Bellport coastline where he was stationed. In fact, Ira Lewis’s oral history for the “Saltwater South: Harkers Island [NC]” project revealed that in his opinion, life’s greatest satisfaction was “saving somebody’s life.” (CarolineCoastOnline.com, January 31, 2020).
Another Coast Guardsman who happened to hail from North Carolina was Winfred Lane. Married to Libby Lane, he and Libby and their circle made fast friends with Lewis and his family. This group shot was donated to the Montauk Library Archives by Margaret Ann Lewis, Ira’s daughter, who is pictured in the image above.
Ira Lewis loved his job, says Margaret Ann. He and his crew built the scaffolding used to raise and lower workers as they scraped and repainted the Lighthouse. That homemade engineering appears elsewhere in this photo collection, as do depictions of off-duty Coast Guardsmen going boating, fishing, and preparing to scuba dive. It is these intimate observations of family life taking place inside the living quarters, however, that may be the most rare. For all the images the public shares of the Lighthouse’s exterior, casual photos of everyday life captured within its walls are hard to come by. We are grateful to be able to share this “insider’s view.” Ira M. Lewis died in January 2020 at the age of 101.