Florence raised and bred collies for years
The Reasons behind ‘The Savannah Girl’s’ waving are heavily debated
Many dedications have been made to Florence over the years
Florence may be the reason why Savannah is the Hostess City of the South
If you have ever walked the Riverwalk (or River Street) in Savannah, Georgia, at some point, you are sure to make it past Morrell Park. Here is where you will find a nine-foot-tall bronze statue of a young woman waving a cloth eternally in the air. She will be facing the river with a beautiful collie by her side.
Who is this girl? What is her story?
This statue, my friends, would be your first introduction to one Florence Martus or, as she is more popularly known, The Waving Girl.
Born for the Sea
Florence Martus was born on Cockspur Island in 1868. Her father, Sargent John H. Martus, was stationed at Fort Pulaski on the island to oversee the repairs of damages done by Union Soldiers during the Civil War.
Shortly after the reconstruction of Fort Pulaski, Florence's father became a lighthouse worker. When he died, he passed the profession onto his son, George Washington Martus.
George was transferred to another lighthouse on Elba Island, where he and Florence lived a solitary life together. Neither of them ever married, and they raised and bred collies together as a hobby.
It was here that Florence greeted ships from near and far with a wave of her cloth (or lantern) from 1887 to 1931. It is believed that during her 44 years of service, there is not a single ship that passed by without a warm-hearted greeting from Florence.
That number of ships is an estimated 50,000! If that doesn't count as a workout for the ages, I don't know what does.
They’d give her a generous three blows of the horn whenever ships rode on by to show their appreciation. But all that waving begs a giant question: why?
Florence didn't stand and wave for all those years without some good-ol' fashioned lore coming up on the true reason for her waving antics.
Florence started her waving duties when she was about 19 years old. Supposedly, she met and fell in love with a northern sailor who wanted to marry her when he finished his work on the sea. Florence vowed that she would wait for him to come back, and when he did, they would start their lives together.
On the day he was supposed to arrive back, Florence stood by the port, waving a white cloth so that he would see her when he landed. As the day went on, his ship never returned.
From then on, day after day, month after month, year after year, Florence stood in that same spot, hoping to wave her sailor down and welcome him home.
And as it happened, he never returned to Savannah.
However, as the years went on, sailors brought Florence gifts and wrote her letters. They did this to thank her for being there without fail every time a ship came in, as it gave a lot of sailors comfort that they too would return home to people that loved them and were excited to see them.
In Her Words
In an interview conducted by renowned reporter Ernie Pyle in 1936, he asked Florence if there was any truth to the rumor that she waves down ships because she is looking for her long-lost lover.
Pyle noted that she did not exactly confirm or deny but claimed that she knew all of the local captains around the city. When they came back home, it was only natural to welcome them home. So she started to do so and never really stopped.
They also discussed how Florence kept a diary for all those years, marking all the ships that rode in, their home ports, people she met, etc. But she claimed to have burned the diary upon her retirement from being the Waving Girl in 1931.
As the diary dwindled to ashes, so did our hopes of knowing the truth behind the Unwavering Waver’s motivations.
Many believe that Florence was just a lonely girl who lived on a lonely Island and simply enjoyed the attention that she got from the sailors at the time. And Florence's fame did indeed grow as she became known to sailors worldwide, yes, all over the WORLD, as the Waving Girl of Savannah.
But she didn’t only wave at incoming ships. Florence is also fondly remembered and dearly beloved due to her various rescue efforts of those lost at sea.
In 1911, a river dredge caught fire, causing eight men to board a pontoon and drift towards the ocean. After hearing their cries, Florence rode out on her rowboat and brought them safely to shore.
And about two weeks later, Florence and her brother saved a small group of people who were nearly lost to sea on another burning boat. She was always alert and keeping her mind on the water; at this point, it was just something that was in her bones.
Many who tell the tale of Florence believe that she eventually died of a broken heart. Local lore suggests that Florence's ghost haunts Elba Island as she still waves her trusty cloth in the air, hoping to flag down her long-lost lover.
Some people go as far as to claim that they see her bronze statue come to life at night. If there are ever any moving statues in the vicinity, you can definitely count me OUT!
Florence retired from her waving girl duties in 1931 when her brother retired as a lighthouse worker. Florence died peacefully on February 8th, 1943, 3 years after her brother, and is buried beside him in Laurel Grove Cemetery.
Their headstone reads:
In memory of the waving girl and her brother, keepers of the lighthouse on Elba Island, Savannah River for 35 years.
Following her death, artist Felix de Weldon erected a statue in her honor. The sculpture was created in Rome, Italy, and shipped to Savannah in 1972. This statue is the very one that stands tall today on the Riverwalk in Morrell Park.
It is rumored that the captain that carried it over from Italy refused any payment out of respect for his most fond memories of Florence.
Many dedications have been made to The Waving Girl to commemorate her service, starting with the liberty ship SS Florence Martus. It was christened in 1943, just months after her death.
Then there was the aforementioned statue in 1972, the first statue of any Georgia woman in any city park in the United States. In 1977, a Savannah Ballet performance was held in her honor called ‘The Legend of the Waving Girl.’
The Savannah Belles Ferry Service named one of their ferries after Florence in 1999. Such is Florence Martus' fame that you can find Waving Girl postcards in almost any souvenir shop in Savannah.
There is not a Savannah native alive who does not know of her legend, and to this day, passing ships will still give her three honks upon their arrival to Savannah.
Some say that Florence’s service as the Waving Girl gave Savannah its nickname - The Hostess City of the South. At the very least, she embodied that spirit as well as anyone could.
So the next time you're pulling into a Savannah harbor, give ol' Florence three honks and let her welcome you to this great city. Something tells me that she sure would appreciate it.