She was always there. It made no
difference if it were day or night, rain or shine, blistering hot or freezing
cold. The cheerful lady would be seen by all the sea captains, sailors and
passengers of all the vessels that passed Elba Island on their way to or from
Savannah. Although many never learned her name, all could count on her gesture
of "welcome" or "farewell". She waved a white cloth by day and a bright lantern
by night. Ship captains returned her greeting with three short blasts. They came
to call her "The Waving Girl."
The Waving girl was
Florence Martus. She was born on the 7th of August 1869, in a settlement outside
Fort Pulaski, on Cockspur Island, she had an older brother George Washington
Martus and a sister Mary Alfreta a couple of years her senior. Her father, John
came from Germany, when he was fourteen he joined the army and not too many
years later met and married Cecilia Decker of
Philadelphia. John was
an ordinance officer for forty years. After his army career her father
became a lighthouse keeper and died when Florence was seventeen, together with
her mother, she went to live with her brother George, who was now eighteen and
had become a lighthouse keeper on nearby Elba Island. After her mother died,
Florence stayed on with her brother, helping out with lighthouse chores and
keeping house. She was described as a cheerful, shy, plain, slender,
blonde-haired girl, with a pleasing personality.
Many rumours and old wives tales abound about Florence Martus but the
favourite is that in 1887 she fell in love and became engaged to a sailor from
Boston, Massachusetts, who promised that they would marry upon his return. She
promised that she would greet every ship that came and went, hoping it would be
his ship returning. Florence kept her promise and waved at every ship for forty
four years. In fact she only stopped when her brother retired. During all those
years she became known in nearly every maritime country in the world. One sailor
said he saw a picture of the "Waving Girl" in a hardware store window in
Germany. Nothing is known of her fiance, whether he was lost at sea or met
Florences' own explanation for waving
at all the vessels was: "I was young, and it was sort of lonely on the island
for a girl, so I started to wave to the ships which passed. They would return
the greeting, and sometimes salute. Gradually they came to watch for my friendly
wave from shore. We had many friends on the tugboats, and among the bar pilots."
Many sailors, grateful for her
kindness, sent her small gifts and strange animals. She had numerous pets and
loved animals. Florence and George gained many friends, some would come to their
modest cottage on the island and spend the day. Despite her guests, Florence
would spring up from the table and dash out to the porch to wave at any passing
ship. Some visitors would exclaim how uncanny it was that she had such acute
hearing, she would even wake in the middle of the night and rush out to greet a
ship. Others knew she had two large dogs who learned to wake her when a ship
approached. Although they were strangers, there was a feeling of friendship - a
friendship they took back with them to all points of the globe.
George's only transportation was a large dory, a flat-bottomed motor
boat. Florence would steer and George would tend to the engine. Once a month
they went to Savannah for supplies. They were both avid readers and spent much
of their wages on books at the local bookstore. They were also devout Catholics
and tried to attend church every Sunday. Their mail and incidental supplies were
delivered to Elba Island by passing vessels.
Friends would board a
boat in Beaufort, South Carolina and as it neared Elba Island, the captain would
signal and George would come to collect them. After a visit the reverse happened
and he would take them back for re-boarding. Their friends always enjoyed their
visits with the Martus family. Florence was a good cook and a great hostess. The
yard was usually abloom with beautiful flowers and there was an overall
atmosphere of serenity there. Many news reporters heard about
the famous "Waving Girl” and wrote about the strange and quirky woman – only
when they went to interview her - found themselves quite wrong. She was not
strange at all. In fact, they found her to be highly intelligent, very learned
and a charming hostess.
Life was not always without adventure on the island of Elba. Several
times, Florence and George performed acts of heroism they felt had become their
duty and somehow expected of them. During a hurricane in
1893, they rescued several men from a sinking boat. Shortly after
World War I, whilst waving her lantern (at three in the morning), she noticed a
fire on the river on a working barge used to keep the channel open. She and
George made several trips back and forth to the barge rescuing the trapped men,
in all they rescued thirty men, (although one died later from his burns), many
of those men sent her gifts. On other occasions, they assisted
in saving lives and property near their home.
George was forced to retire on the 1st of June 1931, Florence made
her last “Waving Girl” greeting that day. They made their home in Bona Bella,
outside Savannah. A group of officials performed a small, informal "Welcome to
Savannah" ceremony of recognition of Florence. Attendees included: Mayor Hoynes,
E.R. Richardson, President of Ocean Steamship Co. and Captain Frank W. Spencer,
Master pilot, Savannah Pilots Association, (he was also General Manager of
Atlantic Towing Co.). Florence was presented with a $500 certificate.
