Monday, May 21, 2012

The Robert E. Lee and the Natchez, Part II

On June 30, 1870, the Robert E. Lee and the Natchez left the docks of New Orleans to prove which was the fastest steamboat on the Mississippi River. The race, heralded around the country and closely followed by curious onlookers and by those who wagered on the outcome, was more than just a sporting event. It was, in fact, a personal duel between two captains who were bitter rivals. [For the full story of Captain John W. Cannon and Captain Thomas P. Leathers, please see the blog entry for May 18]

By the day of the highly anticipated race, much of America and even parts of Europe had steamboat racing fever, and both captains had partisan supporters who swore that their man's boat was faster, sometimes to the point of fisticuffs. With great sums of money placed on the race, newspapers in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Paris and London sent reporters to cover the event and send updates by telegraph.

Capt. Leathers was known to use every trick in the book to win a steamboat race, and most spectators probably expected no less this time. Yet, it was the mild-mannered Capt. Cannon (left) who played the first trick in the contest. A few days before the race, the Robert E. Lee was stripped of every spare piece of wood, metal and furnishings, and carried no cargo. In addition, only a few passengers were allowed on board, making the boat lighter and faster. When Captain Leathers discovered the ruse, he responded by not only allowing the usual number of passengers on the Natchez, he offered to take on all the passengers and freight that the Robert E. Lee had refused! As a result, the Natchez would be heavier than normal. Not only did Leathers wish to prove his boat was faster regardless of weight, he knew he would make a lot more money with the extra cargo and passengers. Of course, both captains were well-stocked with barrels of lard, bacon fat, pine resin, etc. for extra combustion, and had staged coal barges along the way for refueling.

As soon as the race began, the Lee took an early lead. As thousands of onlookers  crowded the riverfront, Captain Cannon still held a six minute advantage as the Natchez passed Baton Rouge at 8:31 p.m. With the Natchez trailing, the bombastic Captain Leathers stormed into the boiler room where the firemen were furiously feeding the furnaces. Ordering each man to take a dipper of whiskey, he urged them on. Whether it was the whiskey or the addition of additional combustibles, the Natchez was able to make up some time against the Robert E. Lee. Incredibly, Leathers made his regular stops, although the passengers and freight were unloaded with haste. The Robert E. Lee, carrying few passengers and no cargo, made no stops.

Even with the stops, Leathers was only six minutes behind when he left Natchez. As the two boats passed Vicksburg, the Natchez was once again gaining ground. It was at this point that Captain Cannon pulled his second trick. Unbeknownst to anyone, Cannon had secretly arranged to have another steamboat, the Frank Pargaud, waiting for the Lee in the middle of the river. Loaded with lard, pine, etc., the Pargaud came alongside the Robert E. Lee and the two steamboats were lashed together. Both continued upriver while crew members unloaded the extra fuel. Once completed, the Pargaud was cut loose and the Robert E. Lee sped on, losing no time in the exchange. No doubt, Captain Cannon smugly enjoyed his riverine coup. Meanwhile, the Natchez had to refuel by pulling over to the riverbank, losing valuable time in the process.

At Memphis, the Robert E. Lee was an hour ahead. Along the bluff, hundreds of bonfires illuminated the scene for the thousands of spectators, many of whom had wagered huge sums on the race. At Cairo, Illinois, Cannon made his only stop. Here,  the crew and the departing passengers were given whiskey to celebrate the expected victory over his rival, believed to be more than an hour behind. As victory toasts were being raised, the Robert E. Lee ran aground on a sandbar. Captain Cannon frantically ordered his pilot to put the boat in reverse. As precious minutes passed, the Lee finally pulled off the sand bar. As the men cheered loudly, they heard the incredible and awful sound of the Natchez's whistle as she rounded the nearest bend. To Captain Cannon's horror, the incorrigible Captain Leathers had caught up with the Robert E. Lee! Suddenly, the two steamboats were almost neck and neck.

About midnight, a fog descended upon the river. As he had passengers and cargo to consider, Leathers decided to dock for the night to wait for the fog to lift, as it was exceedingly dangerous to pilot a boat in such conditions. Captain Cannon, on the other hand, played his final trick, risking the safety of his crew and his boat by continuing on in the fog. After an agonizingly slow hour later, the fog suddenly lifted on Cannon's section of the river and the Robert E. Lee cruised upriver. An overjoyed Cannon turned a cartwheel on the deck.

The Robert E. Lee arrived in St. Louis, which was the finish line for the race, on July 4, 1870, three days and eighteen hours after leaving New Orleans. Greeting the winning crew were throngs of cheering spectators, and cannon firings, church bells and boat and train whistles added to the celebration. So many well-wishes rushed on board to offer their congratulations that the Robert E. Lee almost tipped over. The Natchez came in six hours and a half hours later. Despite coming in second, Leathers and his crew were also treated as heroes and both captains were wined and dined by an adoring public.

Although the winner of the race seemed clear cut, there was disagreement about the legitimacy of the Robert E. Lee's triumph. Always ready for an argument, Leathers claimed, with some justification, that the Natchez was still the fastest boat on the river, if one took into account the six hour delay for fog and the regular stops along the way. Although thousands of his backers agreed, most bets in America were paid off on the Robert E. Lee. In Europe, however, all bets were canceled because of the use of the Frank Pargaud, the lightening of the Robert E. Lee, and the rejection of passengers and cargo, all seen as unfair advantages.

With the race finished, the rival captains went back to work on the river. As for the fate of the boats, Captain Leathers dismantled the famous Natchez in 1879. Supposedly, she had never flown the American flag. Leathers built one more Natchez, far more ornate than the others. When she was retired in 1887, Leathers left the river with her and retired to his elegant houses in New Orleans and Natchez. Ironically, after piloting riverboats through the treacherous waters of the Mississippi for decades, he died in 1896 when hit by a bicycle on St. Charles in New Orleans. He is buried in the Natchez city cemetery.

The Robert E. Lee, the winner of the great race, caught fire on September 30, 1882, thirty miles north of New Orleans. The fire, which caused several deaths, destroyed nearly everything on board. Some suggested the fire was not accidental. The survivors were rescued by the J. M. White (another Cannon-owned steamboat), and taken back to Vicksburg. Interestingly, three chandeliers (one pictured here) originally on the Robert E. Lee are now in the First Presbyterian Church in Port Gibson, Mississippi (better known for the golden hand on top of the steeple). Captain Cannon did not live to see the demise of his beloved Robert E. Lee, as he died five months before she burned. He is buried in Frankfort, Kentucky.

No doubt, Thomas Paul Leathers, ever the competitor, took some degree of satisfaction in knowing that he outlived his rival by fourteen years and that the Natchez continued on the waters of the Mississippi five years after the Robert E. Lee went up in flames.

Photo sources:
(1) Race:
(2) Cannon:  
(3) River map:
(4) Robert E. Lee:
(5) Grave:
(6) Chandalier:


  1. I didn't realize that about the chandeliers--what a great little piece of information! You can see them in the church here:

  2. Do you know where I might find photographs of the interior of the Robert E. Lee---especially the formal area (dining room) where the chandeliers hung?

  3. An interesting challenge: Find the starting time of the Lee on June 30, 1870 at New Orleans. Then find the arrival time of the Lee in St. Louis on July 4, 1870. Do the math and see if you get a time of 3 days, 18 hours and 14 minutes.