Savannah’s Waving Girl Statue is steeped in legend and commemorates the memory of Florence Martus who greeted every ship that came into harbor.
Stories about the Georgia woman passed ship to ship the world over. She was the slender lady with the long, flowing skirt and collie at her side. Her kerchief fluttered in the sunlight as sailors glided past her island home on the Savannah River. At night, they said her face lit up with her swaying lantern light.
One of Savannah’s favorite stories involves the life of Florence Martus (1868 – 1943), who was known well by Savannahians and sailors of the sea as the Waving Girl. The daughter of a sergeant stationed at Fort Pulaski, Florence later moved to a cottage along the river near the entrance of the harbor with her brother George, the Cockspur Island Lighthouse keeper.
As the story goes, life at the remote cottage was lonely for Florence whose closest companion was her devoted collie. At an early age, she developed a close affinity with the passing ships and welcomed each one with a wave of her handkerchief. Sailors began returning her greeting by waving back or with a blast of the ship’s horn. Eventually Florence started greeting the ships arriving in the dark by waving a lantern.
Florence Martus continued her waving tradition for 44 years and it is estimated that she welcomed more than 50,000 ships during her lifetime. There is a lot of unsubstantiated speculation about Florence having fallen in love with a sailor who never returned to Savannah. The facts, however, about why she started and continued the waving tradition for so many years remain a mystery.
In any event, Florence Martus grew into a Savannah legend, known far and wide. On September 27, 1943, the SS Florence Martus, a Liberty ship, was christened in her honor.
The Waving Girl Statue by renowned sculptor Felix De Weldon, the sculptor of the United States Marine Corps Memorial in Arlington, Virginia (also known as the Iwo Jima Memorial,) depicts Florence with her loyal collie.
Born Aug. 7, 1869 near Fort Pulaski, Martus was raised on its Cockspur Island before moving with her mother to the lighthouse that helped mark the entry into Savannah’s busy harbor.
Both of her parents were dead by the time Martus turned 17. So, she remained with her brother, George, on Elba Island.
Loneliness led her to wave first at friends working the river, she said, followed by every ship. They included the tug boat captains, harbor masters and bar pilots.
Perhaps counting herself among the critical river staff, she also risked on their behalf.
In 1893, Martus braved hurricane conditions with her brother to save several men from a sinking boat. She is said to have waved an American flag at the troop ship St. Mihiel, which returned to Savannah with the last of the U.S. Army of the Rhine after World War I.
Shortly after that, the Martuses, in what was described as their “large sturdy flat bottom row boat,” launched a pre-dawn rescue after overhearing a “low sorrowful moaning of a ship’s whistle.”
Florence Martus in 1940
A brief biography, written by Ruth Healy in 1967, went on to describe the dramatic scene she researched:
“As always, (Martus) arose, lit her lantern, and went out to the porch. Reaching it she saw far off in another direction hungry flames leaping high over the water. She awakened her brother and the pair jumped into a small boat and put out to where a blazing government dredge was rapidly sinking. With the aid of the boat all but one of the crew were saved.”
The Martuses were known to attend church regularly, visit town once a month for supplies, library books and mail. Sailors around the globe sent their Waving Girl gifts and praised her with poetry. Many verses found publication in the days, months and years following her brother’s retirement in 1931.
Forced to give up his job as lighthouse keeper when he turned 70, the Martuses left their island cottage for good. Her admirers delivered $523, a staggering figure during the Great Depression, as a token of their thanks and support for her new life ashore.
But finding happiness was a struggle, she admitted. They hopped from home to home inland.
“I get along all right during the day, but when night comes on …” Martus’ voice reportedly trailed off. The writer Martus spoke to described the woman as waving her handkerchief as tears welled up in her eyes.
“You know how it is,” she continued. “We had lived there so long.”
In another account, Martus explained further: “It’s just like trying to dig up that big oak tree and get it to take root some place else.”
Although she was surrounded by her collies and received visitors, it’s not clear whether Martus ever fully acclimated to her new life.
National journalist Ernie Pyle, who served as a traveling reporter before covering World War II, described the woman he met five years after her move. He learned that Martus had kept a diary and logs of each ship that passed her.
“She wrote down what she thought and did every day, and listed every ship that passed – its name, where it was from, what kind it was, and so on.”
She destroyed them with fire when she left the island.
“The daily record for forty-four years, one of the most legendary figures of the Seven Seas, kept in her own hand, gone up in smoke in two minutes.”
Pyle was flabbergasted at the loss of history.
But Savannah did its part to recognize her contribution. More than 3,000 people turned out for Martus’ 70th birthday party, a citywide affair.
A band serenaded her, officials praised her with speech, as women’s groups doled out cake and gifts. The shy Martus offered one comment on the outpouring: “This is the grandest day of my life.”
She died more than five years later, Feb. 8, 1943, after a short bout with bronchial pneumonia.
The four-tiered headline atop the Savannah Morning News story announcing her death cried:
“Waving Girl Bids Last Farewell; Miss Florence Martus Dies After Brief Illness; Known all over the World; She Became a Legend Among Seafaring Men.”