Along with her new residency here in town, the Georgia Queen will get a new name that honors Louisville native Mary M. Miller, who became the first female steamboat captain in the U.S. in 1884. The boat arrived April 29 and is currently undergoing a makeover by the Belle of Louisville crew.
According to a press release sent out by the Louisville Waterfront Development Corp., Mary M. Miller was born in Louisville in 1846 and helped her husband run his Saline steamboat up and down the Ohio River, carrying passengers and freight to the Mississippi River and beyond.
Back in that era, you had to have two separate people acting as master and pilot of the boat, and a competitor noticed Miller’s husband, George, was listed as being in charge of both positions. That’s when George confessed that his wife was acting as the master by overseeing the boat’s daily operations and would be seeking a license immediately.
Of course, the Steamboat Inspection Service in New Orleans had no idea what to do, because a female had never requested to be licensed. So they deferred the situation to their headquarters in Washington, D.C., which brought national attention to the issue. In February of 1884, the Secretary of Treasury ruled that if Miller was fit to perform the duties, she should be given a license regardless of gender.
It was a major victory for women’s rights, and there was even an editorial and cartoon about the milestone that ran in Harper’s Weekly.
Miller continued to run the Saline with her husband, and she retired in 1891, moving back to her home in the Portland neighborhood. She died in 1894 and was buried at the Portland Cemetery. Also worth noting, the Portland Museum has a permanent display about Captain Mary M. Miller.
The Mary M. Miller steamboat will be open to the public in early summer, and an exact christening date has yet to be determined. The 32-year-old boat can carry 565 passengers and will join the Belle in offering dinner cruises and special events.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated.