Mary Becker Greene and the Greene Line

R. Dale Flick submitted this interview on the old Message Board in four parts from January 07 to January 14, 2003:

The following interview by the late G. Andrews Espy was done in the cabin of the Str. GORDON C. GREENE at the old GREENE LINE STEAMERS wharfboat, Cincinnati, late winter, 1948. It would be taxing to your patience and my time to present the interview with some editing. Much information is already known by the readers of Quotation marks will be used to the bare minimum and pertinent comments will be provided in brackets with [*]. To write the biography of Mary Becker Greene is to write the story of GREENE LINE STEAMERS itself.

Part 1: Mary Becker & Gordon C. Greene

Capt. Mary B. Greene

H.A. Voight, Officer in charge of Marine Inspection, U.S. Coast Guard, issued on June, 6, 1947, Mary Becker Greene’s 12th pilot’s certificate in 56 years good for a period of five years.

Mary was born in the small hamlet of Hills Post Office, six miles north of Marietta, OH on the Muskingum River in 1868. Her father, Peter Becker, had moved there from Cincinnati to run a general store. A German by birth, he had come to the Ohio Valley in 1848. His first job was in the soap business with Messrs. Procter & Gamble. Trade and independence were more to his liking, and he bought a general store and moved to the banks of the Muskingum.

Mary was the fifth of eight children. Schooling was similar to that of other children of her time: reading, writing, arithmetic, taught in a one room school house on the banks of the river.

She recalled the bi-weekly trip down the Muskigham in her father’s heavily laden John boat, used to carry produce to market in Marietta. On the return trip, she did her share of turning the hand-operated paddle wheels [*a type of ‘bat wing’ vessel].

The family physician, Dr. J.H. McElhinney, was one of Mary’s best friends. His knowledge and discussions of weather fascinated her and aided her in her future career as a river captain. It was at his home on one of their visits, that she met Mrs. McElhinney’s nephew, young Gordon C. Greene, then a deck hand on a Muskingham River packet.

Gordon’s great-grandfather, John Greene, an English anchor smith, plied his trade in Newport, Rhode Island, from the middle of the 18th century until 1798. His three sons, Daniel, Richard, and John, Jr., were brought up in the ways of the sea, and served under famed Gen. Nathaniel Greene, their double first cousin, in the Revolutionary War. They entered the clipper trade with the sloop ISABELLA out of Charleston, S.C. as a joint ownership..

Congress granted them a Revolutionary War land grant on the Ohio River above Marietta. The Embargo Act of the War of 1812 ended their venture and brought them west where they founded the town of Newport, Ohio, named after Newport, R.I., and by 1837 they saved enough money to build a steamboat named the ISABELLA modeled on the lines of Henry Schreve’s steamer ENTERPRISE. The ISABELLA was entered in the Muskingum River business. The youngest, John, became the boat’s captain. John’s son, Christopher was born in 1809, journeyed to New Orleans several times by flatboat and walked 1,600 miles on the return once. Later he booked passage on steamers for the return trip. At age 41 Christopher married and his fourth child, Gordon C., was born in 1862. The river was in his blood. At the age of 16 he built a square bowed rowboat of his own.

Gordon served his apprenticeship as a ‘cub pilot’ and received his first class Pilot’s/Master’s papers at the age of 21. Within 7 years he saved enough money to purchase the Str. H.K. BEDFORD with his two sisters as investors. The BEDFORD was a small, sturdy, low water steamboat out of Nashville, Tennessee.

Gordon, sitting on the Nashville levee whittling, wondered out loud what boat to buy, the MATT F. ALLEN or the H.K. Bedford–both good boats, the BEDFORD being less expensive and the ALLEN newer and larger. A nearby Negro roustabout heard him and offered, “The ALLEN, she a good boat, but the BEDFORD, she always comes and goes”–meaning she always comes and goes and never breaks down. It was “de come and go boat” that served Gordon C. Greene for many years of faithful service. [*The studied, conservative, steady-as-she-goes approach was the mark of Greene operations from then on.]

Installment 2: Mary and Gordon marry and settled down on the H.K. BEDFORD

Mary & Gordon married and settled down aboard the Str. H.K. BEDFORD, fall 1890. [*This hands on live-aboard approach to Greene management would continue for their entire married life. Such management style–called MBWA in the GM Corp.–guaranteed a guiding hand and keen eye on boat operations, cargo, finances, crew and the main cabin and ‘cook house’ expenses. Gordon & Mary did have homes ashore but spent a great deal of the year aboard one or the other of their boats. A legend persisted here in Cincinnati until around 1970 that the Greenes still “lived aboard the DELTA QUEEN entirely.”]

