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The Natchez and the Robert E. Lee

In March 1817 one Captain Shreve commanded the steamer General Washington on a memorable trip from New Orleans to Louisville. A twenty-five-gun salute was fired at Louisville, one for each day of the journey. Admiring citizens bore Captain Shreve through the city on their shoulders while the population cheered and celebrated by getting gloriously high on redeye. From that day on steamers tried to beat speed records and each other. Racing on the river had begun.

The boats were constantly being improved. In 1828 the Tecumseh demonstrated how much by making the same run in eight days and seventeen hours and in 1843 the Sultana cut that time to four days and twenty-two hours.

In the fifteen years before the Civil War over five hundred boats thrashed through the yellow waters, faster and faster.

People began to think that the main reason the steamboats existed was to race. Fortunes were wagered on the Phil Sheridan, Eclipse, Sultana, Reindeer, Annie Johnston, Shotzuell, Natchez, Robert E. Lee, Belle Key, Key City, Hawkeye State, J. M. Allen, Daniel Boone, James Lee, Kate Adams and the J. M. White III.

Zealous captains tied anvils on the safety valves of the boilers (or had crew members sit on them) to get up more steam - and consequently more speed - while the crew and even passengers feverishly fed the furnaces with resin, wood, pitch, and anything else to make the fires more intense. It is no wonder the boats burned and even exploded, from time to time, with a horrifying loss of life.

Passengers bribed, pleaded, and fought for berths farthest away from the boilers. But even the ones bedded down in the danger area became frenzied rooters for speed when another ship hove into sight.

Along the river people loved to tell a tale of an old lady who took passage for the first time on a riverboat freighting a large consignment of barrels of lard from her Kentucky plantation to the New Orleans market. Nervously she wrested a solemn promise from the captain not to race on the trip.

The second day out a rival paddle steamer was sighted behind them, obviously spoiling for a race. The first steamer increased speed but the second closed the distance between them till they were prow to prow, fighting for the lead, every beam shaking, fore and aft. The old lady joined the passengers who crowded the rail and cheered the steamer on. Every available pound of steam was up.

The most famous race of all was the one between the Natchez and the Robert E. Lee from New Orleans to St. Louis.

Captain Thomas P. Leathers of the Natchez and Captain John W. Cannon of the Robert E. Lee were so colorful that people still tell stories about them. Captain Leathers had the heart of a showman. He was savage and reckless and given to grandstand plays when he was racing, delighting his river audiences with ballyhoo and action. As he shrewdly realized, the act paid off by filling his ship with people who liked to ride a fast boat commanded by a dramatic captain.

He used every trick in the book, threw slabs of bacon fat and tubs of hog fat into his boilers at crucial moments, cut across his rival's bows to make her slow down, and occasionally sent a cannon shot across the forward part of a steamer to vex her captain and amuse his own passengers. In time Leathers owned a succession of boats, each called Natchez, each showier and speedier than its predecessor. He was so sure of himself he would let a rival steamer leave before the Natchez, overtake it, and glide by while multitudes along the banks roared their admiration. The speed of his fourth Natchez made him really lord of the river in 1855.

The Robert E. Lee, Cannon's boat, was launched in 1866 and soon won acclaim for its speed. Captain Leathers boasted, when his sixth Natchez was launched in 1869, that she was the fastest thing on the river. But the Robert E. Lee had stout partisans and the papers had a field day debating the relative merits of the boats till Leathers and Cannon challenged each other to race. The date was set for June 30, 1870.

All America and parts of Europe gobbled up every word of news of the race. Men exchanged blows, fortunes were wagered in every city in the United States, and partisanship ran just as high in London and Paris, where great sums were placed with stakeholders. Major newspapers in London, Paris, New York, Philadelphia, and Boston sent reporters to New Orleans and St. Louis to cover the event or contracted to have accounts transmitted by wire.

Captain Cannon had more than once been the goat of Captain Leathers's raw show-off pranks and was hell bent on paying him back in his own coin. A few days before the race he had his crew strip the Robert E. Lee down to its bare hull. Every spare piece of wood and metal, all draperies, chandeliers, furniture, and fixtures were removed, cargo refused, and only a few passengers who wanted to get off at Cairo, Illinois, were taken aboard.

Captain Leathers, however, with an eye to revenue, not only carried the Natchez's scheduled passengers and freight but also made the flamboyant gesture of accepting the passengers and freight the Lee had refused. Both captains took the precaution of loading up on large barrels and boxes of lard, bacon fat, pine, resin, candle wax, pitch, and, as was usual in these contests, arranged for coal barges to stand by along the course.

The starting shot rang out at exactly 5 P.M.

