Captain Callie French is regarded by many as the first licensed woman pilot in the United States, and the second woman to receive her master’s license. She is one of only four women in the early ranks of female pilots on the inland river system.
In addition to her pilot’s license, Callie French received her captain’s ticket in 1895, making her the second licensed master. (Credit for first female captain goes to Mary Miller who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1995).
When Callie French came up for her pilot's license, the examiners were a little skeptical. However, “Aunt Callie” had seven of the most distinguished pilots on the river endorse her. “Waaaal,” said Capt. O’Reilly gruffly, “I reckon I don’t see anything in the regulations says a woman can’t be a river pilot.” Capt. Youngblood said, “I don’t know your name, young lady, but I do know those seven men who endorsed you. They’re good enough to pass anybody.” Needless to say, she received her license.
Callie French and her husband Augustus French ran Captain French's New Sensation showboats along the waterways. She became a licensed captain so she could operate their boat when her husband was ashore. Captain Callie French's first actual command would not occur until ten years after receipt of her license, when her husband, Augustus Byron French ran the New Sensation unit, while Callie French ran another unit.
“Aunt Callie,” as she came to be known, assisted thousands of patrons aboard. In addition to piloting and captaining boats on the river from 1888 to 1907, she cooked, mended, nursed, acted, wrote gags, and never lost a boat or had an accident.
In a day when women generally were not found, or, in some cases, even allowed in positions of such authority, Callie French distinguished herself as a capable and effective pilot and master. Captain Callie French handled “boats, crew, actors, audiences, storms, floods, feasts, and famines” with incredible ease. “Through it all her strongest words were, "Well, I'll be dawg-goned."