If you’ve ever strolled along the edge of the Ohio River in Louisville on a sunny day, chances are you’ve seen two grandiose steamboats cruising up and down the water. One such vessel is the Mary M. Riverboat, a shining jewel of the city and an homage to its past as a trading hub.
But unbeknownst to some, the story behind how the ship got its name is perhaps more intriguing than the boat itself. Set sail on a journey through Louisville’s unique history with a tour from Derby City Ghosts, and learn about how one trailblazing Kentucky woman changed the course of history for female mariners, and why she refuses to leave her ship alone…from beyond the grave.
In the 19th century, industrialization had swept the newly-formed United States of America, meaning shipping, trading, and production were at an all-time high. Lying at the crossroads of several major cities, Louisville’s position on the Ohio River gave it the unique opportunity to flourish as an ideal port location for steamboat travel and trade.
Riverboat traffic steadily increased over the years, and more and more ships began to disembark at Louisville after the Portland Canal was constructed in 1833, bringing larger craft into town that could previously not fit. Additionally, the city was close to steamboat shipyards at Jeffersonville and New Albany, and the constant traffic in Louisville also continued to benefit these cities. Various goods, mostly agricultural, were transported from the Midwest down to New Orleans, beginning a thriving economy that would help put Louisville on the map.
Miller’s story is as fascinating as it is inspiring. The daughter of a steamboat engineer, Miller spent much of her life on the river, immersed in the hustle and bustle of downtown Louisville. She continued her love for riverboats after she married widower George Miller in 1865, a well-respected builder and pilot. One steamboat he built was called the Saline, which the Miller family would travel and live on while transporting freight and other people.
But the Millers ran into trouble when a competing company, the Banks Line, tried to put them out of business by telling the Steamboat Inspection Service that George was acting as both the ship’s master and pilot—a criminal offense. He could not act as the ship’s master due to his color blindness. George informed officials that his wife was, in fact, guiding the ship and that she would be applying for her license soon.
Much to the bewilderment of government officials, Miller submitted her application in 1883, and it was accepted by US Secretary Charles J. Folger the following year, so long as she was fit for duty and passed her examinations.
In February of 1884, Miller was formally granted her masters license at the age of 38, becoming the nation’s first-licensed steamboat captain. Over the years, she was praised by other prominent steamboat masters for her great skill, breaking the mold for women at a time when they were expected to either stay at home or go into a field such as nursing or teaching.
Miller inspired other women to apply for their masters licenses, with her accomplishment allowing for other females to follow suit. She retired to Portland, Oregon, in 1890 and passed away shortly after in 1894.
Miller’s legacy continues to live on in maritime history, especially in Louisville. In 2017, the city renamed the recently-acquired steamboat the Georgia Queen (built in 1985) to the Mary M. Miller in her honor. The vessel continues to operate today. But while Miller’s story is generally a happy one, there have been reports of mysterious occurrences that have taken place around the ship. Ever since the former Georgia Queen adopted her name, it’s been said that a strange figure has been seen sitting in the captain’s chair: the ghost of Mary M. Miller herself.
Not all hauntings or manifestations come from a place of sorrow and despair. This is likely the case for the spirit of Mary M. Miller, whose manifestation is generally peaceful, even if she has a tendency to give guests a spook. Some otherworldly entities attach themselves to objects or places that were significant to them during their time on earth, and if a trailblazer like Miller was to attach herself to any physical location, it’d almost certainly be one of her beloved steamboats.
Visitors have often seen Miller appear as a full-body apparition in the ship’s control room, still very much in control. Perhaps the triumphant spirit of Miller lives on as a reminder that women can make it on their own accord in a man’s world and excel in their passions regardless of their sex.
The Ohio River has an odd relationship with the city of Louisville, with this stretch of water being the location of an unsettling series of events. In fact, Miller’s ghostly apparition is far from the only chilling phenomenon that has taken place above—and below—the river’s murky current. Back in 1948, before it was officially built, a Christian healer named William Branham had a vision that 16 men fell off the nearby George Rogers Bridge and into the river to their deaths. While there’s no evidence that 16 people died before the bridge’s opening, two men tragically lost their lives during construction, posing the question: is the Ohio River cursed?
Today, the Mary M. Miller steamboat still resides off the shore of Louisville and welcomes thousands of guests each season. Visitors can choose one of many cruise options while traveling up and down the river, including a sightseeing tour, dinner cruise, kids-only cruise, and private events. Its sister ship is the Belle of Louisville, a city icon since 1914.
As for Miller, her spirit lives on as an example for women to fight for their rights, a profound reminder of how far this country has come in the struggle for gender equality, and how far it still has to go. Check out our blog to discover more of the south’s most terrifying haunts, and be sure to keep up with US Ghost Adventures on Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok.