Many steamboats, from the Effie Afton to the Betsy Ann, have been named for women, but few have ever been piloted by women. One of the handful of exceptional women to hold the wheel was Captain Mary Becker Greene.
Mary Becker married Captain Gordon C. Greene in 1890 and set up housekeeping on his Cincinnati packet boat, the H. K. Bedford. Standing watch with her husband in the pilot house, she learned the details of steamboat operation and piloting. Greene was granted her pilot’s license in 1896 and took command of the Argand which operated at a good profit. At the time, packet boats were losing business to the expanding railroads, but the Greene Lines were able to show a profit because customers liked the “lady captain’s” dependability and refinement.
Although packet boats were losing business to the railroads, the Greene Lines were able to increase the number and service of their boats because, between stints in the kitchen and the pilothouse, Captain Mary also increased the size of her family. She had three sons which she reared aboard the boats. Her son Tom was born on the sidewheeler Greenland while it was stuck in an ice jam. The Greenland, built in Marietta, Ohio in 1903 for the Pittsburgh-Charleston trade, made four trips from Pittsburgh to the St. Louis Fair under Greene’s command.
At its height, the Greene Line operated twelve packets carrying freight and passengers on the Ohio and its tributaries. Following Gordon Greene’s sudden death in 1927, sons Tom and Chris joined their mother in operating the increasingly competitive business.
Freight transport remained profitable through the war years but the cruise business became the true moneymaker. The Gordon C. Greene, with the gingerbread decor of an old-time packet, took sell-out crowds on trips on the Ohio, Tennessee, Cumberland and Mississippi Rivers. As hostess and master-pilot, Captain Mary was as much of a draw as the scenery and the food.
In 1946, Captain Tom Greene, who had been on steamboats since his birth, decided to invest the profits in a second passenger vessel. In California, he saved from the shipbreakers the luxurious pride of the Sacramento River, the Delta Queen.
When Captain Tom had the Delta Queen boarded up and towed through the Panama Canal, newspapers from all over the world provided daily updates of the journey. Incredibly, at the end of a month-long journey, the Delta Queen was delivered safely to New Orleans. Extensive renovation and refitting followed, and on June 30, 1948, the new flagship of the Greene Lines and her lady captain were ready to welcome the public.
Captain Mary lived aboard the Queen in Cabin G which was specially fitted to meet her needs. In 1949, however, Captain Mary died in her cabin after almost sixty years as master and pilot of some of the finest steamboats on the inland river system.
Captain Tom Greene died the following year while at the wheel of the Delta Queen. His widow, Letha Greene, took up the flag and kept it flying over the sternwheeler against all odds. She faced down marine disasters, financial trouble and even the Congress of the United States.
The story of Captain Mary Greene and her family is historic and colorful, and their legacy of the Delta Queen is a unique testament to their love of America’s rivers.