Some say the ghost of sea captain, Mary Greene, haunts the place she died, the sternwheeler steamboat, Delta Queen, now a “hotel” in permanent dock in Chattanooga, Tenn. And well she may, since Mary was as wedded to the rivers of the Heartland as to her husband, Captain Gordon Greene.
Mary Becker married the captain way back in 1890, during the glorious age of steamboats. The 23-year-old bride set up housekeeping, not in a house in Newport, Ohio, the homeport of her husband’s Greene Line, but on board their first ship, a shallow draft steamer named the Henry K. Bedford.
Instead of moonlit walks through town, Mary stood under the stars at the helm with her husband, studying the channels of the Ohio River, ringing the bells and learning how to handle the boat. In the winter of 1896, she took out her papers in Pittsburg, making her a fully authorized pilot on the river. She was reported by Wheeling Daily Intelligencer newspaper as saying that she didn’t intend to actually pilot a ship but rather to “help the captain when he is on watch, or take the wheel for awhile for amusement if I like.”
Things soon changed, though, as the young couple purchased another steamer, which Mary took over as captain — however, she never wore the captain’s hat, claiming it was “too mas-cu-leyne.” The young female captain soon gained a daring reputation, from steering her paddlewheeler through a cyclone to surviving an explosion of nitroglycerine.
Mary had a feisty nature, and although she usually took the night shift on the river to avoid the attention of people they passed, her true character often asserted itself. She found widespread fame in 1903 when she won a steamboat race against her husband that ran from Pittsburg to Cincinnati. The next year put her equally into the headlines when she piloted his new boat, the Greenland, to the World’s Fair in St. Louis.
The Delta Queen Steamboat
Mary Greene was widowed suddenly in 1927, so with the assistance of two of her sons, Tom (who’d been born on the Greenland when it was stuck in an ice jam for several months) and Chris, she took over the Greene Lines business.
Captain Mary drew on her considerable charm and storytelling abilities to develop a cruise business beyond the freight-carrying packet boats they ran. Soon, Mary had sell-out crowds steamboating down the Ohio, Tennessee, Cumberland and Mississippi rivers.
By 1946, things were going so well that Tom decided to add another passenger vessel to the business, and purchased the Delta Queen.
This so-called “million dollar boat” and its twin, the Delta King, were fabricated in Scotland and assembled in Stockton, Calif., with completion in May 1927. After Pearl Harbor, the Delta Queen became an emergency hospital transport. In 1945, during the founding conference of the United Nations, the Delta Queen took delegates of the 51 assembled nations on sightseeing trips around San Francisco Bay.
In 1946, Tom acquired the Delta Queen from the War Shipping Administration. That meant that to reach her new home on the Mississippi River system, she would have to come through the Panama Canal. The steamer arrived in New Orleans being towed by the tug, Osage, after 29 days and more than 5,261 miles on the open sea. It was a legendary voyage.
When the Delta Queen hit the waterways once again as a passenger boat in 1948, Mary Greene moved into her specially furbished Room 109 aboard the vessel. Mary, however, only got to enjoy the steamboat for less than a year, since she passed away in her room aboard the Delta Queen on April 23, 1949, at the age of 80.
The Delta Queen continued to serve another 60 years after Mary’s death and wasn’t retired to Chattanooga to become a steamboat hotel until June 2009. By then, the Delta Queen had logged more than two million miles and carried over half a million passengers. She’s the only boat to be inducted into the National Marine Hall of Fame while still in service. The Delta Queen is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a U.S. National Historic Landmark. A statue of Captain Mary with her hand resting on a steamboat engine indicator stands in Covington, Ky.
The Ghost of Mary Greene
Shortly after Mary passed away, her son, Tom, had the Mark Twain Saloon built on the Delta Queen. Mary didn’t believe in consuming alcohol, so this was the first bar. A few days after its completion, a small tugboat, named the Mary B (Mary’s maiden name was Becker), hit the bulkhead right where the saloon was located. From then on, both crew and passengers reported seeing Mary’s ghost.
Mike Williams, then captain of the Delta Queen, had one of the most significant encounters with Mary’s ghost. He was alone on the ship in 1984, when he was awakened by someone whispering in his ear; he even swears he felt a breath against his cheek. Upon investigating, he found water flowing into the lower level of the boat through a hole — it could have sunk the ship had he not repaired it immediately.
Mary, in death as in life, seems to be where she’s needed, sometimes being benevolent and kind, while at other times the stern, business-like captain who stood at a ship’s helm for more than 50 years.
My Stay on the Delta Queen
I’m not sure whether it was Captain Mary’s ghostly intervention or something more to do with luck, but on a recent visit I took to Chattanooga, my hotel reservations ended up needing changing and I was lucky enough to end up on the Delta Queen.
From the outside, the Delta Queen seems to preside over the section of the Tennessee River where she sits in dock. Inside, there are still mahogany staircases, brass fixtures, a ship’s library complete with original books and an inlaid game board set up with checkers for passengers to play. Indeed, as I walked through the Delta Queen, I didn’t need much imagination to see life as it had been in the era of the steamboat.
My room was 119, the Robert E. Lee room, where Her Royal Highness Princess Margaret stayed in November of 1986. While the room wasn’t large, the bed was comfortable and the full curtained wall of windows looked out on the Tennessee. My private bathroom was even original, with a chain to pull to flush!
Besides having a great night’s sleep, I also found the Delta Queen a perfect location to explore Chattanooga from. The Walnut Street pedestrian bridge crosses the Tennessee from Renaissance Park (Delta Queen sits next to this park at Coolidge Landing) to the Tennessee River Walk on the opposite side. River Walk is home to the Tennessee Aquarium and the Hunter Museum of American Art, plus it’s just a few blocks to the Chattanooga Visitor Center to catch the free shuttle to explore a number of other Chattanooga attractions, including the Chattanooga Choo-Choo and Track #9 at the Terminal Station.
The question remains, however, of whether or not I saw Captain Mary Greene’s ghost on the Delta Queen? I didn’t. However, when I awoke the first morning, I could have sworn there was an elderly black porter sitting on the chair in the corner of my room. He disappeared as quickly as the morning fog over the Tennessee.