A walk along River Street in Savannah offers visitors a wide variety of dining choices and views of larger-than-life ships as they enter the city.
If you find yourself waving as the ships pass, you are carrying on a tradition from one of the many legendary inhabitants of Savannah, one of the South's oldest cities. The Waving Girl has been memorialized in a statue on River Street, and she's based on an apparently real person.
The Legend of Florence Martus
Florence Martus (1868 - 1943), 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, when he was transferred from the Cockspur Island Lighthouse to the Elba Island Lighthouse.
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. According to the Georgia Historical Society, it was the "thirtieth of eighty-eight liberty ships built in Savannah", and was eventually scrapped in Baltimore.
Florence is laid to rest next to her brother in Laurel Grove Cemetery in Savannah. The headstone inscription resonates the admiration for their service to the harbor and its visitors.
In memory of the waving girl and her brother
Keepers of the lighthouse on Elba Island, Savannah River for 35 years.
The Waving Girl Statue
The statue that sits in Savannah Harbor today was created 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).
It depicts Florence with her loyal collie. The statue can be found at the eastern end of River Street, overlooking the Savannah River from the bluff.
Legend has it that the captain of the ship that brought the statue to Savannah had such fond memories of Florence that he declined payment.
The ferry service run by the city of Savannah was named the Savannah Belles Ferry to honor Florence and four other notable women of Savannah.