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Tuesday, March 26, 2024

Captain Mary B. Greene, Pioneering River Lady

History often overlooked women in early America. There were many notable women in our area. This is one such profile. 

Steamboating was a male dominated vocation in the late 1800’s.  There were no licensed female captains on the Ohio or Mississippi Rivers. Then Mary Becker Greene came along and earned those licenses before age 29. She became an iconic figure in the riverboat industry. 

Mary Catherine Becker Greene was born in 1868 along the Muskingum River near Marietta, Ohio. The river, with its constant changes, meanderings, and bustling commerce was an early draw for her. She recalled river trips to Marietta and back in a johnboat loaded with produce. She did her share of rowing. One day she met a deckhand on a Muskingum River steamboat. His name was Gordon C. Greene, a descendent of the Greene family that founded Newport, Ohio. 

In 1890 she married Gordon; they set up “house” on his steamboat H. K. BEDFORD. According to her, “When you marry a riverman, you marry the river too. That’s the code of steamboatin’.” Few women then worked outside the home. Mary both lived and worked in the home - on their steamboats. 

Image of H K Bedford steamboat with images of Gordon (L), clerk H. E. Bevan (C), Mary (R), scanned from image at Ohio River Museum, viewed at CLICK TO ENLARGE

Mary’s accomplishments were many: 
  • Only female licensed steamboat pilot and master (captain) on the Ohio River, active for 60 years until the day she died,
  • Astute business person as co-owner of the Greene Line of riverboats,
  • Only female member and officer of the American Association of Masters and Pilots, 
  • Honorary President of riverboat history group Sons and Daughters of Pioneer Rivermen, 
  • Raised three sons while living on board riverboats, 
  • Elected to National Rivers Hall of Fame, 
  • Iconic river personality who was often interviewed,
  • Named in Ripley’s Believe It or Not!
Mary was smart and determined. She learned hundreds of details about the Ohio River needed to get a pilot’s license. At only 5 feet tall, she could barely see over the pilot wheel, let alone wrestle that heavy wheel to steer. But she did it, when necessary standing on the wheel using her body weight to move it. Mary earned respect from the all-male crews and boat operators of that time.

 Mary at pilot wheel. From Delta Queen Company, viewed at

Mary was proactive, always making things happen. She stepped up to command the steamboat ARGAND to make it profitable, hosted an excursion trip (then an experimental concept in steamboat travel) in 1904 to the St. Louis World’s Fair, kept the Greene Lines company going after the sudden death of her husband Gordon in 1927, and doted endlessly on passengers.

She was a whiz at customer service, before that was a thing in business. People were attracted to “her” Greene Line boats by the good food, cleanliness, comfort, and fun. There was no drinking or gambling on her boats, creating a family-friendly setting. Mary said in an interview, “People are learning that a river trip is a fine way to spend a vacation.”

Besides navigating the river, there were difficult periods in her life to navigate. Their three children were born and mostly raised on riverboats. This was demanding and stressful. She made it work until Henry, the oldest child, died in 1907 at age 9. Grief and conflicting feelings swept over her. Probably for the first time in her life, she was forced to stop and reassess. Mary soon realized that her first priority should be her two sons. Months later she quit the river and set up the family home in Hyde Park, Cincinnati. “Being at home I can give my two boys the attention they require. On the river I couldn’t.” She eventually returned to the river as the boys grew up. 

Captain Mary B. Greene and husband Gordon, circa 1917. Photo from the collection of the 
late Frederick J. McCabe, viewed at

Gordon C. Greene, Mary’s husband, died suddenly of a heart attack in 1927. Gordon had told a friend, “When I die, I want to go home on that boat ,“ referring to the TOM GREENE, his favorite boat.  It was in dry dock for repairs at the time. Crew and family worked tirelessly to ready the TOM GREENE to fulfill Gordon’s wish. Mary was with Gordon’s casket as it arrived for burial at the Greene family home in Newport, Ohio.  She with her two sons Tom and Chris continued the business, astutely guiding the company through the Great Depression and World War II.

In 1946, Greene Line Steamers acquired what became their most well known vessel, the elegant DELTA QUEEN. Mary made her home on board, serving as hostess, visiting and socializing daily. Months later in April, 1949, she passed away in her stateroom, at age 81. Only two days earlier she was dancing the Virginia Reel with passengers.  Mary Becker Greene was laid to rest in Newport, Ohio with her husband Gordon, ending a full life of leadership, dedication, and service to others. River historian Frederick Way, Jr. referred to her as …”one of the seven wonders of the river.” 


Forward Cabin Lounge on DELTA QUEEN viewed at

Mary may have left this earth in 1949, but her presence on the DELTA QUEEN remained. There have been numerous paranormal, ghost sightings, and odd events tied to Mary since she “left” the boat. One  event happened shortly after her death. Mary strictly opposed sale of alcohol on Greene Line boats. Her son Tom - after much soul-searching, no doubt - installed a bar on board. Days later a small towboat collided with the DELTA QUEEN on the side where the bar was located. The crew was surprised to discover the towboat was named…..CAPTAIN MARY B. Surely this could not be a coincidence, observers noted.

Numerous other “sightings” of Mary were reported over the years. An entertainer reported seeing an elderly lady walking in front of her, who when they rounded a corner “wasn’t there anymore.” 

One man reported that his parents had been moved to DELTA QUEEN cabin 109 due to a water leak. That cabin had been Mary’s. The parents were tormented by noises - the sound of furniture being moved and rattling chains. Balls of light shined in their faces. The closet door opened and closed. Crew members explained that unusual happenings were common in Mary’s former room. One night, aggravated by the activity and lack of sleep, his mother yelled SHUT UP! Noises stopped, and they enjoyed a peaceful night. 

Mary’s presence, whether through the paranormal, her words, or her many accomplishments, remains with us in many ways. 

Sources :

Abbott, Taylor, “Mary B. Greene: The Ohio River’s Leading Lady,” Part 1 and 2,

Barnes, Russ, “Delta Queen Stories,”

“Captain Mary Becker Greene,” The National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium,

Espy, G. Andrew, “Mary Becker Greene and the Greene Line,” an interview with Mary B. Greene edited by R. Dale Flick, on

“Greene Line Steamboats,”

Johnson, Phillip, “Remembering Capt. Mary Greene,”

Lamkin, Virginia, “Delta Queen: The Ghost of “Ma” Greene,”

“Mary Becker Greene,”

“Mary Becker Greene,” wikipedia, numerous articles about Mary Becker Greene

Spilman, Rick, “Is Captain Mary Becker Greene Still Watching Out for the Delta Queen?”, The Old Salt Blog

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