Part II – Early Growth & Family

Capt. Greene soon increased his business to a point where another boat was needed to accommodate the growing trade. The ARGAND, a 150 ft. steamer, was built and put in charge of Capt. Flesher for the Wheeling-Parkersburg run. Competition was stiff; the ARGAND was unable to make money. Mary Greene, who had earned her Pilot/Master’s papers in 1892, persuaded her husband to let her take command of the ARGAND in 1897. This ‘Petticoat-Skipper’ made her first round trip from Wheeling to Parkersburg.

Speed and comfort were essential to a successful packet service and these Capt. Mary provided by having her deck hands ready to unload cargo before the boat landed, and by offering the best food on the river, combined with clean cabins and skillful navigation. During this period, the Ohio River country had just passed out of the backwoods stage, and the inhabitants were inclined to be somewhat crude and rough in manners. Some steamboats carried an unsavory reputation. However, the steamboat with the lady commander had an air of refinement which many boats did not possess and this helped to build up a large following of the better class of travelers and business men. Within six months the ARGAND cleared $2,500 profit.

The next year a new and larger boat, the GREENEWOOD, was ordered and within 90 days from the keel laying the 180 ft. boat was completed at a cost of $16,000; her career ended in 1925 when she sank in a collision with the CHRIS GREENE II.

Soon after the turn of the century, the GREENELAND, the first luxury packet owned by the Greene family, was built. She was fitted with 56 staterooms, was 215 ft. long, and cost the then enormous sum of $40,000. A suite of five rooms on her Texas deck provided living quarters for Gordon, Mary and their three boys, Wilkins [*died, 1907], Chris and Tom. This side-wheel packet ran between Cincinnati, Pomeroy, and Charleston and made, in 1904, an ‘excursion’ from Pittsburgh to St. Louis for the World’s Fair, a distance of 1,200 miles. This was an outstanding achievement, since slackwater navigation had not yet been realized and a voyage of this sort required unusually skilled navigation for its successful completion. [*’Excursion’ was the term before the days formal ‘cruises’ or ‘voyages’ were adopted on river steamers. The Greenes were ‘experimenting’ with this new medium which would bear fruit in coming decades.]

Mr. Espy: “Will you give us in your own words the story of this trip?”

Capt. Mary: “It was early in May in the year 1904 that we left Pittsburgh with a full passenger list. Fortunately, the weather was perfect, no rain or storms marred the pleasure of our cruise. Our youngest son, Tom, was but three months old, so you can well imagine that my time was pretty well taken up with the care of this young man and the duties required of the Captain. Our only stop enroute was Cincinnati where we picked up a few passengers.

“Seven days after leaving the public landing at the foot of Wood St., Pittsburgh, we dropped out stageplank on the levee at the foot of Olive St., in St. Louis. As the excursion was to last three weeks, the passengers had seven fill days to enjoy the wonders of the St. Louis Exposition. Unfortunately, I found time to spend only three hours at the Fair; the duties in connection with the boat required my presence, likewise feeding the baby [*Tom] since he did not take his meals from the bottle.

“The passengers used the boat as their hotel, starting out early each morning for the Fair. In reality, I didn’t miss much of the Fair, for what I didn’t see was told to me by the passengers when they returned dead tired to the boat each evening.”

Espy: “Capt. Mary, how was your trip home?”

Capt. Mary: “Well, Mr. Espy, again fortune smiled on us and we had good weather the entire way back to Pittsburgh. Our only problem was to keep off the sand bars as the river was low. We did not have the locks and dams in those days, something that has helped river navigation tremendously. The trip was so successful that we made several more of them before the season was over. My, how I’d like to live those old days over again.”

Espy: “Thank you very much, Capt. Mary.”

Capt. Mary: “You are very welcome, Mr. Espy.”

Part III: ‘Consolidation & Adaptation’

[* indicates additional notes/comments out of the Espy text.]

