In a small park on Savannah’s riverfront stands a bronze statue called The Waving Girl, a tribute to one of America’s favorite goodwill ambassadors, though many outside of Georgia have never heard of her.
Florence Martus was born on Cockspur Island on August 7, 1869, the daughter of a German immigrant who was a sergeant at Fort Pulaski. Her father died while she was still a teenager and Florence and her mother went to live with her brother George, who at age eighteen had become the lighthouse keeper on nearby Elba Island.
There are many stories about how Florence became the Waving Girl and nobody really knows how it all began. Some say that as a small child Florence became fascinated with the ships that made their way up the Savannah River and waved her handkerchief as they passed by. Another, more romantic version of the tale says that as a teenager Florence fell in love with a sailor who promised he would return for her, but never did.
The truth is probably closer to Florence’s own explanation; that it was lonely at the lighthouse and she began waving at passing ships out of boredom.
Whatever started the tradition, from 1887 to 1931, Florence greeted every ship that passed on its way upriver to the Port of Savannah and again as they set out to sea. The sailors and passengers always waved back and the ship’s captains would salute her with three short blasts of their horn.
For 44 years the tradition continued, day and night. It is said that not one vessel passed Elba Island that wasn’t greeted by Florence waving a white cloth, or a lantern at night. She became famous among the seafaring community and sailors from around the world carried the story of Savannah’s Waving Girl back to their homeports. At least one sailor reported seeing a picture of the Waving Girl in a hardware store window in Germany and others say her image graced calendars that hung on the walls of sailors’ homes around the world. Sailors are notoriously superstitious and it was believed that a farewell greeting from the Waving Girl ensured a safe voyage.
Florence never married and was content to spend her life helping her brother operate the lighthouse. She was described as a cheerful young woman who loved books. Once a month she and her brother George would climb into their old flat-bottom dory and go to Savannah for supplies. Both were avid readers and those trips always included stops at the local bookstores. It is reported that they were also devoted Catholics and seldom missed church services on Sunday.
Though they were somewhat isolated at the lighthouse, Florence and George had many friends who visited often. Some of these friends said it was not uncommon for Florence to suddenly get up from the dinner table or in the middle of a conversation to run outside and greet a passing ship.
Though life could be boring at Elba Island, Florence had a number of pets to keep her company, including a faithful collie, and the dog was always seen at her side as she waved at ships. She also tended a flower garden to help brighten life on the island.
And there were times when things did get exciting. During a hurricane in 1893, Florence and George risked their own lives to rescue several men from a sinking boat. Another time, back around World War I days, Florence spotted a fire aboard a barge in the river and she and George made several trips across the water in the dark of night to save the barge’s crew. There were other incidents like this recorded but the brother and sister team shrugged off these heroic acts as just part of the job as lighthouse keepers.
No matter what else was happening, Florence was out there day and night, waving her cloth or lantern to welcome the passing maritime traffic. Florence’s blonde hair turned white over the years, but neither age, foul weather, nor illness ever stopped her from her task as Savannah’s greeter. It is estimated that she welcomed more than 50,000 ships during her lifetime.
She was so respected that in 1943, the SS Florence Martus, a World War II liberty ship, was christened in her honor.
On June 1, 1931, Florence made her last Waving Girl greeting to a passing ship. That was the day George was forced to retire and they left the lighthouse and moved to Bona Bella, outside of Savannah.
Florence Martus died in 1943 but her memory lives on in seafarers’ halls around the world with The Waving Girl statue, which was created by renowned sculptor Felix De Weldon, who also created the United States Marine Corps Memorial in Arlington, Virginia, also known as the Iwo Jima Memorial.
The next time you’re in Savannah, make your way past the beautiful old homes in the Historic District and the many shops and restaurants on the riverfront to her statue in Morrell Park and pay your respects to Florence and her faithful dog as they stand their eternal watch, still greeting visitors.
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It’s Thursday, so it’s time for a new Free Drawing. This week’s prize is an audiobook of Going Home With A Cat And A Ghost by RVing author Judy Howard. It’s the story of a woman liberated enough to travel the country in her RV, yet still imprisoned by tragic events from her past. To enter, all you have to do is click on this Free Drawing link or the tab at the top of this page and enter your name (first and last) in the comments section at the bottom of that page (not this one). Only one entry per person per drawing please, and you must enter with your real name. To prevent spam or multiple entries, the names of cartoon or movie characters are not allowed. The winner will be drawn Sunday evening.
Thought For The Day – Give your children wings to fly, roots to come back to, and reasons to stay.