SHOW BOATS ON THE MISSISSIPPI
Caillie French – First Woman Pilot
Captain Callie Leach French was the first woman pilot to guide boats on the Mississippi River. She gained her licience and piloted show boats from 1888 to 1907. A contemporary, Capt. O’Reilly is said to have described her as “a bell-ringin, horn-tootin,’ wheel-turnin’ captain!’
Callie and her husband, Capt. Augustus Byron French, ran several show boats. Captain Callie piloted the “New Sensation.”
Show boats crews were actors and musicians who entertained on the Mississippi. Captain Callie handled the boat and she handled the performers. She never lost a boat or had an accident which was unusual in the mighty rivers she commanded.
She played the twenty-four whistle steam calliope (an organ type whistle), which served for navigation purposes as well as for attracting people. In order to protect her hands from the steam, Capt. Callie worn heavy gloves.
Photo of the Twenty-Four-Whistle Steam Calliope from French’s New Sensation V
Show boats were pulled by a tug boat. The admission ranged from a fresh vegetable donation to a specified cash ticket. Captain Callie would pilot her show boats up and down the 3,860 miles (6,210 km) of the Mississippi River. This was no easy task as the river had many narrow shallows and dangerous currents. A thorough knowledge of charts and expert knowledge was a pilot’s best defense. Caille not only commanded her ship, but she lent a hand as cook and negotiator when actors had argument. She was talented and the actors benefitted from her scripts.
It is a pleasure to tell another story of a ‘first’ in women’s history.