An Accessible, Informative and Carefree Cruise on the Ohio River

May 5, 2020
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An Accessible, Informative and Carefree Cruise on the Ohio River

I’m always looking for new and accessible activities in Louisville, Kentucky. And that’s how I stumbled upon the Mary M. Miller and a cruise on the Ohio River.

The Mary M. Miller steamboat is outshined by its more well-known dock companion, the Belle of Louisville. While the Belle is the world’s oldest functioning historic steamboat at over 100 years old, the Mary M. Miller is just in its third decade. The boat was purchased by Louisville in 2017 and renamed after Mary Millicent Garretson Miller who was born in 1846.

A first for women

Mary was the daughter of a steamboat captain. In 1865 she married George Miller and together they ran packet boats that carried all sorts of freight. During parts of the year, the family (including the Millers’ four children, plus three children from George’s previous marriage) would make their home on the boat while shipping both people and cargo on the Ohio, Mississippi, Red, and Ouchita Rivers.

In 1883, Mary applied for a steamboat masters license. But there was one problem: women weren’t allowed to be licensed officers of steamboats. After much ado, in 1884 the decision finally made its way via telegraph from Washington, DC, where the Secretary of the Treasury, Charles Folger, decided, “Mrs. Miller should be granted her license if she were fit for performing the duties required, without regard to her sex.”

Mary Miller passed her exam in February 1884 and was the first female licensed as a steamboat captain.

And thus history was made.

Buying tickets and entering the boat

My history-loving friend, Beth, and I decided to take the Harbor History cruise on a Saturday afternoon. The cost was $15.

Beth and I purchased our tickets separately online, then met to retrieve our tickets at the office. The entry into the office is a bit difficult to get into, but doable in my power chair. After picking up our tickets, we headed to the line to enter the boat via a metal gangway. It was wide enough for a wheelchair, although a bit steep on each side (watch the video below).

Once on the bow of the ship, the entry was flush, but to go into the ship was more of a sharp slope than a ramp. But once inside we chose a table near the large windows on the main deck.

The cruise was narrated by Kadie, a wonderful Girl Scout leader-turned-history buff of all things related to the Ohio River. Throughout the past 35 years, Kadie has added interesting facts to her knowledge base concerning the history of the industry and technology of the Ohio River.

An accessible view from the river

The following are a few of the sights we saw and learned about:

  • Louisville’s Waterfront Park. In 1999 this park opened to the public. It was turned from an industrial dump into a beautiful 55-acre park. Or as our tour guide said, “It was changed from a sow’s ear to a silk purse.”
  • The mile-long truss bridge (over time it’s been called the Fourteenth Street Bridge or the Pennsylvania Bridge). This bridge was built over the river in 1870; a modern train was crossing the river on this bridge built over 150 years ago.
  • Big Four Bridge. Completed in 1895, it’s now a popular pedestrian bridge crossing from Kentucky to Indiana.
  • Howard Shipyard, the oldest family-owned shipyard ever in the US. In 1834 James Howard started the company and it stayed in the family for three generations until the US Navy purchased it in 1941. Locals will know it as the recently-closed Jeffboat.
  • That red Victorian house. I’ve wondered about this house for years when I see it while rowing on the river. It was the home of the Howard family. Since 1958 it has served as the Howard Steamboat Museum.
  • Marine ways – a method of launching boats for 200 years – are still visible on the Indiana side of the river.
  • The 100-year-old Nugent Sand Company digs sand and gravel from the Ohio River, processes it to commercial grade sand, then ships it by barge to its end destination.
  • The boat turns around at The Water Tower – complete with the original 1860 pumping stations that pumped river water to houses and business in Louisville. In 1895 the Louisville Water Company was the first in the United States to open a water filtration system. Louisville experienced a surge in growth as it became known as one of the healthiest cities in the country due to its filtered water that prevented waterborne diseases.

These are just a few of the historical sights and fascinating facts you can hear about on the Harbor History cruise.

Accessibility on board

Wheelchair accessibility on the Mary M. Miller is limited to the first deck, which is air conditioned. But with the large windows, I had a great view of both sides of the river. During the cruise you may go out on the bow of the boat. This provides a great view, so I didn’t feel like I missed out by not going to the upper deck.

The restrooms are adequately accessible, although I believe there was a door knob – not a lever handle – and I needed help opening and closing the bathroom door.

History not your thing?

If history isn’t your thing, never fear. The Belle of Louisville and Mary M. Miller have cruises that include Picnic Lunch, Brunch on the Boat, Steamboat Supper, Captain’s Dinner, Bluegrass and Bourbon, as well as cruises through the McAlpine Locks and Dam.

What to Expect:

  • When booking your tickets, let ticketing know in advance if you use a wheelchair or have mobility impairments so they can be prepared to accommodate you.
  • Relax and take in the view. This is a wonderful way to experience the Ohio River surrounded by temperature controlled environment, especially on hot and humid summer days. (If you get cold easily, bring a sweater.)
  • Parking is a bit confusing and will cost you a few bucks. Arrive early in case you drive around the block several times – like I did – until you find the parking lot by Joe’s Crab Shack (131 West River Road). The lot is long and skinny and runs along the riverfront. Several van accessible spaces were available. The walk from the far end of the parking lot to the ticket office is about a quarter mile (480 meters).

Visit BelleofLouisville.org for more information and dates for upcoming events.

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Jenny Smith

After a spinal cord injury at 16, I discovered that a wheelchair could take me places I never dared to imagined.

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