Suppose you were a teenage girl living on an island with your mother and older brother. What would you do in your spare time? This thought must have run through the mind of Florence Martus. Something she started perhaps for fun or out of boredom made her name known in every port around the world, and she became a hero to thousands.
The Cockspur Island Light, first lit in 1848, is sometimes called the South Channel Light. It was built less than two miles west of Tybee Light. Along with its companion the North Channel Light it helped guide ships up the Savannah River, past Tybee Island, around Cockspur and Elba islands, and then into Savannah.
Cockspur, a small brick beacon-light, was built on a bed of oysters. Its first keeper was John H. Lightburn. In 1857, Cockspur had to be rebuilt. The oyster foundation of the keeper’s house was replaced with brick and a kitchen was added.
The name Martus and Cockspur Light go together like bread and jam. John Martus of Germany enlisted in the U.S. Army when he was fourteen. It wasn’t long before he met and married Cecilia Decker of Philadelphia.
At the close of the American Civil War (1866), John Martus was appointed as Ordnance Sergeant at Fort Pulaski, Georgia. This fort played a prominent role in the capture of Savannah during the Civil War. The Union forces of the North had bombarded it with their naval forces and it was in bad need of repair. Thus Martus and a crew were sent to Pulaski. Sergeant Martus was in charge of weapons and was the overseer of the men assigned to rebuild the fort. He brought with him his wife and four children. They were assigned to live in a cottage that faced the Savannah River.
Soon thereafter, with the repairs made at Pulaski, Martus was given the job of keeper of the Elba and Cockspur Lights. During this assignment his wife gave birth to two more children: Mary Alfreta, in 1866, and Florence Margaret, August 7, 1868.
The hurricane of 1881 that devastated much of the Georgia coast left its mark on the Martus family. Florence, thin as a wisp and with bright red hair, was then thirteen. The strong winds and angry waves quickly flooded the house on Elba Island. The family sought safety at Fort Pulaski behind its two to four feet walls. Everything went well for a while. Then the swelling waters and howling winds invaded the fort parade grounds. John and Cecilia grabbed their children and stumbled up the spiraling staircase leading to the southeast tower. There they hovered against the tower walls and waited out the violent storm.
In the years that followed the hurricane of 1881, the Martus family experienced lots of changes. They moved to Savannah, some thirty miles inland, and John Martus died. The family was restless. Like a powerful magnet the sea beckoned them back, and they couldn’t resist its power. At eighteen George Martus became the lighthouse keeper of the South Channel and Elba Lights, and the family returned to Elba Island.
Meanwhile, the family continued to shrink. Two of the Martus daughters married and one of the boys died. By 1890, the family consisted of Cecilia, George, Florence, and three collie dogs. The Martus’ white, two-storied cottage, with its columned front porch faced the Savannah River. Florence helped her mother with the household chores, and often went to sea with her older brother George. Florence’s dog, a collie, was never far from her side. Still, living on an island was lonely. Florence spent a lot of time gazing into the horizon, wondering where the big ships were going.
For forty-four years Florence Martus waved her towel and lantern to incoming and outgoing sea vessels. No one knows for sure the reasons behind her dedicated service. Florence burned the diary she kept during her forty-four years on Elba Island. Why?
Meanwhile, people have come up with their own reasons. Perhaps it started by Florence wondering if the sailors would notice her friendly greetings. Or, maybe one of the many legends concerning her is really true. One story says Florence nearly froze to death on a trip from Savannah to Elba Island. Her sickness developed into diphtheria. Florence was left unable to hear or speak. Thus, the story goes, during her silent years, she fell in love with the passing ships. This same story claims the shock of the 1886 earthquake gave Florence back her speech and hearing.
Another story, a favorite among sailors, says that the sea had claimed a boyfriend of hers. She waved, they said, as a means of keeping his memory alive.
Yet one legend has outlived all the rest. It tells of a sailor from Boston, Massachusetts who wrote and asked Florence if he could come to Cockspur Island. Florence agreed, and the two fell in love. He had to leave and return to his ship, but promised he’d come back. For over fifty years Florence waved, day and night, to all the ships. She kept looking for her lover to return, but he never came.
Nothing kept Florence Martus, “The Waving Girl,” from her self-appointed job. Another powerful hurricane rocked the barrier islands in 1893. Florence assisted her brother George in rescuing several men from a sinking boat.
In 1909, Cecilia Martus, mother of George and Florence, died. The steamers in the Savannah harbor dipped their flags in respect as the tugboat McCauley arrived, bearing her body. Now only George, Florence, and their three collies remained.
