Most Daring Rescue in Lighthouse
(image courtesy USCG)
Cape Elizabeth Lighthouse, Cape Elizabeth, Maine
Gold Medal Award to Marcus Hanna: Highest Award
Marcus Hanna was transferred as head Keeper to Cape Elizabeth lighthouse in 1873 from Pemaquid Point lighthouse. He was to become infamous in one of the most daring rescues in lighthouse history.
The schooner Australia was carrying a cargo of 150 barrels of mackerel on deck and ice on the 27th of January, 1885, with three crewmen, J.W. Lewis, the Captain, with seamen Irving Pierce and William Kellar aboard. She was leaving Boothbay, Maine to deliver her cargo to Boston, Massachusetts. On the night of January 28, a violent nor’easter storm came over the area with gale force winds and blinding snow. Hanna, sounded the steam fog whistle all night despite being ill and exhausted. The Keeper had to crawl through large snowdrifts back to the keeper’s dwelling to try to get some much needed rest. Mrs. Hanna extinguished the lights in both towers after sunrise.
Meanwhile, around midnight during the storm, the Australia had lost her sails from the high winds and in trying to attempt to reach Portland Harbor, ended up crashing on the rocks around 8:00 AM by Cape Elizabeth, near the fog signal. As the seas swelled over her the crewmen had barely enough time to crawl upon the rigging. Captain Lewis lost his grip and was washed overboard and drowned in the icy waters. The two remaining crewman, Pierce and Kellar, were trying to hang on in the bitter cold that had tumbled to 10 degrees below zero, and were drenched in icy water and spray, as the blizzard continued.
At around 8:40 AM with the blizzard still blowing, Hanna’s wife saw the masts of the vessel on the rocks and shouted to awake her husband. Hanna rushed to the signal house. Assistant Keeper Staples, who was keeping the morning watch, hadn't seen the wreck through the thick snow. Hanna and Staples hurried to the edge of the water near the schooner. The two crewmen could be seen on the rigging practically frozen to death.
Hanna’s wife and Staples’ son went to get help from the neighbors as Hanna and Staples decided to try to find materials to rescue the men. Hanna realized he could not launch a boat in the stormy waters, so he returned to the fog signal house and grabbed an axe. He and Staples then had to get to the boathouse 300 yards away and shovel the entrance to get in the building to grab some rope to rescue the frozen crewmen.
Keeper Hanna tied a heavy iron weight he got from the fog signal house to the end of the line and crawled along the icy rocks with the winds still gusting. The lightest slip could have been fatal in the icy waters. When he reached the edge of the surf he tried a number of times to throw the line to the vessel but failed. He tried again and again unsuccessfully with the line falling short of its target each time. His assistant, Staples, also suffering from the cold, abandoned the Keeper and went back to the fog signal house to try to warm himself up and get help.
Suddenly a huge wave struck the broken schooner and smashed her further on the rocks. Hanna knew time was getting short for the men. In exhaustion from being ill and the bitter chill of below zero temperatures, Hanna, practically frozen by this time, decided to risk his life and waded waist-deep into the icy ocean water. He summoned all his strength, and again threw a line to the schooner, this time landing it near Pierce. Crewman Pierce managed to pull himself away from the icy rigging and bend it around his waist. Hanna crawled back to the icy rocks and shouted for help with no reply. Hanna knew time was slipping quickly and he had to get Pierce ashore. As soon as he was ready, Pierce signaled to Hanna and threw his already frozen body into the icy waters. Hanna, frozen and exhausted himself, but determined to save Pierce under all costs, somehow pulled the helpless man through the waves and over the rocks to the shore to safety. According to Hanna, "Pierce's jaws were set; he was totally blind from exposure to the cold, and the expression of his face I shall not soon forget"
Hanna knew he couldn't wait for help to arrive and quickly loosened the line from Piece. He again waded into the icy water in below zero temperatures. After several tries, the line landed within Kellar’s grasp. Kellar, also frozen and badly frostbitten, was able to tie the rope around himself. Hanna's strength was giving out as he tried to haul the frozen Kellar over to safety. Just then, Staples and two neighbors arrived and were able to help Hanna haul Kellar to the shore to safety.
The two sailors were then carried to the fog signal building where they were given dry clothes and food. They were badly frostbitten and could not be moved to the keeper’s dwelling due to the storm until the following day. The storm had removed communication within the city and roads closed for a couple of days. After two days the rescued seamen had recovered enough to be taken to the marine hospital in Portland by sled. They recovered along with Hanna from what could easily been a tragedy for all if not for the determination of the Keeper.
Six months later, in April of 1885, Marcus Hanna received a gold lifesaving medal for his selfless heroism in rescuing the two sailors, which was to rank as one of the greatest lifesaving feats at an American lighthouse. It was one of the highest honors given for heroic service. Hannah also received the distinguished Medal of Honor in 1895 for his bravery in another rescue incident at Port Hudson. In August 1997, the Coast Guard launched a 175-foot coast guard buoy tender vessel named the Marcus Hanna. A replica of Hanna's lifesaving medal is mounted on board. The ship’s home port is located in South Portland, Maine, near Cape Elizabeth lighthouse.
Some Great References:
Lighthouses of New England by Edward Rowe Snow