- Historic Sites
Going For The Horns
The 1,200-Mile Race Between the Natchez and the Robert E. Lee
February/March 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 2
The first days of July, 1870, found busy river ports along the Mississippi stewing in an unprecedented atmosphere of oppressive, sticky heat and blazing excitement all the way from St. Louis to New Orleans. Roaring upriver under full steam past crowded wharves and levees sped the two most famous steamboats of the day—the Natchez and the Robert E. Lee .
Nothing quite like it had ever been seen before, and it would not happen again.
The 1,200-mile race was more than a contest between spectacular machines for the profitable prestige of being the acknowledged champion of the river. It was the climax of a long and bitter feud between the best-known and most respected river skippers of the era, Thomas P. Leathers and John W. Cannon.
A fascinating combination of arrogance, truculence, and charm, Tom Leathers was fifty-four years old in 1870. The six-foot-three, 270-pound redhead had been on the river for nearly thirty-five years, and since the 1840’s he had commanded a series of packets, each bigger and more luxurious than its predecessor. He ran them in the highhanded manner befitting a lord of the river, one minute overwhelming a pretty passenger with florid courtesy, the next bellowing sulphurous abuse at his black deckhands, who, it is said, took great delight and pride in his eruptions. His command of imaginative profanity was one of the wonders of the Mississippi.
All his life Leathers loved Natchez. He named seven of his boats for the city, which returned his affection with equal fervor.
A firm if sometimes exasperating and prickly friend, Leathers could be a nasty enemy. He was always eager for a fight; part of this was an act—he had, after all, a reputation to maintain—but he reveled in it. As he once remarked, “What’s the use of being a steamboat captain if you can’t tell everybody to go to hell?”
For all his belligerent independence he was a skillf ul and conscientious steamboatman, concerned for the safety and comfort of his passengers, and proud of his record for damaging less freight than any other captain in the river trade. Furthermore, his reputation for personal integrity was so high he had no difficulty obtaining financial backing up to a quarter of a million dollars on little more than his pledged word.
John Cannon, like Leathers, was a Kentuckian, born on a farm on the banks of the Ohio in 1820. While still in his teens he defied family objections to strike out for himself on the river. A nervy, quick-witted, and likable youngster, he became a rated pilot and by his early twenties was master of a number of small steamers on the Ouachita River.
Tall, slender, and dark-haired, Cannon was quiet and soft-spoken, his affability concealing an ambition as stubborn and implacable as Captain Tom’s. Generally conceded to be the peer of any steamboat operator in the lower South, in 1854 he moved in on the lucrative Mississippi River cotton and passenger trade between Vicksburg and New Orleans. His invasion of this major market brought him up against Tom Leathers, who viewed the Vicksburg-New Orleans run as his own.
As the rivalry heightened between the two men, so did their animosity. One who knew them well said they came to hate each other with a “holy hatred. ”
Leathers went one up on Cannon in 1859 with a brand new boat, his fifth Natchez . Built at a cost of $200,000, she was the most elegant example of “steamboat Gothic” yet seen in the trade. Unfortunately, her captain had little time to enjoy his triumph before the Civil War brought the feud to a temporary halt.
Virtually the entire Mississippi steamboat fleet was destroyed or worn out during the conflict. Leathers, who had gone deeply into debt to build the Natchez , was hit especially hard when the Yankees captured her after New Orleans fell.
Cannon had better luck. After the Confederacy requisitioned his packet Vicksburg , he took his other boat, the General Quitman , far up the Red River, where he concealed her so effectively she remained undisturbed. As soon as the shooting stopped he brought the Quitman out of hiding, refurbished her, and was back in business while Leathers fumed on the beach.
His quick comeback was so profitable that within a year Cannon had a new boat under construction at New Albany, Indiana. The vessel, which came off the ways in September, 1866, was the most sumptuous steamer built up to that time. She had accommodations for 240 cabin and 300 deck (steerage) passengers, such amenities as a children’s nursery, bathrooms, a barbershop, and a gleaming bar, and was driven by the biggest and most powerful engines ever manufactured in the West.