Cannon spurted ahead of Leathers and four minutes later the Natchez steamed out of the harbor. Thousands of spectators, who had crowded the waterfront since early morning, shouted themselves hoarse as the two beautiful boats churned upstream. Runners, with watches in hand, stood at vantage points all up the river, clocking the steamers, and then dashed to telegraph the progress to a waiting and anxious world. When the Robert E. Lee passed Baton Rouge at 8:31 the Lee was six minutes ahead of her.

Captain Leathers fumed and went below where the firemen, stripped to the waist, were dripping sweat in the scorching heat. He ordered a dipper of whisky from the whisky pail for each man and bellowed at them to feed the furnaces more pine and resin. Leathers believed in the power of whisky and he may have been right: the Natchez began to cut down the Lee's lead.

Leathers was holding to his regular schedule, delivering passengers, who scooted ashore co-operatively, and freight, which the roustabouts unloaded in record time. The Robert E. Lee made no stops.

At Natchez, Leathers was only six minutes behind Cannon. The Lee passed Vicksburg with the Natchez pressing hard, when Cannon pulled an unforeseen maneuver. The steamboat Frank Pargaud, loaded to the gunwales with tubs of lard, pine, and other combustibles, rested about midstream of the course. The Lee signaled. The Pargaud pulled parallel with the Lee. The Lee slowed down briefly while all hands rushed to lash the two ships together. The Pargaud kept its engines running to slow the Lee as little as possible while supplies were shifted at breakneck speed. Then the ropes were cut and the Lee dashed ahead as Cannon gloated.

She passed Memphis almost an hour ahead of the Natchez. The bluff was alight with hundreds of fires, for the whole population stayed up that night to see the fun and many of them because they stood to win or lose large sums. "Even the women," one newspaper reporter wrote, "are out in force, infants in arms, to bet off, probably, since horse, houses, and clothes already have been staked."

At Cairo, the only stop for Cannon, whisky was doled out to the crew and the departing passengers to toast the Lee's sure victory. The Natchez was supposed to be an hour away but jubilation turned to dismay when a harsh scraping sound was heard and the Lee shook from stem to stern. She was aground on a sand bar. Hardened crewmen cried unashamedly; some cursed bitterly. Captain Cannon ordered his pilot to turn every which way, then reverse. Members of the crew prayed aloud while minutes were lost before a sharp squeaking noise sounded from the friction of the keel pulling off the sand bar. The men cheered joyfully, only to be silenced by the challenging blasts of a steamboat whistle and the sight of smoke around the nearest bend as the indomitable Captain Leathers let the Lee know the Natchez was breaking records to gain on her. The contest was grim and close as the steamboats raced in full view of each other.

By midnight it was anybody's race. Then fog closed in around them. Leathers thought of his passengers and freight, swallowed hard, and tied up alongside the bank to wait for morning. John Cannon recklessly refused to throw away his chance for glory. His crew tested the river's depth with fathom lines and the Lee inched ahead, every man aboard praying the boat would not hit a snag or run aground in the night and the fog. After an hour of this slow, tense groping, there was a break in the fog. The river stood ahead of them, calm and friendly. The men shouted and John Cannon turned a somersault on the texas. The race was in the bag.

The Lee arrived at St. Louis on July 4, three days and eighteen hours after leaving New Orleans. For the winning crew there was a champions' welcome -church bells ringing, cannon shot off, locomotive whistles shrilling. Some of the worshiping mob stormed aboard to greet the captain and crew, almost overturning the boat by the weight of their numbers.

The Natchez made port six hours and thirty-six minutes later and Leathers and his men were received with equal enthusiasm. Cannon and Leathers were wined and dined and congratulated at a mammoth party. Leathers held that, after subtracting the six hours' layover and the time taken by scheduled stops, his actual running time had been faster than Cannon's. Thousands agreed with him but most bets were paid off on the Lee in America. In Europe they were canceled, since London and Paris felt that the Lee's use of the Pargaud, the stripped condition of the boat, and the rejection of freight and passengers transgressed the limits of normal procedure.

Most of the riverboat gamblers had put their money on the Ncztchez. But at least two of them made a good thing out of the race anyway. Devol and Canada Billy Jones went up-river about twenty miles from New Orleans on the Mayflower to see part of the beginning of the race. The boat was crowded with rich young bloods and Devol and Jones decided to tackle the gentry while they waited. Canada Bill threw three-card monte and, Devoi recalled, "the young sprigs of the aristocracy began to pile up the bills, which Bill was not slow to rake in. There was nothing mean about Bill, and he didn't refuse to take gold watches and sparklers; and after the game closed, some of the fellows resembled picked ducks." Devol and Jones won thousands, more than they lost on the Natchez.

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