The “Waving Girl” Monument

Commemorates Florence Margaret Martus (1868-1943), Savannah’s “Waving Girl”
Location Morrell Park, East River Street
Artist Felix de Weldon
Erected 1972

The monument in Morrell Park, along East River Street, commemorates local woman Florence Martus, better known as Savannah’s Waving Girl. She is depicted in the act of waving to a passing ship, her dog standing at her side.

Martus is famous for having greeted each ship entering the Savannah Harbor, waving to them with a handkerchief or towel by day and with a lamp by night. It is said that over a period of 44 years, she never missed a ship.

Sailors on board would look out for the enigmatic young woman as they passed, honking their ships’ horns in response to her greeting. Not knowing Martus’s real name, the seafarers began to refer to her as the “Waving Girl,” and thus has she been immortalized.

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Florence Martus

Florence Martus was born on Cockspur Island in 1868, the daughter of a Union ordnance sergeant stationed at Fort Pulaski in the years after the Civil War.

The Martus family stayed in Savannah, and after the death of her father, Florence moved, together with her mother and brother George, to Elba Island, where George had been appointed keeper of the Elba Island River Beacon Light, a few miles upriver of Fort Pulaski.

Soon after their move to Elba Island, around 1887, Florence began to wave to the ships that passed by the front of the keeper’s house each day. Between 1887 and 1931 she greeted every ship that entered and left Savannah’s port.

Her reasons for beginning to greet the ships are unknown. Some have speculated that it was the loneliness of life on Elba Island, with no-one but her immediate family and her border collies for company.

Others have said that she suffered a disappointment in love, falling for a sailor whose promised return to Savannah never came. Martus herself vigorously denied this story, which was in all likelihood an invention of the passing sailors.

Florence Martus died in 1943. On September 27 of that year, the Liberty Ship SS Florence Martus was named in her honor.

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The Monument

In 1960s Savannah, the recent redevelopment and renewal of River Street and the waterfront prompted a rising interest in preserving and highlighting the city’s historic attractions. The idea of erecting a monument in memory of Savannah’s Waving Girl was a part of this broader trend.

In 1966, a local chapter of the Altrusa Club formed a Waving Girl Memorial Fund. It took two years to raise the necessary funds, which in the end were mostly provided by a single donation from Savannah citizen Mills B Lane, Jr.

Initially, the statue was to be placed in Washington Square, adjacent to the International Seamen’s House. In the end, that site was deselected in favor of its present location on River Street, due to concerns about the stability of the ground and its ability to support the weight of the statue and its base, and that the size of the monument would be out of proportion to the residential architecture of the streets surrounding the square.

The River Street site seemed anyway more apt, where it would be seen by passing ships, not to mention tourists.

Austrian-American sculptor Felix de Weldon (1907-2003) was commissioned to design the statue. De Weldon, who had lived in the United States since 1937 and became a citizen in 1945, was chosen for his reputation as one of the foremost sculptors of the period.

His body of work eventually stretched to around 1200 pieces – displayed on every continent of the world, including Antarctica – but he is probably best known for his sculpture for the US Marine Corps War Memorial (the Iwo Jima Memorial) at Arlington, Virginia.

De Weldon drew up an initial design for Savannah’s new monument, to which he made several modifications in response to local concerns that his depiction was not sufficiently true to Martus’s life and habits.

The generic dog by her side was changed to be a collie, of the type which Martus and her brother had bred as a hobby. The original barefoot design was replaced with shoes modeled on the exact style she had formerly purchased from a local Savannah store.

The final bronze statue, standing 9 feet tall, was cast in a foundry in Rome, Italy and eventually delivered in August of 1971, slightly delayed on account of longshoremen strikes in Italy and the United States. It was unveiled on February 5 the following year.

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