Competition on the Ohio during the latter part of the 19th century was very keen. Gordon and Mary Greene were not ones to be left behind in this race for business. In addition, the GREENE LINE operated three ferry-boats from Gallipolis to Maysville, Kentucky. Twenty-eight steamers sailed under the GL banner from the original H.K. BEDORD of 1890 to the DELTA QUEEN, 1947. [*Gordon Greene had become so famous up and down the Ohio that boat operators and residents along the river sought him out for advice and counsel. One rustic farmer, having trouble with his neighbors, asked Capt. Gordon for advice because he thought, “Capt. Greene ‘owned’ the entire Ohio River.”].

Although many of their boats bore the family’s names, no steamboat has ever been named MARY B. GREENE, because of the prevalent superstiton among river men that an ‘M’ in a boat’s name brings bad luck. This superstition, which dates back many years in river lore and which probably started because ‘M’ is the thirteenth letter in the alphabet, oddly enough seems to be justified by fact, for the number of disasters among boats whose names contain the letter ‘M’ is larger than among many others. [*Also a certain shade of blue paint was thought to bring bad luck. Some old steamboat men would turn their back at least once while watching a steamer depart a landing to ward off bad luck.]

In 1904, Capt. Greene purchased the WHITE COLLAR LINE of Cincinnati whose official name was the CINCINNATI, POMEROY & CHARLESTON PACKET CO. This nick-name, the WHITE COLLAR LINE came from the two white collars painted on the stacks. This neccessitated moving the GREENE LINE operations to Cincinnati from Pittsburgh. Their wharfboat, moved to the bank opposite 206 E. Front St., Cincinnati, then the home of the ‘Cincinnati Insurance Co.,’ has been a familiar sight for over forty-four years. [*As of 1948 and until the GL wharfboat was moved and sold prior to the demolition of Cincinnati’s sloped wharf leading to the construction of the then new (1970) stadium–now ‘imploded’ for the new Red’s facility. Doc Hawley declared the old cobbled Cincinnati wharf as the finest paved, sloped wharf in the United States.]

As time passed the packets began a losing battle with the railroads and paved highways. Labor and fuel had increased greatly in costs. The side-wheelers were replaced by the stern-wheeler requiring but one set of engineers. The foresighted Greenes had decided to scrap the old steamers and modernize the fleet to keep pace with changing conditions. The TOM GREENE & the CHRIS GREENE were designed and built. [*1923/1925]

No tragic event had marred the serenity of the Greene family life, but in 1927 came a sad blow in the death of Capt. Gordon C. Greene. He was buried in the family plot in Newport, OH., after being transported from Cincinnati [*On a flood] on the TOM GREENE, Capt. Mary at the wheel. [*Wilkins Greene died young in 1907]

The depression of 1929 saw practically every line on the Ohio/Mississippi Rivers go out of existence and even the Greenes with but two packets considered the possibility of abandoning business. Capt. Mary Greene, however, having weathered other depressions, refused to give up her life’s work. She had faith in the future of her boats on the river, and she believed in the old adage, “Once you ride between two stacks…you’re doomed to ride upon a river craft until you’re tombed.” Mary felt sure that something would turn up to help her, and it did.

Part IV ‘Faith in the Future.’

[*This final installment of the G. Andrews Espy paper has been edited/condensed to save the patience of the reader and conserve space on Espy was no ‘river minded’ individual, ending his monograph with information pretty much known by the readers of this medium. His paper was never formally published and was prepared as a ‘before dinner’ program selection. His British mind caused him to refer to steamboat boilers as ‘kettles’–an old world term. The patience of more informed readers is summoned in this final chapter. This ranks as no definitive history on the subject (Espy’s or mine). [*] denotes edited comments by this ‘poster.’]

In 1931, the LOUISVILLE & CINCINNATI PACKET COMPANY, the oldest steamboat line in the world, went into receivership after financial trouble, bad business and obsolete equipment [Except for the giant CINCINNATI] forced it to cease operations. This was an opportunity that Capt. Mary had been waiting for and with some hard bidding, she secured the remnants of the line and its business which was carrying mail, passengers, and freight between Louisville & Cincinnati. The TOM & CHRIS GREENE were placed in this new service with Mary in command of one and her son, Tom, commanding the other. Chris Greene [*died 1944] usually remained in Cincinnati managing the company’s finances. [*The Greenes got the ‘corporate holdings’ and coveted navigation rights between the two cities. Along with this the L&C steamers KENTUCKY & JOHN W. HUBBARD. The side-wheel, double-cabin CINCINNATI, though more modern, 1924, was a behemoth that would have drained the expenses of any company at that time. The Greenes, with Capt. Jesse P. Hughes advising, turned her down. Sold to STRECKFUS STEAMERS of St. Louis, she became the PRESIDENT. Her unfinished sister became the ISLAND QUEEN. Cabins of the TOM & CHRIS were removed in 1936 for automobile and related cargo shipping. Removed from service and sold, 1947 and 1950 following the declining trade and labor issues. CARY BIRD & EVERGREENE ceased operation in 1946.]

