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The Waving Girl of Savannah, Georgia

The Waving Girl

She was always there. It made no difference if it were day or night, rain or shine, blistering hot, or downright cold. The cheerful lady would be seen by all the sea captains, sailors, and passengers of all the ships that sailed past Elba Island on their way to or from Savannah, Georgia. Some never learned her name, but they knew they would receive her gesture of "welcome" or "farewell" by waving a white cloth by day, or a bright lantern by night. Ship captains would return her greeting with three short blasts from their ship. She was always called "The Waving Girl."

Who was this lady with such an unusual gesture of good will?

Florence Martus was her name. She was born on Cockspur Island on August 7, 1869, in a settlement outside of
Ft.Pulaski, on Cockspur Island. Her father came from Germany at age 14, and when he became of age he joined the army. Mr. Martus was an ordinance officer for 40 years, and served in the War Between the States. Florence and her older brother, George Washington Martus, were both born on Cockspur Island. Eventually, her father became a lighthouse keeper. When Florence was 17 years old, her father died, and she and her mother went to live with her brother George, who at age 18 became a lighthouse keeper on nearby Elba Island. When her mother died, Florence stayed on with her brother, helping out with certain lighthouse chores and keeping house.

She was described as a cheerful, shy, plain, slender, blonde-haired girl, with a pleasing personality. It doesn't really tell us about the inner person. Therein lies the real Florence Martus story.

The old-old rumor about Florence Martus was that in 1887 she fell in love, and became engaged to a sailor 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 44 years. She joined her brother George on Elba Island in 1887, and waved at every ship arriving or departing, until her brother's retirement on June 1, 1931.

During those many 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.

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 had many friends, some of whom would come to their modest cottage on the island and spend the day. Sometimes though, Florence would spring up from the table and dash out to the porch to wave at another passing ship. Some visitors would exclaim how uncanny it was that she had such acute hearing. She would wake up in the middle of the night and greet a ship. Others knew she had two large dogs who learned to awaken her when a ship approached. In either case, she was there-- always there-- always greeting sailors and passengers. Although they were strangers, there was a feeling of friendship between them. A friendship they took back with them to all points of the globe.

Florence and George's only transportation was a large "dory", a flat-bottomed motor boat. Florence would steer, and George would operate the engine. Once a month they pulled into Savannah for supplies. They were both avid readers, and spent much of their money buying books at the local bookstore. They were also devoted Catholics, and tried to attend church every Sunday. Their mail and incidental supplies were delivered to Elba Island by certain passing vessels.

The Martus' had many friends, some of whom would occasionally spend the day. Friends might board a boat at
Beaufort, South Carolina, and when the boat neared Elba Island the captain would signal with the ships horn, and George would take them off. On the return trip, 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 plants and flowers, and there was an overall atmosphere of serenity there.

News reporters who heard of the "famous" Waving Girl", and anxious to write about the strange and quirky woman found themselves very surprised! She was not strange at all. In fact, they found her to be highly intelligent, very learned, and had a charming personality-- so much so, that they could only find nice things to say about her. Life was not always that of boredom on Elba Island. In fact, several times, she and George performed acts of heroism they felt was expected of them. Once, shortly after World War I, while waving her lantern at 3:00 a.m. in the morning, she noticed a fire on the river. It was 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. They rescued thirty men in that manner, although one died later from his burns. Many of those men sent her gifts. Years earlier, during a hurricane in 1893, they rescued several men from a sinking boat. On other occasions, they also assisted in saving lives and property near Elba Island.

Finally, on June 1, 1931, George was forced to retire. Florence made her last Waving Girl greeting the same day. Afterward, they made their home in Bona Bella, outside of Savannah, Georgia. It was at their home in 1931 where a group of officials performed a small, informal "Welcome to Savannah" ceremony of recognition for Florence Martus. Some of those in attendance were: Mayor Hoynes; E.R. Richardson, President of Ocean Steamship Co.; and Captain Frank W. Spencer, Master pilot, Savannah Pilots Association, and he was also General Manager of Atlantic Towing Co. Florence was presented with a $500 certificate of deposit in a local bank.

Sometime earlier, a fund raising campaign was started for Florence, (Unknown to her), and Captain Frank Spencer was chairman of the committee. A letter from a retired Master Mariner, A.G. Cole from the Isle of Wight, England 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 realize that all over the world there are sailors who retain pleasant memories of the salutes she never failed to give us."

After the Welcome to Savannah meeting, Florence wrote a note to Captain Spencer:

642 Liberty Street

Captain Frank W. Spencer

Dear friend

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.

Florence Martus

After news spread everywhere of her retirement, several poems were written about the Waving Girl. One was written by Captain Thomas P. Pratt, Master, s/s Chatam 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 January 19, 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."

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 August 7, 1938, the Propeller Club of Savannah sponsored a birthday celebration for Florence Martus. More than 3,000 people attended the festivities. 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 served in the U.S. Army. While there, she recalled that when she was only 13 she found refuge on a spiral staircase there during the severe storm of 1881. All the residences outside the fort were destroyed that year.

The birthday party was booming! 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 honor.

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." The members of the Propeller Club of Savannah must have been pleased by those words!

It is estimated that the Waving Girl greeted at least 100,000 passing ships in her 44 years of friendly waving. Multiply that by the number of seamen and passengers aboard, and ......... Well anyway, that's a lot of unknown friends.

Savannah's Waving Girl died on February 8, 1943. "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. Her interment was at 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 a Waving Girl statue along Savannah's River Street. The inscription appropriately reads:

"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."


Richard L. Servis Jr.
Click on image

Savannah, Georgia Convention & Vistors Bureau
Savannah, Georgia Chamber of Commerce
Georgia Department of Tourism