Digest>Archives> April 2003

Keeper At Cape Elizabeth Two Lights Answers The Call

By Nikk Salata


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Marcus H. Hanna was born in Bristol, Maine on the third of November in 1842. He was the son of James and Eliza Hanna who were the light keepers at the Franklin Island Light Station. Marcus grew up around the lighthouse, quickly learning the ways of the sea along with the devotion to duty being a light keeper by parents who taught him well. After a brief time in the Navy at the start of the Civil War, Marcus joined Company B of the 50th Volunteer Infantry in Rockland, Massachusetts. On May 23rd in 1863, his unit was dispatched to the siege of Port Hudson in Louisiana. Hanna developed a malarial infection that was to plague him for the rest of his life. A couple months later on July 4th, Hanna’s company was positioned 150 yards from the Confederate garrison. After a short time in the hot sun, the men ran out of water and grew weary from heat exhaustion. The lieutenant called for a volunteer to go back a half a mile through Confederate territory and get water for the troops. Hanna was the only one who volunteered. Marcus, with a dozen empty canteens, ran zigzag across the landscape to the watering site and returned with full canteens. He suffered a minor injury from a stray pellet that wounded his calf.

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A few months after the war Marcus returned to Bristol, Maine and married Louisiana Davis. In July of 1869, Marcus was appointed Light Keeper at Pemaquid Light Station. After a few years he felt the urge to be stationed at a more desirable light station location.

Now this is where things get a little political. Hanna, a Republican and having a distinguished war record, used his influence with his former General, Ulysses Grant ..... then President Grant, in obtaining a transfer. By order of the President he was transferred to Two Lights at Cape Elizabeth, Maine. On March 3, 1873 a very interesting entry was made in the log of the fog-signal station Light Keeper James Mariner. It reads: “Mr. Hanna from Pemaquid Light Station will take my place but not with my consent. I am no longer a Republican.” This sour grapes statement was there for Hanna to see and had to create obvious friction between the two over the next several years.

The one thing that stands out in Hanna’s career at Two Lights happened on the morning of January 28, 1885. The schooner Australia out of Boothbay with a crew of three was driven onto the rocks near the fog signal station by a furious nor’easter. Visibility was greatly reduced by the heavy snow. The seas quickly poured over the decks sweeping the captain away to his death. The sufferings of the other two men were terrible. They were drenched to the skin and chilled to the bone in the 10-degree below zero winds. It was Marcus’s wife, Louisiana, who discovered the vessel by looking out the window through the driving snow. Hearing his wife’s exclamations, Marcus awoke from his nap. He had just spent the night tending the fog signal and was further weakened by a severe cold plus the ongoing effects of the malarial infection. Slipping on his boots, hat, and coat he rushed down the shore through the heavy snowdrifts.

Upon reaching the fog signal, he summoned Hiram Staples, the Assistant Keeper, to follow. The two were soon abreast of the wreck. Two men were seen clinging to the icy rigging. Hanna returned to the fog signal building for an axe and then hastened to a boathouse a few hundred yards away to obtain a suitable line. The boathouse door was blocked with snow causing him to return to the fog signal building and have Staples bring a shovel. Mrs. Hanna, in the meantime, had alarmed the other families at the station. Only Hiram’s 15-year old son could render any help. Marcus sent him off to summon the neighbors.

Hanna returned to the shore with a weighted line, climbed perilously down the icy rocks battling freezing spray and high wind. One slip would mean disaster. After many unsuccessful efforts to reach the men with the line, Hanna summoned his remaining strength and succeeded in reaching the vessel with the rescue line. One of the men onboard, Irving Pierce, tied it about his torso. Hanna at the time was crawling back up the rocks with the other end and shouting for aid. But there was no one to give assistance. Pierce signaled he was ready and cast himself into the icy breakers. Hanna hauled him with difficulty onto the rocky shore. Pierce appeared almost gone. He took the line off Pierce and, with several efforts, put it within the grasp of the other sailor, Bill Kellar. The process was repeated and by that time Staples had returned with two neighbors from the cove to help bring Kellar up onto the shore. Both sailors were brought into the steam room of the fog signal building. Both were severely frostbitten. With the storm ongoing they were forced to remain there until the next morning. They were brought to the keepers dwelling where Hanna and his wife tended them. A couple days later they were brought to the hospital in Portland for treatments and soon recovered.

Keeper Hanna’s self sacrificing devotion kept these men from sharing the same fate as their captain. It was for this noble conduct that the Lighthouse Service bestowed the award of highest recognition, the Gold Lifesaving Medal, to Marcus Hanna on April 25, 1885. Ten years later Hanna received the Medal of Honor for his actions at Port Hudson.

On August 23, 1997 the United States Coast Guard christened and launched WLM-554, the USCGC Marcus Hanna, a fitting tribute to this courageous Light Keeper.

Thanks go to the Cape Elizabeth Historical Society for the courtesy of the use of the actual station logbooks for this period.

This story appeared in the April 2003 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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