Fortunately for the GREENE LINE, and again through the foresight of Mary, the EAGLE PACKET CO’S., CAPE GIRARDEAU, of St. Louis, a big oil-burning steel-hull sternwheeler, was purchased in 1935 [*See Gordon Greene’s recent posting on the web along with others.] Over a period of two years, her entire superstructure was rebuilt to provide accommodation for 175 passengers and a crew of 60. New federal laws requiring sprinkler systems for ovrnight passenger boats was installed. Great care was taken in the selection of the materials used in this modernization; a minimum amount of heavy material such as plumbing was installed in order that the hull did not draw over seven feet. With a small amount of freight and full passenger list, she could not draw much over eight feet and navigate the Ohio, Mississippi and Tennessee Rivers, whose canalization assumed a minimum depth of nine feet of water in their shallowest spots.

“A long resplendent tunnel” is the best description of the main cabin in the center and extending the entire length of the boat. By day, the cabin serves as a dining room and in the evening as a social center where Capt. Mary invariably leads the first couple in the ‘Steamboat Dance.’ Cabins on either side open both onto a closed deck and the main cabin. Below are the engines, boiler room, crew quarters, freight space and [*work areas].

The fuel, known as Bunker ‘C’, is of a sludgy molasses texture. It is kept in oil compartments in the hull. As the boat normally burns 3,000 to 4,000 gallons a week, capacity of 60,000 gallons has been provided. The muffled roar heard in the stacks begins down in the boiler room. The fuel oil is injected under the big boilers in blasts of yellow flame, and the roar is part of the combustion process.

On the enclosed and open decks above is where BINGO is held and the more ambitious show their skill at shuffleboard. Comfortable rocking and straight chairs can be found on all decks, vantage points from which to see the ever changing scenery of the most fabulous river system in the world. [*Espy relates the history of the DELTA QUEEN, her purchase by the Greenes and the transit from California to New Orleans and thence to Cincinnati and DRAVO at Pittsburgh where she was undergoing modernization for GL service.]

She [*DELTA QUEEN] is now undergoing $100,000 worth of remodeling [*Cost figures at that point]. Air-conditioning and refurnishing. Many features will remain unchanged, such as the main cabin areas, Siamese Ironwood decks, teakwood railings, and the wrought iron staircase in the salon. Capt. Greene [*Tom] hopes she will be ready to sail the first of June, for at that date, the GORDON C. GREENE will take over the GOLDEN EAGLE’S [*Lost, 1947] St. Louis trade.

A trip on a GREENE LINE steamer means being the guest of Capt. Mary and Capt. Tom, always pleasant, with a yarn about every important spot, and one gets a rest the like of which is unobtained anywhere in the world.

G. Andrews Espy

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Closing note: The financial agonies of the LOUISVILLE & CINCINNATI PACKT LINE were maximized by the Great Depression. Letters and informal interviews with surviving crew members and engineers by me years ago brought forth the problem of “..getting a cut of the coal pile.” This an old river term for company employees–from the upper echelons down–taking expenses for their own benefit out of company in-house requisitions and orders (i.e. fuel, food stores, lubricants, office supplies etc.). It was a factor that helped bring the venerable line down. A mini ENRON of its day, so to speak. The Greenes were totally hands-on managers. Their approach predated the newer GENERAL MOTORS concept of MBWA–‘management by walking around’ or ‘management by working along side.’ It paid off in the end.

Closing: The Greenes are a remarkable family. The late Letha C. Greene carried forward a grand legacy in the face of adversity and being a ‘woman in a man’s world’ as the trustee of a grand tradition. They, along with individuals like Capt. Jesse Hughes, Capt. Fred Way, and a score of others, will never be seen again in the annals of the ‘American Maritime Experience.’ LONG LIVE THE DELTA QUEEN!

Respectfully submitted on January 14, 2003,
R. Dale Flic