The First Female Steamboat Captain
Mary Millicent Garretson Miller was born in 1846 to a steamboat engineer and his wife who lived in Portland.
She married Capt. George Miller. He worked as a carpenter at a Jeffersonville, Indiana shipyard. Learning the trade as she went, Mary helped him build their 179 foot side-wheeler, the Saline.
Miller became a river pioneer by being the first to take coal down down the Mississippi. In 1829 he took two coal flats from Bon Harbor below Owensboro, Ky to the La Branche Plantation just Red Church, about thirty miles north of New Orleans
A rival company accused George of operating as both captain and pilot, which was illegal. When Mary Miller applied for her captain’s license in 1883, the local U.S. Inspectors of Steam Vessels at the New Orleans office refused her request until they could clear it with the Secretary of the Treasury.
Mary took the exam and passed. The Secretary of the Treasury wired back “that Mrs. Miller be granted a license if fit to perform the duties required, in spite of sex.” He also added that such a license would socially degrade any woman to whom it was issued.
1891- George was ready to retire. Business had declined. They made their last trip to New Orleans. They took the Swan their sailboat and spent the winter on the jetties at the mouth of the Mississippi.
Mary became ill. The towboat W.W. O’Neil towed the Swan back to Portland. Mary returned to her home on Bank Street (George build her the house as a wedding present)
1894 Mary died and is buried in Portland Cemetery.
1993- She was inducted into the American Merchant Marine Hall of Fame at Kings Point, New York and recognized by the National Rivers Hall of Fame in Dubuque Iowa in 1995.