An early morning fog shrouds the river as the Delta Queen makes her way into the port of Cincinnati in 2008.
River fog, according to legend, is caused when Old Man River smokes his pipe. Deckhands long ago dribbled bits of tobacco into the river as they stood on the deck enjoying a brief smoke. When Old Man River collected enough tobacco for his pipe, he’d light up and the river filled with fog from his smoke.
Superstitions, far-fetched tales and ghost stories are haunting aspects of a river’s culture. It’s fitting, then, that the famous 1927 Delta Queen riverboat has a good ghost story that even Mark Twain would love.
Now docked for extensive $10 million renovations, the nation’s oldest operating overnight steamboat is scheduled to cruise again in late 2020. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the paddlewheel steamboat was grounded in 2008 when the wooden ship lost its Congressional exemption as not being constructed entirely of fire-retardant materials.
The Delta Queen spent more than a decade moored in Chattanooga as a hotel and restaurant. After years of petitions by local representatives and passionate advocates, Congress authorized a 2018 exemption which allows the Delta Queen to once again ply inland waterways.
The Delta Queen Steamboat Company is now based in the Delta Queen’s new home port of Kimmswick, Missouri.
Early Female Riverboat Pilot
As for that ghost, I imagine she has never stopped watching over her beloved steamboat. On my last cruise aboard the Delta Queen in 2008, I stayed in the ghostly cabin (and slept quite soundly with no ghostly visitors) and talked with then Capt. Mike Williams about the apparition.
“The ghost is said to be Mary Becker Greene, better known as Ma Greene,” Williams said. “It is said that she loved the Delta Queen so much that she has never left her.”
One of the country’s earliest female riverboat pilots, the diminutive lady and her husband, Capt. Gordon C. Greene, owned Greene Line Steamers, Inc. The family bought the Delta Queen in 1947 and the business became the Delta Queen Steamboat Company.
In April of 1949, after helping dock the Delta Queen at her homeport in Cincinnati, Ma Greene retired to her cabin. She died in her sleep at the age of 79.
However, over the years, many crew members and Delta Queen passengers reported close encounters with a benevolent presence presumed to be Ma Greene, Williams said.
“The spirit of Mary B. Greene is how I met my wife,” Williams said. “I have no doubt about that. I believe it was definitely arranged by Capt. Mary Greene.”
At the time, Williams says, the Delta Queen was under way when the captain was contacted in the middle of the night. A new purser, Myra Frugere, was concerned about a guest. An elderly lady had called to say she was ill and feeling cold, so the purser asked Williams, who had medical training, to check on her.
“The stateroom was empty,” Williams said. “I looked at the passengers’ manifest and the cabin was unoccupied.”
Returning to the purser, Williams found that Frugere was now a frightened young lady. “She said there was an old lady staring at her through the window. I offered to walk her back to her cabin because she seemed so upset.”
As they passed by a painting of the late Greene, the young woman pointed and exclaimed, “That’s the lady I saw.”
Williams and Frugere later married and they often told people that Greene introduced them.
The Vessel’s Guardian
Crew members believe Greene’s helpful spirit keeps watch over her beloved boat and its crew. Like the time when Williams, then a first mate, slept alone on the vessel during its annual refurbishment in 1982 and was awakened by an urgent whisper.
Thinking someone had boarded the boat, Williams followed the sound of a slamming door to the engine room. There he discovered river water rushing in from a broken intake pipe for the steamboat’s boilers.
“Had I not been awakened, the boat might have sunk,” Williams said. “I think there is some spirit that looks after the Delta Queen.”
Other crewmembers describe seeing an older woman in a long green robe or old-fashioned dress in one of the steamboat lounges. Marcie Richardson, the former Delta Queen historian, recalled meeting the apparition shortly after joining the steamboat company.
For three nights in a row, Richardson said she caught a glimpse of a woman in a 1930s dress. But when she turned to get a better look, Richardson said the woman just disappeared.
Reporting the incident to the cruise director, Richardson was surprised when he led her to Greene’s portrait. The ghostly woman she saw drifting by was indeed the long-gone boat captain.
Story courtesy of Jackie Sheckler Finch.
Top two photos courtesy of Delta Queen Company. Bottom photo courtesy of Jackie Sheckler Finch.