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The Epoch Times
The Epoch Times
11 Mar 2023

NextImg:Profiles in History: Mary Miller: The Lady Steamboatman

Mary Millicent Miller (1846–1894) was born at the height of the steamboat era. Her affinity for steamboats was fueled, or perhaps created, by the fact she was born in Louisville, the city that lies right next to the Ohio River which separates Kentucky and Indiana. She grew up on the river and around the newest form of water transportation; her father, Andrew Garretson, was a steamboat engineer.

Shortly after the end of the Civil War, Mary married George Miller, who was a captain of his own steamboat, the Saline. Carrying cargo along the rivers, including the Ohio, Mississippi, and Red Rivers, Mary would assume the role of captain, while George piloted the 178-ton sternwheeler. The two ran their business for years, although Mary was not a licensed captain.

George soon lost his captain’s license after failing a required test due to the fact that he was colorblind. Now neither of the two were licensed. A steamboat competitor discovered this impropriety and reported it to the Steamboat Inspection Service, assuming that George was both captain and pilot, which was a criminal offense.

George encouraged his wife to study and take the captain’s exam. Her experience and knowledge of the business, steamboats, and rivers enabled her to pass. The Louisville inspector, however, was reticent about providing her a license. After eight months of waiting and the inspectors contacting the authority in Washington D.C., the Secretary of the Treasury Charles Folger decided it was in Mary’s right to have a license if she was “fitted to perform the duties required, in spite of sex.”

On Feb. 18, 1884, the Daily Picayune, a newspaper in New Orleans, one of the main areas the Millers conducted business, announced that Mary had received her license calling her a “lady steamboatman.” After the decision, the husband and wife steamboating business grew, enabling them to add the sailboat Swan to the line. The growth, however, was short lived, as the era of locomotives would practically end the steamboat era of shipping goods.

George and Mary sold their steamboat, but Mary would retain her license just in case the need for a captain arose. The family would remain near the rivers that had been such an intimate part of their lives.

A portrait of Mary Miller at the National Rivers Hall of Fame in Dubuque, Iowa. (Public Domain)

In the final years of her life, however, Mary contracted an illness that would lead to her death. Reports suggest it was something she caught sailing the Swan in the Gulf of Mexico. When she passed on Oct. 30, 1894 at approximately 4:30 a.m., George walked out of the house and climbed aboard the sailboat and fell asleep. Perhaps he could not handle the idea of being in the same house with his wife’s body, or perhaps the boat was the best way to truly be close to her.

Over the next century, Mary’s name has been memorialized in several ways. She has a permanent exhibit honoring her at the Portland Museum (Portland is a neighborhood in Louisville). Built in 1985 and named after the “lady steamboatman,” the Mary M. Miller is part of the Belle of Louisville Riverboats fleet. In 1993, Mary was inducted into the American Merchant Marine Hall of Fame.

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