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Steamboat Pilot Captain Minnie Hill

This article is the first in occasional series about women pioneers in science and technology careers. Computing is a new profession and as such, we don't have a long history. In fact, it is likely that in the future, we, the female professionals of today, will be considered among the female pioneers in the field. I think it might be instructive to look back at pioneers in other fields and remember that there have always been technical women.

portrait of Minnie HillWe may or may not think of being a ship's captain as a technical career today, but it was definitely considered one in the 1800's. Captain Minnie (Mossman) Hill was the first licensed female steamboat pilot on the Columbia River, achieving a Master's license in 1886. The Columbia River runs from Western Canada, through Washington State and becomes the dividing line between Oregon and Washington. Because of the river's inherent navigational difficulties, being a Columbia River pilot today is a mark of expert seamanship. This was even more true prior to the installation of hydroelectric damns in the mid-twentieth century that flooded the most difficult areas of rocks, falls and rapids. Captain Minnie Hill's skill was so impressive that when she took the pilots exam she was awarded a lifetime license, a rare feat. [sign] This is despite the fact that her husband, also a steamboat captain, claimed the exam she was given was more difficult than usual due to a desire to fail her for cause. [Davidson-Peters]

After she got her license, he and her husband purchased a steamboat which she piloted while he worked as the ship's engineer. She was a working mother and had two children during her 16 years as a steamboat captain. Captain Hill was quoted in Time magazine in 1941 as saying "I never wore overalls, I wore skirts." She wasn't interested in the acclaim that came with having an untradtional career. She managed to do what so many women struggle with even today excelling at a career and having a husband,and family while still being true to who they are and not feeling like they have to act like a man.

Image courtesy of the Oregon State Library.

The Old West: The Rivermen contains a sidebar about Captain Minnie Hill. Buy from Amazon.com

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