Used by permission from the Arizona State Library, Archives and Public Records
“Waves sometimes would be 8 feet high. Often when we were caught on the river in a storm, we’d have to throw overboard some of the ores. Many a time when the sailing was dangerous and I thought about my baby in the pilot house, I’ve uttered a little prayer, ‘Now if you’ll just let me get this kid off of here alive, I’ll never bring him back on board again’. But you forgot about that after the danger had passed.”
Nellie T. Bush describing her experience as a riverboat pilot on the Colorado. As she prepared to take her seat in the Arizona Legislature in 1922, Nellie T. Bush told a reporter:
“Certainly I believe that a woman can be a success, both as a politician and a mother. I’m here to prove it.”
“I have a husband and a big five- year- old son, yet I do not feel that they are being neglected because of my work. My folks take good care of the boy while I’m here, and my husband is right back of me in my public career.”
“I am looking forward to the opening of the Legislature, and expect to have a good time at the capital. I am a firm believer in women going into politics, the more the better. They simply have to eliminate some of their old fashioned ideas regarding the difference in sexes.”
“With me, I expect nothing more from a man in politics than life gives another man. If he wants to smoke, I say, ‘Go ahead and smoke. ‘And if he wants to swear, I’ll sit by and enjoy hearing him do it. If it doesn’t hurt him, it certainly isn’t going to hurt me.”
No matter what Nellie Bush accomplished in her life, she seemed to approach it with a certain matter-of-factness, and if anyone asked her why she was doing it, we can almost hear her say, “Why not?” She was a schoolteacher, school principal, businesswoman, mother, ferryboat pilot, justice of the peace, coroner, legislator, lawyer, airplane pilot, state official and leader in woman’s club activities.
Born Nellie May Trent on November 29, 1888, in Cedar County, Missouri, she was only five years old when her parents came to Arizona . She received her early education in Mesa schools and at Tempe Normal School (now Arizona State University ), where she was awarded a life teacher’s diploma. She taught in Glendale and Mesa schools until her marriage in 1912 to Joe Bush.
The couple moved to Parker in 1915 after Mr. Bush, an electrical engineer, bought the ferry business on the Colorado River. The business consisted of one sternwheeler and one flat tunnel propeller boat. Mrs. Bush obtained her riverboat license and worked as a pilot for 17 years. For $3.50, travelers going between California and Arizona via the Needles-Parker highway could have their car ferried across the Colorado. The “Nellie T,” as the ferry was named, could carry either six cars or 20 tons of copper ore, gold or manganese.
During her first year in Parker, Mrs. Bush often visited Phoenix. One incident that occurred while she was making the long drive alone reveals both her resourcefulness and her common-sense approach to life. Her car broke down and she found herself stranded on the dusty, desert road. Tinkering with the motor, she determined that the spring in the timer was broken. Undaunted, she took a stay from her corset, fixed the timer, and went on her way.
In 1918, Mrs. Bush became justice of the peace in Parker, a position she held for six years. In 1920, she was elected to the state Legislature, serving a total of 16 years, 14 years as a representative and two as a senator. Mrs. Bush’s entry into law came about partly because of an incident in which she felt a banker had cheated her. He had accepted her money the day before the bank closed. Angry over her lack of recourse, she began to study law through a correspondence course. Later, she enrolled at the University of Arizona, where she studied from 1921 to 1924.
Describing her years at the University of Arizona (U of A), Nellie Bush said:
“We lived two blocks from the university campus, and two blocks from Wesley’s (her son’s) school. We would part each morning, my son going in one direction and I in the other. “He used to tell people, ‘Mother and I are both in the first grade’.”
While at the U of A, Nellie Bush had some classes with Lorna Lockwood. On some occasions, the two women were asked to leave the classroom because “certain cases involving bad women” were being discussed.
“They wanted to keep women out of the classes when they discussed rape cases,” Mrs. Bush said. “I asked if they had ever heard of a rape case which didn’t involve a woman. They let us in after that.”
During the summer, Nellie Bush took law courses at the University of California. After being admitted to the bar in both states, she worked in Parker as the attorney for the Santa Fe Railroad and, in addition, managed her own private practice.
In 1931, Mrs. Bush took up flying when her sixteen-year-old son, Wesley, became interested in airplanes.
“I realized that as a mother I could retain my son’ interest, only as long as I could speak his language”, she said. “When he became interested in flying, I knew I had to know something about aviation. So we both took up the fascinating study.”
They both obtained private licenses, and since the Bushes were the first to own an airplane in Parker, they built the town’s first airport. Mrs. Bush would draw up legal papers in her Parker office and then fly to Yuma or Phoenix to handle business.
In 1932 Nellie Bush was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention when Franklin D. Roosevelt received the nomination for president. Active in the state debate over water rights, she served as a member of the Arizona Colorado River Water Commission, forerunner of the state Interstate Stream Commission. Later she served as a member of the Colorado River Basin States Committee, a seven state policy group which helped to advance many basin projects. In the 1930s, she was named the “Admiral of Arizona ‘s Navy” by Gov. Benjamin B. Moeur after the Arizona National Guard used her boats in a fight with California over Colorado River water rights. Of course, the entire navy consisted of the two boats operated by the Bushes.
Nellie Bush was also interested in women’s issues and organized the Glendale Woman’s Club and the Parker Woman’s Club. She was President of the Arizona Federation of Woman’s Clubs in 1955. In 1936 she ran for Congress but was defeated. Of that experience and others in her life, she once said:
“I haven’t always won. I was defeated for U.S. Congress when I wouldn’t go along with the Townsend Plan (an old age pension program) people, and I have been defeated several times for the state legislature race, but I always bounced back.”
Mrs. Bush died at age 75 on October 27, 1963.