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A Challenge on the Mississippi River
The Robert E. Lee and the Natchez VI were Mississippi steamboats competing for the business of taking passengers and cargo up and down the Mississippi River.
In June 1870, the Natchez set a new record for the 1,200-mile journey from New Orleans to St. Louis of three days, 21 hours, and 58 minutes; that lopped more than an hour off the previous record.
The speedy trip caught the attention of the captain of the Robert E. Lee, John Cannon. He challenged the skipper of the Natchez, Tom Leathers, to race from New Orleans to St. Louis. Leathers accepted and changed his scheduled departure date and time to be exactly the same as that of the Lee.
The Steamboat Race Contestants
The two boats were of a similar design. Both were as long as football fields but were narrow, only 50 feet wide. They both had side paddle-wheels, powered by steam engines fed by numerous boilers. The Natchez had high-pressure boilers while the Lee's were medium pressure.
The Robert E. Lee carried the unpretentious nickname of the “Monarch of the Mississippi.” Launched in 1866, she was capable of a top speed of 15 mph. A newspaper in New Albany, Indiana, where she was built did not hold back in its praise of the vessel: “The cabin and outfit of this great southern steamer surpasses that of any boat that has yet graced the trade, and her accommodations are on the same scale of grandeur and magnificence.”
Natchez VI was less opulent but with larger side paddle-wheels. Built in 1869, she was a little faster than the Robert E. Lee. That said, the editor of the Natchez New South found little to admire in the vessel: “The new boat has been so puffed up we really expected to see a fine steamer. But we are disappointed. She may be substantial and fast but is decidedly plain and ungainly.”
Prior to the race, Captain John Cannon stripped his steamboat of anything that was deemed unnecessary in the race and the vessel carried no cargo and only a few passengers. In contrast, Captain Tom Leathers entered the race with a full complement of passengers and freight.
Thomas P. Leathers and John W. Cannon did not like each other. Leathers was a great, big bear of a man who could dish out Southern charm and blistering explosions of anger in equal measure.
Cannon was almost the exact opposite of Leathers—tall, slim, and soft spoken.
Their animosity towards each other, which was described by an acquaintance of both as a “hot hatred,” sprang from competing for the lucrative trade of carrying cotton. The two highly experienced riverboat captains had once engaged in a street brawl that had an inconclusive outcome, although Cannon claimed victory.
And, They're Off
Eric Simanek writes (History News Network), “News that the long-anticipated contest was on flashed along the river, across the nation, and to Europe via telegraph and cable. Dispatches out of New Orleans fanned speculation in San Francisco, Chicago, New York, Washington, Philadelphia—even in London, Paris, and Vienna.” Millions of dollars were wagered on the outcome.
Despite the extreme heat and humidity of midsummer, a crowd of 10,000 gathered at the New Orleans wharf. It was Thursday, June 30, 1870, and five o'clock when Captain Cannon got a jump start, taking Captain Leathers by surprise. By the time the Natchez got underway, the Lee was a mile up the river.
By mid-morning the following day, the two steamboats arrived in Natchez, 300 miles from New Orleans. The Robert E. Lee was still ahead but got a cold reception from the thousands who had turned out to cheer the vessel that carried their community's name. Both ships took on coal and set off again, only a few minutes apart.
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Mechanical Problems and Skullduggery
The Natchez appeared to be catching the Lee when, during the second night, a valve broke causing a half-hour delay while repairs were made.
Captain Cannon also had another trick up his sleeve. On the morning of the third day, he made a rendezvous with the Frank Pargoud steamboat. The two ships were tied together and fuel was transferred to the Lee.
With the two vessels lashed together, and with the added assistance of the Frank Pargoud, the Robert E. Lee could refuel while still pushing up the river. Those who placed their money on a Natchez victory demanded that the Lee be disqualified. Bets were cancelled in some European countries, but American bookies said it was a fair race; too bad if you picked the wrong boat.
