Mary B Greene

Mary B. Greene: The Ohio River’s Leading Lady (Part 2)

By 1946, Mary was in her late 70s but still very much an active presence on the Gordon C. Greene. Only two years prior, her son Captain Chris Greene, who had taken the reigns of the Greene Line following the death of his father in 1927, died suddenly in 1944. His death meant operating the company fell to her remaining son Captain Tom Greene. However, Mother Greene was right there with him to lend a hand.

That support was never more needed when, in 1946, Tom made a daring decision that would change Greene Line Steamers forever.

Tom, who inherited his boundless optimism from his mother, had learned of two steamers coming up for auction in Sacramento, CA. The Delta Queen and the Delta King were luxurious boats, less than 20 years old, and valued at more than $1 million dollars apiece. Tom had his sights one. But even if he were to win the bid, getting a 285-foot steamer from the California coast to the Ohio River was not exactly an easy task.

  • Capt. Mary and her son Capt. Tom holding his daughter Mary
    Capt. Mary and her son Capt. Tom holding his daughter Mary in the pilothouse of one of the family’s steamers. Photo courtesy of the University of Wisconsin Digital Archives.

Nonetheless, Tom figured out how he could do it and received approval from Mary to place his bid. On November 20, 1946, the telegram he had been waiting for in Cincinnati was on his desk. His bid of $46,250 for the steamer Delta Queen was the only one received.

With his winning bid official, it was now time to get the vessel to the Mississippi River and then up the Ohio. The feat was nothing short of amazing and one that no doubts even caused Mother Greene to question her son’s thinking. Amazingly, the vessel was boarded up tight for her ocean journey and towed down the coast of California, Mexico, and Central America where it passed through the Panama Canal and through the Gulf of Mexico to New Orleans, LA. Nothing the Greene’s ever did was easy but with some amazing strokes of luck, the family had pulled off yet another astonishing achievement.

With the Delta Queen safe and sound on brown water, it was time to un-board her, ready her engines and head for her new home on the Ohio River where Mary was waiting in Cincinnati for the newest addition to the Greene Line.

One can only imagine what was going through Mary’s head when she sat foot on the grand and modern riverboat. The Delta Queen was indeed a far cry from the first steamer they owned, the H.K. Bedford. Nonetheless, following a massive six-figure renovation at the Dravo Shipyard in Neville Island, PA, Mary was soon to call the new boat home.

Capt. Tom and Capt. Mary aboard their boat Delta Queen in 1948
Capt. Tom and Capt. Mary aboard their boat Delta Queen in 1948, the first year of the boat’s operations under the Greene Line banner. Scanned photo from the collection of the late Frederick J. McCabe.

While every cabin on the Delta Queen had a numerical number, Mary’s was the only one who also had a letter denoting hers, stateroom 109, with a simple “G” for Greene. It was here that she soon took up residency and continued her hostess duties in 1948 when the new boat entered service.

However, Mary was not to call the Delta Queen home for long. On April 22, 1949 the grand matriarch of the Greene family passed quietly in her cabin. Only just two days before her death, the lifelong dancer and hostess joined guests in dancing the Virginia Reel. At the time of her passing, Mary was on the twelfth issue of her pilot’s license out of 56 years of renewals.

Her death was universally mourned by the river fraternity and the thousands of passengers who had flocked by their hundreds each cruise to take in her famed hospitality. As with those Greene’s who had passed before her, her body was transported to Newport, Ohio where she was laid to rest next to her husband Gordon and son Chris.

In his memorial editorial in The Filson Club History Quarterly, the late Captain C.W. Stoll said, “It has been Mrs. Greene’s honor and distinction however, to be known as the outstanding river woman of all times. She was, so far as we know, the only woman who has been the regular master of a steamboat, or the regular pilot on a steamboat.”

The last vessel she sat foot on was to last many years beyond her and be the precursor for others boats to come. Little did she know, Mary would help pave the way for other female captains on the inland rivers and on the seas. And little did the public know, Mary’s presence on the Delta Queen was to remain.

