The First Female Pilot on the Ouachita River

This lost little piece of Ouachita history comes to us all the way from an Iowa newspaper. It details the fight for the right of a woman to pilot a riverboat against the most powerful riverboat family on the Ouachita.

Sioux City Journal (Sioux City, IA) June 22, 1890, Page 11

A SAILOR IN PETTICOATS

She Takes Full Command of a River Steamboat.

NEW ALBANY’S PLUCKY WOMAN

She Proves a Dangerous Competitor to Other Navigators and Forces Them to Buy Her Boat to Get Rid of Her – – The First Female Captain.

            A little over eight years ago, says a Jeffersonville, Ind., special, a queer, long-nosed craft pushed its way into the waters of the Ouachita river, where the Blanks line of steamers had long been dominant.  People wonder what the oddly constructed stranger could want, and the owners of the Blanks line laughed at the little steamer from the Ohio, for who would fear such a competitor?

            The steamer was the Saline, about 200 tons burden, built at Jeffersonville.  She looked slab-sided, her cabins were primitive – nothing but a saloon, with curtained bunks running around it; her crew consisted of the sons and wife of the owner, Capt. George Miller, of Louisville, and altogether the little sternwheeler was not impressive.  Yet boat, captain and crew had a unique history and were to add another chapter, such as can be produced only in America, an epitome of pluck and success.  The owner of the magnificent Blanks line may not have known it, or if they did, had forgotten, that almost the exact prototype of the Saline, bear the same name, had appeared upon the same crooked waters of the same river some four or five years before the war, had been laughed at and – made a fortune.

            Capt. George Miller was an old-fashioned coal boat pilot in 1855, making about $1,000 a year floating coal to New Orleans, when he conceived the idea that he wanted to own a steamboat himself.  The conception was easy enough, but it was difficult to execute.  However, he was not to be baffled, and after thinking it over he went to work.  He could not go to the great shipyards on the Ohio and order a boat, for he did not have the money, and the humblest kind of craft would cost from $5,000 to $16,000.  He was a fair mechanic, self-taught, and concluded if he could not buy a boat he could build it himself.  So he set to work.

            During low water in summer he went to Knob creek, a few miles below here, bought standing trees, felled them, had them dragged to the river, fashioned the timbers and set up a temporary shipyard.  There the projected boat grew under his hands.  When fall came the skeleton of the vessel was ready to set up, but he had to leave it and return to work as pilot.  Next summer, however, he resumed his boat-building, much to the amusement of his brother pilots, who thought him crazy.  Until ’58 he worked alternately at his boat and piloting.  That spring he launched her and had her towed to Louisville.  She was 130 feet long, 28 feet beam and had a five foot hold.  Every bit of work was done by himself, helped only by his little son William, an achievement which has no parallel.

            But when he had her safely at Louisville he was confronted by a dilemma.  A steamer without machinery is a white elephant to its unfortunate owner, and Miller was in that position.  He had no money to buy machinery and boilers, he could not build them, and what to do he did not know.  People felt sorry for him and offered their sympathy, but sympathy does not build machinery.

            Thus matters stood when the government steamer, Wm. Knox, burned in Portland canal.  Capt. Lockhard, the agent of the government here, did not want the damaged machinery and intended to throw it away as old iron, when he thought of Miller, whose story every one in Louisville knew.  It was just the thing.  He sent for the despairing man and offered him the machinery at almost his own price.

            “But I have no money,” said Miller.

            “We will trust you,” was the reply, and thus the Saline got her machinery.

            That fall she started amid the hurrahs of the entire populace, the playing of brass bands and congratulations, for every person felt pride in the new boat.  She entered the Ouachita trade, and on her first trip got cotton enough to pay all expenses, but ill-luck, or rather bad men, got hold of Capt. Miller.  He was not acquainted with New Orleans and sharpers stole the entire cargo of $1,600 worth of cotton right under his nose.  The boat was libeled and would have been sold had not one of the Watsons, the Pittsburg coal kings, been at New Orleans and became Miller’s bondsman.  After that prosperity followed.  In a year all debts were paid and at the outbreak of the war he owned a crew of likely negroes and had a bank account amounting to $100,000.  He came north with his boat, sold it to the government for $25,000 and retired.

            Here begins another chapter.  Miller was a widower, and during his retirement fell in love with Miss Mary Garrison, of New Albany.  He proposed and was accepted.  The lady was only 24 and he was at least old enough to be her father.  People shook their heads and predicted all manner of mishaps, but none came.  She loved and respected her husband and entered vigorously into his plans.

            This was twenty-two years ago.  Ten or twelve years ago some losses and old affection took him to the river again.  He built the counterpart of the old Saline, working at her himself, and launched her at this place.  She looked awkward, but was very fast.  After trying various runs he at last returned to his old haunts on the crooked Ouachita, where the old boat had made his fortune.

            Daylight trips only were made, and only one crew was required.  His sons acted as crew and his wife as clerk and relieved him at steering.  Mrs. Miller soon became a first-class pilot.

            But Capt. John Blanks and his associates felt as if they almost owned the Ouachita, and hitherto had driven out all opposition.  When Miller’s boat appeared they prepared to fight and run it out also, for it secured lots of trade and hurt the bigger boats much.  But they had met their equal.  Mrs. Miller is an excellent business woman, and as her husband was too old she took matters in hand, and her neatly-dressed form soon became one of the familiar sights in New Orleans.  She solicited business, and being womanly, shrewd and pleasant looking, succeeded, for what American can deny a lady a favor?

            Capt. Blanks did not like it.  There was only one way of running the plucky little Saline out, and that was adopted.  Complaint was made that Mrs. Miller had been seen steering the boat, and that it did not carry the prescribed complement of officers and crew.  Capt. Miller was arraigned before the United States inspector at New Orleans, but it was found that the law had not been violated and he was acquitted.  To avoid further trouble, however, Mrs. Mary Miller applied for pilot’s and captain’s license.  This was utterly unprecedented, and took the inspector’s breath away.  He applied at Washington, and received the answer from the secretary of war that there was no precedent, but neither was there anything in the law to prevent the issuance of license to a woman, if she were competent.  Thus Mrs. Miller was the first and only woman to hold a pilot’s and captain’s license.

            For several years she then acted as “master” of the Saline, and might have been seen at Orleans, taking the boat in or out, being herself the cynosure of all eyes on the wharf.  She is not, however, a masculine woman; on the contrary, her manners are gentle and attractive, and secured her the respect of all New Orleans.

            So serious were the inroads upon the trade of the Blanks line by the Saline and her female captain that at last, after about two years, the Blanks offered Miller $7,000 or his good will, boat and promise not to come back for five years.  The offer was taken, but the five years are about up, and, though Capt. George and Capt. Mary Miller have a comfortable home in Louisville, it is possible that they may return to the Ouachita.

More info on Mary can be found here: https://transportationhistory.org/2017/03/24/women-in-transportation-history-mary-m-miller-1st-american-steamboat-master/

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