Dubuque County Historical Society Images

The River People

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Mary Miller

Mary Miller was born in 1846 and died in 1894. Before women had the vote, and before they could own property in some states, Mary Miller was a licensed steamboat master on the western rivers of America. That was unheard of in an era when the river "belonged" to men.

Mary Miller was born in Louisville, Kentucky, one of the great river ports, in 1846. She married George Miller in 1865, and together they operated the steamboat Saline in the southern river trade. They ran on the Red River, the Quachita, the bayous, and the Mississippi, moving cotton and other crops and seed in and out of New Orleans. They operated the supply boats for many small bayou towns.

The competing Banks Line wanted to put the Millers out of business and charged that Mary Miller was operating illegally by acting as both pilot and master of a vessel.

Out of economic necessity, Mary applied for a master's license, the first woman ever to apply in this country. That threw Washington into a tissy. The steamboat inspection officer in New Orleans had never had such a request so he wrote to the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury in Washington for a decision. Finally, the first woman's masters license was issued in February of 1884, qualifying Mary Miller to work the river from Louisville south on the Ohio and Mississippi and on all southern rivers. It was a major breakthrough for women.

Miller was much respected by other pilots and was master for seven years.

In 1891, Mary Miller became ill while journeying to New Orleans to interview with the Governor for a lighthouse keeper's job. She died three years later, ending a remarkable life that opened the way for thousands of women who came after her in the river industry.



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