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Secret NKY: Among 7 life-size bronze statues on Riverside Drive is Mary Becker Green, a river legend

By Kathy Witt
Special to NKyTribune

Among the seven life-size bronze statues on the self-guided Riverside Drive Statue Tour in Covington’s Riverside Drive Historic District is one recalling a woman who figures famously into river history: Mary Becker Greene.

The daughter of a shopkeeper, Mary was born in 1868 just north of Marietta, Ohio, on the Muskingum River. In 1890, Mary married riverboat captain Gordon C. Greene. That same year, the two established Greene Line Steamers of Cincinnati and Mary would eventually become instrumental in initiating passenger pleasure cruises — becoming a key chapter in the story of the fabled Delta Queen paddlewheel riverboat.

The couple lived and worked aboard Cincinnati packet boat, the H.K. Bedford, where Mary would stand watch in the pilot house with Gordon, who encouraged her to get her pilot’s license.

In 1896, Mary did exactly that. She earned her license and became the first (and for a long time, the only) licensed woman boat master and river pilot along the inland waterways.

For 60 years, Capt. “Ma” Greene, as she was known, captained boats, transporting goods and maintaining a successful enterprise with Greene Line Steamers. Even as the railroads came to dominate freight transport in the 1920s and other packet steamer companies went out of business and her husband died in 1927, the Greene Line thrived. The secret to the Greene’s success?

Building modern steamships and piloting shorter trade routes.

By 1946, Greene Line Steamers was operating a fleet of 26 steamboats. But the year was auspicious for Mary for another reason: it was the year her son, Capt. Tom Greene purchased the Delta Queen on behalf of Greene Line Steamers. The lavishly appointed overnight vessel, which had been carrying holidaymakers to adventure on California’s Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers for nearly 20 years, had already attained legendary status as the last original overnight paddlewheel steamboat in full operation.

The Delta Queen was to be Mary’s last command. From the time it arrived in Cincinnati to her death on Friday, April 22, 1949, Mary lived aboard her beloved Delta Queen. And for many years following her death, according to local lore, Mary’s spirit remained onboard, benignly haunting those who gathered in the bar for drinks — an addition by later owners as Mary had prohibited alcohol on the vessel — and is even credited with making a love connection between a captain and purser working aboard the Delta Queen.

In 1988, Mary was inducted into the National Rivers Hall of Fame. Coincidentally, another notable memorialized on the Riverside Drive Statue Tour, John James Audubon, is also in this Hall of Fame, inducted as an artist member.

Captain Mary Becker Greene is Stop #3 on the Riverside Drive Statue Tour. Her statue is located in George Rogers Clark Park — not far from Clark’s own statue — and overlooking the Ohio River.

According to the historical marker for the “Lady Riverboat Captain on the Ohio,” which is positioned next to Mary’s bronze statue, one hand clutching a riverboat throttle: “The exploits of Mary Greene are legendary She steered through a cyclone, survived an explosion of nitroglycerin, and gave birth to a son while her boat was locked in an ice gorge. After the death of her husband, in 1927, Captain Mary ran the 28 paddlewheelers of the Greeneline Steamers Company including the Delta Queen.”

Mary B. Greene and the Riverside Drive Statue Tour are featured in Kathy Witt’s book, Secret Cincinnati: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful & Obscure.

Covington’s Roebling Point/Riverside Drive Historic District, where the statue is located, is one of the 19 walkable neighborhoods included in her book, Cincinnati Scavenger: The Ultimate Search for Cincinnati’s Hidden Treasures (Northern Kentucky’s and Southeast Indiana’s, too!).

Newport is also among the seven Northern Kentucky neighborhoods featured in the book and includes another with a clue tied to the area’s riverboat history and Mary B. Greene: the iconic BB Riverboats.

Secret NKY is inspired by these two books. In Northern Kentucky, the books are available at Hail-Record & Oddities in Covington’s Mainstrasse and The Roost Latonia, owned by community advocate Billie Mocabee-Kegley.

Kathy Witt has become a regular columnist for the NKyTribune and is currently writing Perfect Day Kentucky, due in Spring 2024. For more information about Kathy’s books, visit www.KathyWitt.com. Email Kathy at KathyWitt24@gmail.com.

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