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The Llewellyn Journal
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Ghosts of the Mississippi River

This article was written by Dr. V. Fred Rayser
posted under Ghosts

Mary Becker Greene was born in 1869, grew up to become one of America’s first female river pilots, and still has an active interest in the steamboat line she co-founded as the bride of Captain Gordon C. Greene in 1890. Which is sometimes disconcerting, because she died in 1949 at the age of 80 in her cabin on the Delta Queen, the riverboat she called home and which she piloted as captain.

She has been seen on numerous occasions aboard the Delta Queen, and while it sometimes startles guests, it does not make the crew uneasy. In fact, many of them claim it helps them sleep better at night. Why? Because Mary is a benevolent, even helpful, spirit. Mike Williams, the first mate, says, “I don’t get a feeling that she’s a troubled spirit. I think she is quite content with what she is doing, just absorbing the energy of people who have been here.”

A Ghostly Whisper

He describes being awakened by an urgent whisper in his ear as he slept alone on the vessel during its annual refurbishment period in 1982. 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 broken intake pipe for the steamboat’s boilers. Repairs were effected, but he says, “Had I not been awakened by whomever or whatever, the Delta Queen might have had a big problem. I’m convinced that there’s a benevolent, gentle old lady who keeps an eye out on the boat. I’m sure it’s Capt. Mary Greene.”

On another occasion, when the vessel was under way in the middle of the night, Williams was contacted by the new purser, a charming young girl, who was concerned about a guest. An elderly lady had called to say she was ill and feeling cold, so the purser asked Williams, who has medical training, to check on her. Not only did he find her stateroom empty, it was unoccupied. Returning to the purser, he found her frightened, having been startled by the sight of an old woman staring at her through a window. Williams offered to walk the purser to her cabin, and as they passed a painting of the late “Ma Greene,” the purser exclaimed, “That’ s the lady I saw!” Today, Williams and the former purser are married and they often tell people that Capt. Mary Greene introduced them.

The Only Way to Live

The renowned female captain may indeed be reluctant to leave the river. Shortly before she died, she proclaimed, “Were I to live over again, I wouldn’t miss a day of the life I’ve enjoyed.”

In many ways it was a hard life. Owning a riverboat was a constant financial struggle. This is one of the reasons why, when the Greenes bought the paddle wheeler H. K. Bedford and launched Greene Line Steamers, Mary Greene stood watch with her husband in the pilot house instead of hiring another hand. In 1896, she secured her own pilot’s license, and one year later she earned a master’s credential, allowing her to become a full-fledged steamboat captain.

“In those days,” she once said, “we stopped at every cow path and everyone stared so at me that, in order not to be too conspicuous, I usually took my turn at the wheel after dark.”

Capt. Mary Becker Greene was once described as “five feet of femininity, as refreshing as the river breeze, and as modern as the moment.” But the diminutive queen of inland waters, now enshrined in the National Maritime Hall of Fame, wasn’t shy and retiring. She could sometimes be quite feisty. Her feisty nature prevailed, and she gained widespread fame when she beat her husband in a 1903 steamboat race from Pittsburgh to Cincinnati. She also piloted his new boat, Greenland, to the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, despite professing that she didn’t share many of the “new woman ideas.”

This vibrant woman, who spent 59 years on steamboats, including 52 as a captain, captivated passengers with wild tales of river life and even danced the Virginia reel with them two days before her death. She was such a colorful presence in life that today whenever something unusual occurs aboard the Delta Queen, folks take it as a sign that her spirit remains on the riverboat she called home.

The Disappearing Woman

Phyllis Dale, a Delta Queen entertainer, recalls following an elderly woman in a long green robe through one of the steamboat’s lounges. “She turned the corner and so did I, but suddenly she wasn’t there anymore.” The entertainer mentioned the experience to the Delta Queen’s master, who then enlightened her about the boat’s ghost.

Marcie Richardson, Delta Queen “riverlorian” (historian and teller of tales), remembers encountering the apparition just after joining the Delta Queen as a guest pianist. For three consecutive nights, from the corner of her eye, she saw a woman in a 1930s dress drift by. Whenever she looked up, the woman had always disappeared. After the third sighting, Richardson thought perhaps the woman was sleep-walking or ill, so she reported the incidents to the cruise director. He pointed out a portrait of Capt. Mary Green, whereupon Richardson exclaimed, “That’s her!”

The cruise director responded, “She died in 1949.”

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. According to legend, just after the first cocktail was sold, a river barge crashed into the Delta Queen and shattered the bar. Crew members dislodged the barge and gasped as they read its name: Captain Mary B.

You might think a crash like that would be enough to capsize the Delta Queen, but, despite the fact that it has a flat bottom and a draft of only nine feet, it is not only river worthy but seaworthy. The hull and machinery were fabricated on the river Clyde in Glasgow, Scotland, and disassembled for shipment to North America. Here the boat was completed in 1926 and made its initial voyage in 1927. It was originally in service on the Sacramento River in California. Thus it had to go by sea to its new life on the Mississippi, the only riverboat to go through the Panama Canal. It was named a National Historic Landmark in 1989.

The boat Mary Greene called home for so long is 285 feet in length and 60 feet wide and has a smokestack that is 66 feet, 5 inches tall. The paddle wheel at the stern is 19 feet wide and 28 feet in diameter. It weighs in at 3,360 gross tons, can accommodate 178 passengers, and carries a crew of 80.

A Different Kind of Cruise

A cruise on the Delta Queen is not like a cruise on a large ocean-going steamship. The ambience is more down-to-earth and homespun. It is almost like a family outing. There is more passenger participation in fun and games.

You stop at ports like Vicksburg, “Gibraltar of the Confederacy”-and don’t you forget it. This part of the South is steeped in Civil War history and lore. Don’t even hint that the damn Yankees won the war. In Natchez, at the height of riverboating, there was an area at the base of the bluff called “Natchez under the hill.” It was famous, or infamous, for its reputation as a disreputable, brawling, wenching, boozing, and robbing place frequented by the crews from the riverboats. It is still there, but only as a tourist attraction with restaurants and gift shops. One stop is at Oak Alley Plantation, named for the long rows of oak trees which line the entrance walk to this antebellum mansion. You can not only take a tour of the mansion, but get a mint julep, something which makes the walk across the levee worthwhile.

My wife and I took the cruise from Memphis to New Orleans, but unfortunately we were on the Delta Queen’s sister ship, the Mississippi Queen. It was there that I learned about the hauntings on the Delta Queen. The master of the Mississippi Queen, Capt. Gabe Chengery, had also served as master of the Delta Queen, so I asked him if he’d had any experiences with Mary Greene.

“No,” he said, “I am not sensitive to that sort of thing. But some of my crew members said they had seen her at various times and I have no reason to doubt their veracity.”

“She Was Alive!”

That wasn’t much help, so I cornered Karen “Toots” Maloy, the Mississippi Queen riverlorian. She said that one incident that stuck in her mind occurred when a TV crew was doing a documentary on the Delta Queen. The cameraman, in preparation for the following day’s shoot, was taking some preliminary footage. In the Betty Blake Lounge, there was a group of photos of Delta Queen owners, including Mary Greene. When the cameraman zoomed in on her, he screamed and fell backward. His colleagues thought he had suffered a heart attack or stroke and rushed to his assistance. He was in a state of shock. His mouth was moving but he could not speak. He just pointed at the camera. Later he said that when he focused on the photo of Mary Greene, it was not a photo. “She was alive!” he blurted. For the rest of the trip he was withdrawn and silent, and refused to sleep in his cabin.


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