The Legend of Mother Greene

In the years after her death, many crew and passengers have alleged seeing the ghost of Mary B. Greene aboard the Delta Queen. Numerous paranormal sightings and experiences have long followed in the wake of her death even now more than 70 years later.

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One of those first instances occurred, according to legend, soon after the matriarch’s passing. A lifelong temperance-backer, Mary absolutely forbade the sale of liquor aboard Greene Line Boats. With her death, however, changes came and Tom soon had a bar installed aboard the Delta Queen.

Just days after it was completed and serving cocktails, a small towboat slammed into the side of the vessel where the bar was located. Crew who had made their way to the impacted area were stunned when the smaller boat dislodged itself from the Delta Queen and revealed its name – a name quite familiar to the crew: Captain Mary B. It was at that very moment the legend of Mary B. Greene’s spirit was said to have been born.

Over the next 60 years, unexplained happenings and ghostly apparitions of a small older woman added to the Delta Queen’s already legendary history. During another occurrence, an entertainer named Phyllis Dale reportedly saw an elderly lady in a green robe walking ahead of her through the boat’s lounge. “She turned the corner and so did I, but suddenly she wasn’t there anymore.”

A refined and aging Mary B. Greene posing on the decks of one her steamers while docked
A refined and aging Mary B. Greene posing on the decks of one her steamers while docked. Photo courtesy of the University of Wisconsin Digital Archives.

Marcie Richardson, who was the “riverlorian” and pianist aboard the boat, recalled seeing a woman out of the corner of her eye passing by wearing a period dress for three nights in a row. Each time she would glance over to acknowledge the woman, she was gone. Concerned that perhaps there was a passenger who was sleepwalking, she reported it to a member of the crew. As they passed by a framed portrait of Mary in the lounge, Richardson excitedly said, “That’s her!” Without skipping a beat, the crew member politely informed her who she was and that she had been dead since 1949.

In 1984, Captain Mike Williams was alone on the boat presumably during a winter-layup. As he slept, he suddenly felt what he described as a breath against his cheek and a faint “Psssst” in his ear. He immediately got up and made a patrol around the boat where he found water pouring into the hull of the boat and went straightaway to stopping the rupture.

Other instances of Mary’s alleged presence include the door handle of her former stateroom being ice-cold at times and the scent of her favorite lilac perfume permeating throughout various parts of the boat.

One thing, however, is certain among those who have felt this presence – Mary’s spirit on the boat is a welcomed one and one they believe to be watching over the grand steamer.

Today, the Delta Queen rests quietly outside of New Orleans, LA. Plans to restore the vessels and return her to service after losing her federal exemption to operate in 2009 have stalled and her future remains uncertain. Yet, the memories of her visits to Wheeling are fondly recalled by many residents who enjoyed her stops for 60 years.

The steamer Delta Queen preparing to dock in Wheeling
The steamer Delta Queen preparing to dock in Wheeling, WV. Photo courtesy of the Ohio County Public Library.

Captain C.W. Stoll could hardly have realized how right he was when, in closing his memorial editorial, said “Mother Greene’s influence will long be felt on the river and in the river life of this area.”

Today, America’s river cruise industry has been built upon the foundation that Mary Greene and Greene Line Steamers began in 1890.

Check out Part 1, where we learn about Mary Greene’s early life and how she became one of the area’s prominent steamboat operators.

Taylor Abbott is the treasurer of Monroe County, Ohio, and was born in Wheeling, West Virginia. He is a graduate of Ohio University and is co-founder and president of the Ohio Valley River Museum. He serves on the board directors for the Sons & Daughters of Pioneer Rivermen and is an advisor to the Ohio River Museum in Marietta, Ohio. He enjoys hiking, travel, historic preservation and restoration work. Taylor resides in Clarington, Ohio, with his wife Alexandra in a former church they purchased in 2016 and renovated into their home.