|Louisville, Kentucky – The new addition to the Belle of Louisville operation, a riverboat formerly known as the Georgia Queen, will be christened the Mary M. Miller in honor of the first woman in the United States to receive a steamboat master’s license. Captain Miller, who paved the way for women to become masters and pilots in the steamboat industry, was born in Louisville in 1846.
Captain Mary Miller had the river in her blood; her father was a steamboat engineer, and in 1865 she married boat builder and operator George Miller. Together, Mary and George operated the Saline, a 178-ton packet boat that carried passengers and freight along the Mississippi and other rivers. A challenge from competitors that George was acting as both master and pilot on the boat (which was illegal) led George to confess that Mary was acting as the master by overseeing daily operations and the boat’s fiscal matters, and that she would be applying for a master’s license forthwith.
The Steamboat Inspection Service (SIS) in New Orleans, unable to deal with this unprecedented situation, referred the matter to SIS Headquarters in Washington, DC, which brought national attention to the issue. In February 1884, The Secretary of the Treasury ruled that if Mary M. Miller was fit to perform the duties, she should be awarded her license regardless of gender. She was named a captain on February 16, 1884, and on the same day an editorial and cartoon ran in the national publication Harper’s Weekly that championed women’s rights and supported the commissioning of women as steamboat captains.
Mary and George went on to operate the Saline until they retired in 1891 to the house they had maintained in the Portland neighborhood of Louisville. Mary Millicent Miller died in 1894, and is buried in the Portland Cemetery, Bank Street at North 35th.
The new boat, which arrived in Louisville on April 29th, will undergo several weeks of spiffing up by Belle of Louisville crew, including painting, woodworking repair, and upgrading the restroom on the main floor to be accessible. The boat will be christened in early summer, when this work is completed. An exact christening date is yet to be determined.
For more information about Captain Mary Millicent Miller:
- The Portland Museum has a permanent animatronic display on Captain Miller at their facility at 2308 Portland Avenue.
- The Encyclopedia of Louisville includes an extensive article by Jack E. Custer/Sandra Miller Custer.
- The New York Times “On This Day” for February 16, 2016 includes the Harper’s Weekly wonderful editorial cartoon and column entitled, “By All Means Commission the Ladies.” www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/harp/0216.html