The history of Louisville’s Mary Millicent Miller

In 2017, the Louisville waterfront welcomed the Mary M. Miller. | Photo by Belle of Louisville Riverboats

The Belle of Louisville Riverboats’ Mary M. Miller glides up and down the Ohio River year-round — thanks to its climate controlled decks. 

Maybe you’ve caught a glimpse of the propeller-driven riverboat while driving across the Second Street Bridge or climbed aboard for a sightseeing or dinner cruisebut have you ever wondered about the woman those decks immortalize? 

The Mary M. Miller is the only boat that provides cruises year-round. | Photo by The Belle of Louisville Riverboats

This month, 138 years ago, Mary Millicent Miller became the first woman to receive a master steamboat license after US Secretary of the Treasury, Charles J. Folger, made the decision to accept her application. 

Born in 1846 to a steamboat engineer at 2120 W. Main St. in the Portland neighborhood — then a major river port — Mary was immersed in life on the Ohio River, but it was a long shot to think one day she’d captain a boat herself.

In 1865, Mary wed steamboat builder and pilot, Captain George Miller, and her journey to pioneering the steamboat industry began. 

The pair traveled from Louisville to New Orleans spring through winter on their 178-ton sternwheeler, the Saline, transporting people and goods. But after George failed to renew his steamboat license due to color blindness, Mary assumed the role of captain, which entailed bookkeeping + buying, selling, and trading cargo. 

In 1883 a competing steamboat business caught wind of an unlicensed Mary and informed the Steamboat Inspection Service that her husband George was acting as both the pilot and the master of the Saline, a criminal offense.

And technically he was performing both duties, considering Mary didn’t have the official credentials, so George encouraged Mary to apply — but it would take a year and the federal government to grant her a license. 

After the New Orleans Inspector of Hulls couldn’t make a decision for eight months, her application was sent to Washington D.C. where Secretary Charles J. Folger reached the decision that it was not improper for a woman to hold such a position provided she could perform the duties. 

On February 18, 1884, a New Orleans newspaper officially announced that Mary was a “lady steamboatman.” She and George’s boating business grew + they later acquired a second boat, the Swan. 

However, near the end of the 19th century, railroads bulldozed the steamboat industry — then the primary mode of interstate commerce. The Millers sold both of their boats, but Mary kept her license just in case she needed to climb aboard one last time. 

Mary died in October of 1894 in her home on Bank Street. She is buried in the Portland Cemetery at N. 36th St. and Pflanz Ave

The Portland Museum also has a permanent exhibit honoring Mary + her pioneering contributions to women and the steamboat industry.