Skip Navigation


Security Levels


U.S. Coast Guard Awards

Marcus A. Hanna

Awarded 25 April 1885

A gold medal was awarded to Marcus A. Hanna, principal keeper of the Cape Elizabeth Light-Station near Portland, ME for nobly saving two men from the wrecked schooner Australia on 28 January 1885.

The schooner Australia, with a crew of three men, J. W. Lewis, master, and Irving Pierce and William Kellar, seamen, left her homeport of Booth Bay, ME for Boston, MA laden with fish and guano on 27 January 1885. Around midnight a furious gale and snowstorm set in. After losing some of her sails, she attempted to reach Portland Harbor. Making the land to the leeward, she was driven onto the rocks at Cape Elizabeth, near the fog-signal. She struck soon after 8:00 AM on the 28th.

The seas now poured over her, sweeping away everything about decks, including the house. The men had barely enough time to take to the rigging. Even there it was not safe, for in a few moments the captain was washed away and drowned. The sufferings of the other two men were terrible. With the temperature at 10 degrees below zero, they were drenched to the skin. Mrs. Hanna, the wife of the lightkeeper, soon discovered through the driving snow the masts of the vessel. Marcus Hanna had lain down for a nap upon being relieved at the fog-signal by one of the assistants, Hiram Staples. His wife’s exclamation of alarm upon seeing the wreck was sufficient to awaken him. Slipping on his coat, hat, and boots, he rushed down to the shore.

Upon reaching the fog-signal he called to Staples to follow and the two were soon abreast of the wreck. Two men could he seen in the rigging. They began shouting for help. Hanna knew it was impossible to launch a boat, but his mind was soon made up. He returned to the fog-signal for an axe, and then hastened to a boathouse three hundred yards distant for a line with which to rescue the men. Finding the door blocked by a great mass of snow, he ran back to the fog-signal and shouted to Staples to bring a shovel. An entrance was soon cleared with the axe and they obtained a suitable line.

Meanwhile. Mrs. Hanna had alarmed the other families at the station. Only Mr. Staples’ 15-year old son, however, could render any help. Hanna dispatched him to summon the neighbors. He then got down to his work. Weighting one end of the line with a piece of METAl obtained from the signal house, he clambered down the slippery, ice-coated rocks, almost into the surf, and attempted to heave it on board. His situation was one of great peril. The slightest misstep would have been fatal. The brave fellow had been ill for a week or more, and it was only through the exercise of a most determined will that he was able to stand the hardship and exposure and maintain his footing. After many unsuccessful efforts to reach the men with the line, which fell short, he was compelled to crawl back on to the level ground to warm his hands and feet. He also freed the stiffened line of its coating of ice.

His assistant, Staples, also suffering from the cold, retreated to the signal-house to warm himself, leaving the keeper alone. Soon a wave lifted the schooner and threw her on her beam-ends, thus placing the two men in greater peril than before. Filled with dismay, Hanna again descended the rocks despite the drenching spray. Summoning all his remaining strength, he succeeded in reaching the schooner with the line. One of the men. Pierce, at once tied it about his body, and while he was doing so Hanna crawled back on to the bank and shouted for aid. No response came. As soon as he was ready, Pierce signalled the keeper and cast himself into the icy breakers. He was, with difficulty, drawn out onto the shore. The man’s jaws were set and he appeared to be almost gone. Realizing that every moment was precious, Hanna quickly loosened the line from Pierce’s body and after a few more efforts, threw it within Kellar’s grasp. The process was then repeated and Kellar was nearly ashore when Staples and two of the neighbors came hurrying to his assistance. The rest of the story is soon told. The two sailors were carried into the fog-signal building, where their frozen garments were removed and every possible means was used to warm them up. They were both badly frostbitten, but as the storm made it impossible to remove them to the more comfortable keeper’s dwelling until the following morning.

Hanna and his wife nursed the two until the roads were opened and communication with the city restored. When the poor fellows were carried to the marine hospital in Portland for treatment, they soon came round. That these men would have shared the fate of the captain, but for the self-sacrificing devotion of the brave keeper is beyond doubt. His noble conduct was held deserving of the highest form of recognition within the power of the Service to bestow.

Last Modified 1/12/2016