Ghosts, Goblins and Steamboats
November 1, 2012
By Timothy Rubacky, Senior Vice President
Last night was Halloween and if you’re anything like me, the best part of the holiday is handing out candy to the kids who come to the door and seeing their imaginative costumes. I counted at least a half dozen princesses and super heroes, along with Halloween standards like Frankensteins, Draculas, witches, hobos and mummies.
I even saw a few ghosts, including one little girl who was dressed as an elderly spirit, complete with a flowered hat and sensible low-heeled shoes. This apparition reminded me of one of my favorite ghost stories of all time. It ties into one of the old running mates of the grand American Queen and what is arguably the best-loved steamboat of the 20th century.
A former captain of the legendary Delta Queen, now a hotel in Chattanooga, TN, was a carpenter aboard the boat back in 1985. A new employee was working at the boat’s front desk one night when she got a call from a passenger who claimed her cabin was too cold - but the cabin was listed as unoccupied that cruise. Shortly after, a woman appeared outside the front desk’s window and then walked away, disappearing into the mist rising off the river.
Mystified and more than just a little curious as to whom the potential stowaway might be, the employee contacted the carpenter and together they investigated, discovering the cabin to be undisturbed. As they headed back to the front desk, they passed a faded black and white photograph of a woman hanging on the wall of the central lounge. The new employee stopped and pointed it out to the carpenter.
“That’s the woman I just saw outside the window,” she explained. The photo was of Captain Mary Greene, affectionately known as “Ma” Greene and wife of Delta Queen Steamboat Company’s founder, Gordon C. Greene.
She had died in her cabin aboard the Delta Queen on April 22, 1949, at the age of 81.
The best-known personality on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers for more than half a century, Captain Mary Greene was once described as “five feet of femininity, as refreshing as the river breeze and as modern as the moment.” This diminutive queen of the inland waters was one of America’s first female river pilots and a member of the National Maritime Hall of Fame. In 1897, she became only the fourth woman ever to earn a master’s credential, allowing her to become a full-fledged steamboat captain.
She gained widespread fame when she bested her husband in a 1903 steamboat race from Pittsburgh to Cincinnati and piloted his new boat Greenland to the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis.
This vibrant lady, who spent 59 years on steamboats, including 52 as a captain, was such a colorful presence in life that whenever something unusual occurs aboard the floating National Historic Landmark today at her berth in Chattanooga TN, folks take it as a sign her spirit remains on the riverboat she called home.
River lore recounts that the fun-loving Ma Greene was also a fierce temperance-backer and forbade the sale of liquor aboard the family boats. After her death, however, a saloon was installed on the Delta Queen. According to legend, just after the first cocktail was sold, a barge smacked into the steamboat and shattered the bar. Crewmembers dislodged the barge and gasped as they read its name: Captain Mary B. The intruding tug had been named for the famous lady pilot.
Her ghost, however, is a friendly one.
Crew members recall encountering the apparition with frequency. A new pianist onboard remembers that for three consecutive nights, from the corner of her eye, she saw a woman in a 1930s dress drift by. When she would look up, the woman had always disappeared. After the third sighting, the performer thought perhaps the woman was sleepwalking or ill, so she reported the incidents to the cruise director. He pointed out a portrait of Captain Mary Greene and the “mystery” was solved.
In 1982 as a crewman slept alone on the vessel during an annual refurbishment period, he was awakened by a cold whisper in his ear. Thinking someone else had boarded, he followed the sound of a slamming door to the engine room, where he discovered river water rushing in from a malfunctioning intake pipe for the steamboat’s boilers. If the leak hadn’t been discovered and repaired, the Delta Queen would have settled onto the river bottom by morning.
Ma Greene’s spirit never made the Delta Queen’s crew feel uneasy; in fact, many claimed it helps them sleep better at night. As a former captain once said, “I didn’t get the feeling that she’s a troubled spirit. I think she’s quite content with what she’s doing, which is just absorbing the energy of the people who have been here.”