At Memphis, a huge crowd had gathered at the Western Union office for news of how the contestants were doing as they passed Helena, Arkansas. However, the line had been brought down by a fierce storm, but the news came through in the late afternoon that the Lee was ahead by 54 minutes. Cannons were stuffed with blank charges and fireworks and bonfires readied to welcome the Robert E. Lee, which was the favourite of the Memphis folks.
The cry of “Here she comes,” went up to be joined by a cacophony of explosives. But as the vessel drew closer in the darkness, it became clear it wasn't the Lee. It was the steamship Thompson Dean that left New Orleans a day before the race began and whose skipper must have been quite surprised and pleased at being given such a wonderful Memphis welcome. By the time, the true object of the affections of Memphians arrived, the bonfires were mostly just glowing embers.
The Final Stretch
By the evening of July 3, it looked as though the race was over, but then the Lee smacked into a sand bar and shuddered to a halt. It took a while for Cannon to back his vessel off the obstruction as the Natchez approached. But, Capt. Leathers then rammed into the same sandbar, wiping out any catch-up. The two steamers were 16 miles apart and Leathers was closing when fog descended on the river.
The more cautious of the two skippers, Leathers tied up the Natchez to wait for the fog to lift. But, Cannon kept moving, even if very slowly, and widened the gap to his rival. When the fog lifted, Cannon realized he had an insurmountable lead and celebrated by doing a cartwheel on the deck.
The Robert E. Lee crossed the finish line at 11.35 a.m. on July 4; three days, 18 hours, and 14 minutes after leaving New Orleans. This was a record for the distance, and one that still stands for steam-powered, paddle-wheelers.
Jack Rudolph (American Heritage) writes that “Every bell and whistle within sound of the river was going full blast, and cannon were booming as fast as their gunners could reload. Newspaper accounts put the crowd at more than seventy-five thousand, the greatest turnout in St. Louis’ history.”
Almost seven hours later, the Natchez arrived and she was also given a tumultuous welcome. Leathers made the claim, with some validity, that he had won. Subtract the six hours tied up in fog and the time making regular passenger and cargo stops along the way and the Natchez actually beat the Lee by 28 minutes. Anyway, said Leathers, he wasn't racing, just making a regular commercial voyage.
- Capt. Cannon was an unrepentant Confederate who named his boat after the rebel general. But, the vessel was built in Indiana, a Union state. So, the new steamboat was taken across the river to Kentucky to have the lettering applied.
- Both the Natchez VI and the Robert E. Lee were later cut down and converted to mundane wharf duties. Both also were destroyed by fire.
- The race was the last hurrah for a declining trade as railroads were proving to be a faster and less costly means of transport.
- “Of Steamboats and Fireworks: The Great Mississippi River Race of 1870.” Dr. Eric Simanek, History News Network, undated.
- “Steamboats 1865-69.” didyouknowboats.com, undated.
- “Going for the Horns.” Jack Rudolph, American Heritage, February/March, 1980.
- “The Great Steamboat Race: Lee vs the Natchez.” Illinois State Museum, undated.
- “The Robert E. Lee and the Natchez.” andspeakingofwhich.blogspot.com, May 18, 2012.
- “The Great American Steamboat Race.” Benton Rain Patterson, McFarland & Company, 2009.
- “The Robert E. Lee and the Natchez, Part II.” John Woodrick, andspeakingofwhich.blogspot.com, May 21, 2012.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Rupert Taylor
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on August 02, 2021:
There was no mention of prize money in the accounts I read, but it seems likely the captains and crew members would have placed wagers on the outcome. Such niceties as bans on betting on your own team were, I think, some years in the future.
Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on August 02, 2021:
Interesting story, Rupert. Was there a prize for the winner of the race, or was it a competition for bragging rights?
Robert P from Canada on August 01, 2021:
Great article about a little known historical event. I enjoyed reading it.