Cape Elizabeth Light, courtesy newenglandlighthouses.net
January 28, 1885
Marcus Hanna, principal keeper at Cape Elizabeth Light, couldn’t wait until morning when the assistant keeper arrived for his shift. A terrible blizzard had hit during the night, one of the “coldest and most violent storms of snow, wind and vapor … that I have ever witnessed.” All night Marcus sounded the steam fog whistle, despite being very sick and exhausted.
When the other man arrived, Marcus climbed down the stairs and stepped into the freezing cold. By then, the snow drifts were so thick, he had to crawl home to the keeper’s house, where he promptly fell asleep. Just after sunrise, his wife looked out the window and saw a schooner stuck on the rocky ledge below the fog signal house. The assistant keeper had not seen it through the whirling snow.
She awakened Marcus, who clambered out of bed, struggled through the snow to get the assistant keeper, and together they rushed to the edge of the water near the schooner. Two half-frozen sailors hung from the rigging trying to escape the assault of icy waves.
Hanna tried several times to toss a rope with a weighted end onto the ship. After failing to succeed, the assistant keeper returned to the protection of the fog house while Mrs. Hanna summoned help from the neighbors.
Despite being half-frozen himself, the dauntless Hanna waded waist-deep into the water and tossed the line again, this time hitting his target. One of the sailors managed to get the line and tie it around himself, and Hanna pulled him through the water to shore. Then Hanna threw the rope several more times before landing it on the ship again where the other crewman secured the line around his waist. Hanna’s strength was failing as he struggled to pull the man to safety.
Just in time, the assistant keeper and two neighbors arrived and helped him haul the sailor to shore where dry clothes and hot food and drink awaited. The two sailors were the only crewmembers of their ship to survive, the others swept out to sea. Amazingly, Marcus Hanna recuperated from the ordeal as well.
Six months later, he received a gold lifesaving medal for “heroism involving great peril to his life.”