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“She Can Handle the Wheel like an Old Salt”

View of the tug boat Sea Lark passing a small sailboat on the Bay
Bay tug boat circa 1890 [2009-0412], California State Library

That’s how an article in the July 30, 1897 San Francisco Call describes Mrs. Eliza Thorrold, who is set to take the examination to be a licensed tugboat master. If Thorrold passes the exam, “she will have the proud distinction of being the only lady master of a steam vessel on the Pacific Coast, and probably in the United States.”

At the time of exam, Thorrold has been widowed four years.

Her husband Charles dies of blood poisoning in 1893 while trying to spank their daughter on the occasion of her twelfth birthday, he runs a crochet needle into his hand, the Call reports.

In addition to shouldering the task of raising five children alone, upon his death Eliza Thorrold becomes the owner of a 44-foot steam tug named Ethel and Marion.

Thorrold operates the tugboat but, despite her maritime experience, is required to pay a licensed master to be onboard since she lacks the license. She tells the Call:

“My circumstances compel me to become the master of my own boat. What l am unnecessarily obliged to pay for a master for the boat would support the entire family. Four years on the bay has made me familiar with the practical handling of the boat, and all I want is a license to do what lam competent to do. I’ know that this kind of occupation is not regarded as that for which woman is most fitted, but I have no choice.”

Line drawing of Eliza thorrold with hat and upright bow, and high collared dress.
Eliza Thorrold

Asked by the Call if she has mastered the vocabulary tugboat masters use when addressing their crew, Thorrold says she “can make them know what I want, but I don’t think it will be necessary to make use of much violent language to get them to obey my orders.”

On August 27,1897, Eliza Thorrold is granted her master’s license and operates the Ethel and Marion until 1900, when she sells the tugboat.

From 1915 until her death in 1935, Eliza and her son own and operate a candy and ice cream store.