Phantom

Regulars on the river say this storied riverboat has a resident ghost.
Story and photos by Jackie Sheckler Finch

An early morning fog shrouds the river as the Delta Queen makes her way into the port of Cincinnati. River fog, according to a 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.

Williams

Capt. Mike Williams stands next to the portrait of Capt. Mary B. Greene, matriarch of the Delta Queen steamboat. “Ma” Greene’s ghost reportedly has been seen and experienced on the boat.

Superstition, far-fetched tales and ghost stories are haunting aspects of a river’s culture. It’s fitting, then, that the storied Delta Queen riverboat has a good ghost story even Mark Twain would love.

The Queen’s resident ghost

Based in Cincinnati, the Delta Queen has been plying the waters since 1926. As the nation’s oldest operating overnight steamboat, the Delta Queen is a National Historic Landmark.

Many crew members and Delta Queen passengers report close encounters with a benevolent presence presumed to be Mary Becker “Ma” Greene. 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 2006, the Delta Queen and American Queen became part of the Majestic America Line based in Seattle, Wash.

“The spirit of Mary B. Greene is how I met my wife,” says Delta Queen Capt. Mike Williams. “I have no doubt about that. I believe it was definitely arranged by Capt. (Mary) Greene.”

More than two decades ago, Williams says, the Delta Queen was under way when he 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 has medical training, to check on her.

“The stateroom was empty,” Williams says. “I looked at the passengers’ manifest and the cabin was unoccupied.”

Returning to the purser, Williams found 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 tell people that Greene introduced them.
Greene spent 59 years on steamboats, regaling guests with her stories. Fittingly, she died in her cabin on the Delta Queen in April 1949.

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 says. “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 Delta Queen historian, recalls meeting the apparition shortly after joining the steamboat company.

For three nights in a row, Richardson says 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.

Jackie Sheckler Finch is a contributor from Bloomington, Ind.

Sept/Oct 2008 Issue

 


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