After the Welcome to Savannah meeting, Florence wrote a
642 Liberty Street
8th of July 1931
Just a line to thank
you for your kindness to me.
I surely appreciate it
and thank you very much.
My brother and I are
feeling fine at the present time. Hope you and your family are the same.
Our best regards to
you and all my friends.
Little did she know this was not to be the only donation she would
receive, there was a fund raising campaign which Captain Frank Spencer was
A letter from a retired Master Mariner, A.G. Cole from the Isle of
Wight said in part:
"I send a humble Five
Dollars which I hope you'll accept as a small token of my appreciation of the
kindly greetings when I served as Master of the British s/s Kelvindras........I
hope the Waving Girl will have many happy years in her retirement and will
realise that all over the world there are sailors who retain pleasant memories
of the salutes she never failed to give us."
News spread of her retirement, several
poems were written about the Waving Girl. One was written by Captain Thomas P.
Pratt, Master, s/s Chatham and was published in the Savannah Evening Press.
Another poem was discovered in a pigeon hole of a desk at Savannah
Seamen's Bethel by James Duff, custodian. The letter was sent from long Island,
New York, dated the 19th of January 1934. It was written by J.P. Nilsen who
served as a steward on a foreign freightliner. The poem was also published in
the Savannah Evening Press. A poem was also written by James A. Nowell, and
published in the Baltimore Post. One was sent in by J.H. McKenzie of the Arrow
Lines, titled, "To The Sailor's Queen-- Florence Martus."
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.
Certainly, few people with as little face-to-face contact with people
as Florence Martus could ever hope to capture the hearts of so many strangers.
Apparently the U.S. Government also thought highly of her. Through the influence
of the Savannah Optimist Club, in 1943, a liberty ship was built in Savannah
bearing the name on the bow, "Florence Martus." On the 7th of August 1938, the
Propeller Club of Savannah sponsored a birthday celebration for Florence Martus.
More than 3,000 people attended the event. Athletic events lasted throughout the
day, with Ms. Martus arriving at 4:00 p.m., escorted by the County Police. The
"party" was held at the parade ground at Fort Pulaski, where her father had
served in the army. While there, she recalled that when she was thirteen she hid
on a spiral staircase during the severe storm of 1881 - all the residences
outside the fort were destroyed.
The birthday party was a great success.
The Savannah Police Band played for the great crowd, so did the U.S. Marine Band
from Paris Island. The Coast Guard Cutter "Tallapoosa" in "shipshape" provided
the landing force and a salute to Florence Matus, Savannah's guest of honour.
U.S. Congressman Hugh Peterson, in his speech called her the "Sweetheart of
Mankind." Mayor Hitch referred to the celebration as a "...Recognition of a
sentiment that moved a bit of a young woman years ago to make a gesture of
welcome to passing ships."
The parade ground was surrounded by flags of all
nations, Florence was presented with a huge birthday cake shaped like her
cottage on Elba Island and she was given numerous gifts. The "sprightly" lady of
70" (as one writer described her), was called on to make a speech, but viewing
the massive throng of devotees, she was too emotionally moved to utter a word.
Later, however, she wrote a note to the chairman, George
Dutton, stating her pride in being a Georgian and that "This is the grandest day
of my life."
It is estimated that the Waving Girl greeted at least
one hundred thousand passing ships in her forty four years of friendly waving.
Savannah's Waving Girl died on the 8th of February 1943 of bronchial pneumonia.
"Put out to sea" (As another writer so gently phrased it). Services were held at
Albert Goette Funeral Home and two days later another service was held at St.
Johns Cathedral with her nephew, Reverend Thomas A. Brennan conducting the
service. She was buried in Laurel Grove Cemetery.
Tugboats of the Atlantic Towing Company and other
vessels in port lowered the flags to half-mast in respect. The people of
Savannah still appreciate Florence Martus. In 1971, Felix De Weldon, sculptor of
the famous U.S. Marine Corps Iwo Jima Monument was commissioned to create the
$60,000 Waving Girl statue along Savannah's River Street. The inscription
"Her immortality stems from her friendly greeting to
passing ships, a welcome to strangers entering the port and a farewell to wave
them safely onward."