Florence did the best she could to stay busy. Both she and George liked to read, and every time they went to Savannah for supplies they brought home lots of books. George stayed busy taking care of the lighthouse. In her spare time Florence planted vegetables and flowers. She was lively, but often lonely.
Once, while going through his stack of mail, her brother found a letter addressed to Florence. The writer had been away from the country a long time. He wrote, “Dear Waving Girl, I’ve been away from America for many years. After a rough and lonely ride on the Atlantic Ocean it thrilled me to see your fluttering handkerchief. It made me feel like the whole country was welcoming me home. Keep up the good work!”
Florence decided from then on to wave to every ship that passed during the day. She began waving her large white handkerchief from her porch to all the ships. The captains and crews waved back, blasting the air with their foghorns. Before long, hundreds of letters began arriving at Cockspur Island, addressed to the Waving Girl.
Letters weren’t all Florence received. Soon their cabin and yard looked like a tiny zoo. The sailors brought her strange and exotic animals from around the world. One of the letter writers mentioned how sad it was to arrive at night and not get her friendly greeting. After giving it some thought, Florence decided to greet every ship, day or night that entered Cockspur Island. She began getting up in the wee hours of the night to welcome sailors home.
Florence had a sixth sense. Even when it was dark or stormy, she knew when a ship was approaching. Every day as dark arrived, Florence lit a lantern and set it on the porch railing. When a ship came near, she’d wave the lantern in broad swoops and listen for the toots of its foghorn.
Reporters traveled long distances to interview Florence. They found her fascinating, and none of them could figure how she could hear the ships at night. A recent writer has suggested it was “dog sense” that nudged her awake.
One morning, around 3 o’clock, Florence saw leaping flames from a spot on the river. The dredge that kept the channel open was being consumed by fire. Florence and George leaped into their tiny boat and worked for hours bringing men ashore. They rescued all 32 of the dredge workers, and only one of them died from the intense fire.
It wasn’t long until “The Waving Girl” was known around the world. Sailors, docking in faraway ports, talked of the smiling girl eagerly waiting their return.
In 1915, the crew of the Somerset, on behalf of the M. & M.T. Company, gave Florence a silver tea service. Their poet laureate penned the following poem:
There’s just one queen in all the world
That mariners adore.
She dwells upon a lonely isle,
Close by its marshy shore.
If ever you are passing
In storm, or rain, or shine,
You’re bound to get a welcome
From the queen of Elba’s Isle.
For if on ships you travel,
And on the sea you roam,
From Greenland’s icy mountains
To India’s sunny zones
Mention Old Savannah, in Georgia by the sea,
For the Queen who thinks of me.
George retired in 1931 and moved with Florence to Bona Bella on the outskirts of Savannah. Florence gave her last farewell to the ships on June 1, 1931.
The city of Savannah gave Florence a special birthday party when she turned seventy. More than 3,000 people came to the tiny island of Elba to host a birthday party for “The Waving Girl.” A police and Marine band escorted Florence from her home at Thunderbolt, Georgia to Elba Island. The U.S. Navy entertained the guests with music on the parade grounds of Fort Pulaski. Among the guests were many seafaring men who had always looked forward to seeing her waving handkerchief, welcoming them to Savannah. Florence was due to speak. However, when it came her turn, she was so overcome with emotion she couldn’t say a word.
Florence died in February 1943. If the story of a lover is true, we know he never returned. Perhaps he died in some faraway land or was washed overboard by a sudden storm. Maybe he had a change of heart. Many believe Florence never stopped looking for him. In the meantime, she made thousands of seagoing people very happy.
In 1909, the Cockspur Lighthouse was no longer needed. Ships entering Savannah no longer used the South Channel. The U.S. Coast Guard abandoned it in 1948. At that time it was deeded to the National Park Services. Restored by the National Park Service in 1978, it is now open to the public. To visit the Cockspur Light, drivers must take U.S. 80 east from Savannah and turn at the Fort Pulaski National Monument sign. Since the lighthouse tower is surrounded by water, visitors must travel by boat to see it.
When people visit the Savannah river front they always want to see the $60,000 bronze statue of Florence. The statue, resting on a base of Swedish granite, is the work of internationally known Felix de Weldon, creator of “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima.”
Florence stands, frozen in time, facing the Savannah River. Down by her side stands her faithful collie dog and her lantern. She’s waving an oversized handkerchief. Weldon says, “It isn’t the waving of the handkerchief that is so significant, but the welcome, which is more forceful - that is why I show the large handkerchief which expresses the warmth of her heart.”
Florence Martus died on February 8, 1943, of bronchial pneumonia. Along with her family she rests in historic Laurel Grove Cemetery.
This story appeared in the
September 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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