This lighthouse keeper earned the nation’s two highest awards for bravery

Hello! Every seven days, for the rest of the year, This Week in Portland History is bringing to light a person or event from the city’s past.

It was 132 years ago this week, when word came down from the brass at the U.S. Life-Saving Service. They said Cape Elizabeth lighthouse keeper Marcus Hanna had been honored the service’s highest award, the Gold Medal. That was April 25, 1885.

They said he earned the honor for, “Nobly saving two men from the wrecked schooner Australia.” That was a large understatement of what happened.

The twin lighthouses in Cape Elizabeth, circa late 1800s. Photo courtesy of the National Archives

The twin lighthouses in Cape Elizabeth, circa late 1800s. Photo courtesy of the National Archives

Hanna was a civil war veteran who, with his wife Louise, took care of the twin lights at the mouth of Portland Harbor. Earlier that year, on January 28, a ferocious nor’easter tore up the coast. Temperatures dropped below zero. Offshore, freezing spray and snow coated a little schooner called the Australia, making it impossible to steer. She was out of Boothbay Harbor, bound for Boston with a load of ice and 150 barrels of mackerel on deck.

Marcus Hanna. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard

Marcus Hanna. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard

Overnight, the boat ended up grinding to a halt, 100 feet from shore, on a ledge near the lighthouses. The three men on board were already drenched when they scrambled up into the rigging as frothing breakers rolled over the decks. Before dawn, Capt. John Lewis succumbed to the cold. He dropped into the water, floundered for a minute, then disappeared.

At daybreak, Hanna’s wife went up into one of the lighthouse towers to extinguish the flame. She saw the men, dangling in the rigging, down below. She alerted her husband. He grabbed his assistant, Hiram Staples, a rope and a heavy weight, then headed for the shore.

Facing the cutting wind and icy surf, Hanna flung the rope out to the men. It fell short. He reeled in in, getting soaked in the process. Soon, he lost all feeling in his hands. He flung the weighted line again, and again, and again, falling short each time. It was just too far.

Hanna didn’t give up, though. If he couldn’t throw it far enough, then he’d have to shorten the distance. He waded out into the surf up to his waist and tried again. On the 21st attempt, he hit the boat. But the line fell back into the water. He gathered the line again and heaved. This time, he reached one of the sailors.

The man, Irving Pierce, tied the rope around his middle and and leapt into the sea. Hanna called for Staples to help him but the assistant had vanished. Hanna, without feeling in his hands, pulled the man to ashore alone.

Meanwhile, the schooner was starting to break up in the heavy surf. Hanna waded out into the killer sea again. After a few tries, he got the rope to the second man, named Austin Keller. He fastened the rope around himself and plunged into the water. Hanna had him halfway to shore when his assistant reappeared with a neighbor. Together, the three men reeled him to safety.

The east light at Two Lights in Cape Elizabeth, circa late 1800s. Photo courtesy of the National Archives

The east light at Two Lights in Cape Elizabeth, circa late 1800s. Photo courtesy of the National Archives

After a few days recovering at the keeper’s house, Hanna drove them men to a hospital in Portland via horse drawn sleigh. Five days after the wreck, the captain’s body washed ashore. Hanna drove him to Portland as well.

That’s quite a story, and Hanna was surely deserving of a gold medal, but it wasn’t the only award Hanna received. Ten years later, in 1895, Congress awarded him a belated Medal of Honor for his bravery in the Civil War.

In 1863, at the battle of Port Huron, Louisiana, then-Sgt. Marcus Hanna dashed across an open battlefield, alone, strapped with a dozen empty canteens. He safely reached a well and filled them. Then, he ran back across the open field, weighted down with the full canteens — through withering enemy fire — brining water to his thirsty men.

He died in 1921 and is buried at Mount Pleasant Cemetery in South Portland. Not far away, at the Coast Guard station, is docked a 176-foot cutter named for him. It’s not noted on his gravestone but Hanna is the only American to win both the nation’s highest military, and civilian, honors for bravery.

I hope he’s resting easy. I think he’s earned it.

Note: If you want to know more about Marcus Hanna and other heroes of the Maine Coast, read Peter Dow Bachelder’s book “Shipwrecks & Maritime Disasters of the Maine Coast.”

Disclaimer: I’m not a historian. I owe everything I know to the dedicated research of those who have come before me. These character sketches and historical tidbits are assembled from multiple (often antique) sources and sprinkled with my own conjecture. I’m happy to be set straight or to learn more.

Troy R. Bennett

About Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.