Women in Transportation History: Mary M. Miller, 1st Female American Steamboat Master

Mary Millicent Miller (1846-1894) was a maritime transportation pioneer who started out life in Louisville, Kentucky, as the daughter of a steamboat engineer. She set upon a career path similar to her father’s after she married a riverboat operator named George Miller. Using a steamboat called the Saline, the couple regularly transported passengers and freight on the Mississippi, Red, Ouachita, and Ohio Rivers as well as various Louisiana-based bayous.

Mary and George ran into potential problems, however, when competitors notified the Steamboat Inspection Service (SIS) about their suspicions that – in violation of the law — he was acting as both pilot and master (captain) of the Saline. George explained to SIS officials that, while he was indeed the vessel’s pilot, Mary served as master.

In order to quell complaints from competitors once and for all and stay completely within the bounds of the law, Mary took the tests required for a master’s license in 1884. She did so in the face of strong and widespread concerns about whether it was even proper for a woman to serve as master on a steamboat. Ultimately, however, Mary ignored the naysayers and made history as the first American woman to obtain a steamboat master’s license. With this certification, she was able to officially perform the duties of master on the Saline while her husband continued to serve as the steamboat’s pilot.

Mary’s performance on board the Saline earned her public praise from other steamboat masters. In addition, she became a role model for other women likewise seeking to pursue waterborne jobs. In 1993, Mary was inducted into the National Maritime Hall of Fame.

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