Keeper Marcus Hanna In Most Dangerous Rescue in Maine

Allan Wood | February 1, 2023 | COMMENTS:Comments Closed
Cape Elizabeth lighthouse at night

Cape Elizabeth Lighthouse is one of the most powerful lighthouses on the Maine coast.

Lighthouse Keeper Marcus Hanna Involved in the Most Dangerous Rescue At Cape Elizabeth Light in Maine

Marcus Hanna was transferred as head keeper to Cape Elizabeth Lighthouse in 1873 from Pemaquid Point Lighthouse. He was to become infamous for one of the most daring rescues in lighthouse history. The rescue is not famous for the number of survivors saved but for the incredible suffering Keeper Hanna endured in his determination to save those in distress, in risking his own life in the attempt.

The schooner Australia was carrying a cargo of 150 barrels of mackerel on deck and a load of ice on the 27th of January, 1885. The next day, she was leaving Boothbay, Maine, to deliver her cargo to Boston, Massachusetts. On board were three crewmen: Captain J.W. Lewis, Seaman Irving Pierce, and Seaman William Kellar.

That night, a violent nor’easter storm came over the area with bitterly cold gale-force winds and blinding snow. Keeper Hanna sounded the steam fog whistle all night despite being exhausted from having flu-like symptoms. By daybreak, the keeper trudged back from the tower through large snowdrifts to the keeper’s dwelling to rest. Mrs. Hanna extinguished the lights in both towers while Assistant Keeper Hiram Staples took the morning shift, trying to look for distressed vessels. However, visibility was abysmal from the ongoing blizzard.

Keeper Marcus Hanna. Image courtesy US Coast Guard.

Keeper Marcus Hanna. Image courtesy US Coast Guard.

Around midnight that same night during the storm, the Australia had lost her sails from the high winds while attempting to reach Portland Harbor for safety. By 8:00 a.m. that morning on January 28, she crashed on the rocks by Cape Elizabeth Light, near the fog signal. As the seas washed over the wreck, the crewmen had barely enough time to crawl upon the rigging. Captain Lewis lost his grip and was washed overboard, drowning in the icy waters. The two seamen, Pierce and Kellar, were trying to hang on to the rigging in the bitter cold as the temperature had tumbled to minus 10 degrees below zero. As the storm continued, they were drenched in icy water and spray.

At around 8:40 a.m., with the blizzard still unrelenting, Hanna’s wife saw a glimpse of the vessel’s masts on the rocks and shouted to awaken her husband. Keeper Hanna rushed to the signal house with Staples, who hadn’t seen the wreck through the blinding snow. Hanna and Staples hurried to the water’s edge near the schooner, where they observed the two sailors covered in ice clinging to the rigging, looking like ghoulish scarecrows. Hanna yelled that they were coming to help and for the sailors to hang on.

Keeper Hanna’s wife and Staples’ son went to get help from the neighbors as Hanna and Assistant Keeper Staples decided to try to find materials to rescue the men. The keeper realized he could not launch a boat in the stormy waters, so he crawled through the snow to the fog signal house and grabbed an axe. He and Staples then had to crawl over the snowdrifts to the boathouse 300 yards away and shovel the entrance to get into the building. There they grabbed a line to rescue the frozen crewmen.

Ice Covered Rocks

Ice Covered Rocks by Cape Elizabeth Lighthouse.

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 at below-zero temperatures. If he slipped on the rocks in the thunderous surf, it could be a fatal mistake in such freezing waters. When he reached the surf’s edge, he tried several times to throw the line to the vessel but failed. He repeatedly tried unsuccessfully, with the line falling short of its target each time. After many unsuccessful attempts, Keeper Hanna briefly crawled back to the shoreline to warm himself up. He could feel the stinging pain from prolonged exposure as his fingers, hands, and feet started numbing. Staples also suffered from the freezing cold and briefly abandoned the keeper. He returned to the fog signal house to warm up and checked to see if any additional help had arrived.

Suddenly a huge wave struck the wrecked schooner and smashed her further on the rocks. Hanna knew time was getting short for the men. In exhaustion from his illness and practically frozen as hypothermia engulfed him, he decided to risk his life and waded waist-deep into the icy ocean surf. The waves thrashed around him as he summoned all his strength and again threw a line to the schooner, this time landing it near Pierce. The frozen sailor barely pulled his grasp away from the icy rigging and bent the line around his waist.

Cape Elizabeth light over snow covered beach

Cape Elizabeth lighthouse overlooks a snow-covered beach after a Maine winter storm.

With no reply, Hanna returned to the icy rocks and shouted for help. He knew time was slipping away and had to get the men ashore. As soon as he was ready, Pierce signaled to Hanna and jumped into the raging surf. Hanna was determined to save Pierce at any cost and somehow pulled the helpless man through the waves and over the slippery rocks to safety on the shore. Hanna would later write, “Pierce’s jaws were set; he was blind from exposure to the cold, and the expression of his face I shall not soon forget.”

Keeper Hanna realized he couldn’t wait for help to arrive and quickly loosened the line from Pierce’s ice-covered body. He again waded into the surf in sub-zero temperatures and howling winds. After several tries, the line landed within Kellar’s grasp. Also frozen and badly frostbitten, Kellar could barely tie the rope around his waist. Keeper Hanna could feel his own strength giving out as he tried to haul Kellar over to safety. Just as Hanna was about to pass out from exhaustion and exposure, Staples and two neighbors arrived and were able to help the keeper haul Kellar to the shore.

Snow drifts around Cape Elizabeth Lighthouse after storm.

Snow drifts around Cape Elizabeth Lighthouse after storm.

The two sailors were then carried to the fog signal building, along with Hanna, where they were given dry clothes, food, and spirits. They were severely frostbitten and could not be moved to the keeper’s dwelling until later that night due to the storm’s intensity and huge snowdrifts. The storm had removed communication within the city, and most roads were closed for a few days. After spending two more days at the keeper’s dwelling, Pierce and Kellar had recovered enough, along with Hanna, to be taken to the marine hospital in Portland by sled. They gradually recovered from what could easily have been a tragedy without the keeper’s determination.

In April 1885, Marcus Hanna received a Gold Lifesaving Medal six months later for his selfless heroism in rescuing the two sailors. The incident was to rank as one of the most extraordinary lifesaving feats at an American lighthouse and 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 homeport is in South Portland, Maine, near the Cape Elizabeth Lighthouse.



Exploring and Viewing Cape Elizabeth Lighthouse

Other Cape Elizabeth Range light capped, with active light in background.

Other Cape Elizabeth Range light capped, with active light in background.

You can walk from the park to the lighthouses. Cape Elizabeth Lighthouse is a private residence in a quiet residential neighborhood that you can view easily from the road. It was originally part of two lighthouses as part of range lights, and the other lighthouse, which is capped, can also be viewed inside the neighborhood. Be wary, as these are private residences.

Two Lights State Park, sometimes called Two Lights State Park, offers relaxing picnic tables, hiking trails, and ocean views near the lighthouses.
Cape Elizabeth is also home to Portland Head Lighthouse, the oldest lighthouse in Maine, located a few miles away.

Here are some photos of Cape Elizabeth Lighthouse and its Range Light.


Allan Wood



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