Sailors, Ships, and Shore Mates from the Great Lakes to the Great Barrier Reef
Does Faithful Florence Martus Still Wave to Her Yankee Lover?
Undoubtedly Florence Martus never dreamed that her maritime life would become the basis for legends, ghost stories, and she would lend her name to aWorld War II ship. She was too busy helping her brother George tend the light on Elba Island in the Savannah River and falling in love.
Florence Martus was eighteen that day in 1887 when the Yankee sailor anchored in Savannah harbor and captured her heart.
Florence and George Martus were born in a cottage on Cockspur Island outside of Savannah ‑ Florence in 1869 and George in 1861. They grew up on the island. When George came of age, the Lighthouse Board appointed him Chief Keeper of the Elba Island Light on the Savannah River and set up George and Florence in a cottage near the light. Florence kept the cottage comfortable, cooked the meals and helped George with the lighthouse chores.
Theirs was a happy, comfortable life, yet sometimes Florence longed for..what she wasn't sure. Then one summer day in 1887, a graceful clipper from New York anchored inSavannah harborto take aboard mixed freight for China Seas ports. Early the next morning the first mate and another crew member hired a boat. They rowed downriver, stepped ashore on Elba Island, and knocked on the cottage door.
"We're strangers here and someone told us the old fort was a showplace," they said to George and Florence.
Florence offered to show both of them the sights, but more and more her attention was captured by the tall, broad shouldered, Yankee first mate. As they talked, she learned that he was born on Cape Cod with "salt water in his veins." When he was still knee high to an anchor he constructed his own dory and sailed the creeks and streams around his house.
Later, he haunted the waterfront, learning the lines of ships, and making the acquaintance of sailors. In due time, he became a crew member on a three masted schooner and gloried in it. He had taken the first step on the lowest rung of the nautical ladder and he intended to climb to the top until he was the master of his own ship.
The Yankee first mate had never had any thoughts about women, at least not since his mother died soon after his first voyage. Then, this blossom‑scented summer day, he met Florence. She made him smile and stirred his soul. Smiling at him, Florence felt she was welcoming back someone dear who had been on a long journey. She knew that she would miss him unbearably if he went away. She wanted him to stay here with her forever in an endless summer.
The Yankee first mate asked Florence if he could visit the next and again she smiled an unspoken answer. The next morning he returned and they sat together on the porch. Shyly, she asked him to tell her more about himself. She watched him as he talked and she knew that they belonged to each other.
He told her about a neat little house set on a Cape Cod hill, surrounded by oak and red maple. He described framed pictures of sailing ships on its walls and spoke of his seaman father who taught him about ships and sails. He discussed his ambition to be captain and told Florence that when this next voyage was completed and he returned to New York, he was to be given command of his own ship. He intended to make a name for himself and his employers. He intended to sail the ship they gave him to new speed records.
Florence asked the first mate about New York and he told her of the crowds and tenements and the Staten Island Ferry. He described an invention called the telephone that allowed people in Chicago and New York to talk to each other. Florence had never been outside of Savannah, and she listened in amazement. She laughed when he asked her if she would like to visit New York the next time his ship sailed home, but the thought frightened her. All he talked about where ships and the sea and she loved him. She wondered if he loved her, or whether ships and the sea were his only loves.
The Yankee sailor returned to his ship, but early the next morning was back with Florence, and the morning after that. Finally, he last few hours in Savannah, they sat together again on the porch of the little white cottage. They didn't speak until she asked him how long he would be gone on this voyage.
Laughing he replied, "Six, maybe eight months, who knows?"
Then he looked down at her and asked a question of his own. Would she wait or was there someone else? She whispered that she would wait forever if he wanted her to. She confessed that she loved him more than life itself. He took her in his arms, but finally she struggled free, breathlessly pleading with him to stay with her another hour. If he would stay, she'd fix a meal like she had never cooked for George.
The magic hours flew and it was time for him to sail. As he left Florence, he unknotted the white silk kerchief from around his neck and gave it to her. Would she go to the lantern gallery the next morning as his ship sailed by wave farewell? Her eyes, full of tears, told him her answer. "And the day you are due back in Savannah, I'll be there again to wave a welcome," she promised.
The next morning the tall clipper sailed past Elba Island and as it cleared the river mouth and headed out to sea, she waved the white silk kerchief from the lantern gallery. Florence watched the ship sail over the horizon and she knew that her life was sailing away too . She knew she wouldn't feel alive again until his ship returned.
Bustling around the cottage, busy with daily chores, she tried to sing, but the songs died on her lips. The first evening the Yankee first mate was gone, she crossed out the day on the wall calendar. Every evening she did the same, consoling herself with the thought that the crosses marked the passing of the weeks and months that stretched between their reunion.
Hours, weeks, months dragged by, then a full year had passed. Every time she or her brother sighted a sail fromElba Island. Florence hurried up the iron stairway to the lantern gallery, clutching the white silk square to her breast. At night when her brother spotted an incoming ship, she lighted a storm lamp and hurried out into the chilly air, waving her lamp and the white kerchief slowly.
As she canceled the weeks and months on the wall calendar, Florence's world narrowed to the calendar and the ships passing by the island. Eventually, she climbed the iron stairway to wave her white kerchief to every ship that passed. Eventually, she lost track of time and forgot to cancel out the squares on her calendar. She spent several years as light keeper when her brother could no longer do it.
Florence's brother George was 70 in 1931, and on the last day of May, he left the Lighthouse Service, forced to quit because of his age. He had purchased another small cottage on the mainland and he persuaded Florence to come there and live with him. She did for six years, but when he died in 1937, Florence sold the cottage and returned alone to Elba Island to wave to the passing ships. She scanned the horizon with fading blue eyes and hopes, but clutched the white kerchief to her heart just in case.
More time passed and now elegant white cruise liners came close inshore and showed their engines so passengers could viewFlorence, "the sight of Elba Island." Still Florence stood waving, the square of faded white silk fluttering in one hand.
Toward the end of January 1943, gentle hands lifted 74‑year‑old Florence into an ambulance. She was taken into a ward in a Savannah hospital and made comfortable in bed. Florence was gracious and kind to everyone and the hospital ward was quiet and peaceful, much more peaceful than the war‑torn world outside.
Florencewas at peace too. She lay still on the white cot, her faded blue eyes closed. She had kept the promise she had made to her Yankee sailor 56 years before. She had believed in him and refused to abandon hope through the long years since he had sailed away that he would be back. When she died on February 8, 1943, she still clutched the faded white silk square.
Legend and the ghost stories say that Florence still walks Elba Island waving her white kerchief and waiting for her Yankee lover. Ships still blow their whistles as they pass to honor her devotion.
DeWire, Elinor. Guardians of the Lights: Stories of US Lighthouse Keepers. Pineapple Pres, 2007.
Roberts, Nancy. Georgia Ghosts, John F. Blair Publisher, 1997.
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Photograph courtesy of the Ecorse, Michigan Rowing Club.