- 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
Her interior opulence was breathlessly described by the New Albany Ledger on the eve of her maiden run: “The cabin and outfit of this great southern steamer surpasses that of any boat that ever graced the trade, and her accommodations are on the same scale of grandeur and magnificence. … The cabin with its rich garniture and splendid furniture, dazzling chandeliers, arched and fretted ceilings etched with gold, stained glass skylights, immense mirrors, the velvet carpets, the pure zinc white of the sides, the rosewood stateroom doors, the imitation Egyptian marble sills, all combined, make it bear an appearance of oriental luxury, magnificence and splendor seldom conceived and never before seen floating the wild waters of this so-called semi-barbarian Western world.”
The main cabin’s Wilton carpet, woven in a single piece, was 225 feet long and 17½ feet wide; the specially designed furniture was solid rosewood, and cushions and chairs were covered with heavy crimson satin. A Chickering grand piano at one end of the long gallery balanced a great plate-glass mirror at the other. Limoges china graced the 20 dining tables, and Reed & Barton furnished the silver service—enough for 240 diners at a single seating. Of the overall cost of $250,000, Captain Cannon had splurged $70,000 on these niceties.
As the sparkling white vessel steamed grandly down to New Orleans in October, 1866, true Southern hearts leaped at the sight of her. Blazoned in huge black letters on the paddlewheel housings was the most revered name in the recently defeated Confederacy— Robert E. Lee .
One Rebel heart untouched beyond reluctant admiration was that of Tom Leathers. He was still too deeply in debt to buHd a rival and had to lease older, smaller vessels to return to action. His pride was further bruised when he was reduced to buying a half interest in Cannon’s aging Quitman .
Leathers hadn’t lost his touch, though. Slowly and steadily he paid off his debts until, in 1869, he was ready to challenge the Lee ’s supremacy. He didn’t have the resources to swing it himself, but his word was sufficient to raise capital in Cincinnati, where a sixth Natchez was soon under construction. How much he went on the cuff for the new boat was never revealed, but it was close to $200,000.
The tonnage and carrying capacity of the Natchez were about the same, but passenger accommodations, while far from Spartan, didn’t match those of the Lee . Instead, Captain Leathers put his money on a personally designed hull with sharp clipper lines that provided speed without the excess weight of a big power plant and sliced through the water with scarcely a bow wave. With her exceptionally large wheels and bright red stacks towering 120 feet above the water, the new Natchez was a splendid sight.
Since the two rivals hadn’t been on speaking terms following an indecisive fist fight on a New Orleans street corner in 1868, no one expected a direct challenge to a showdown. Moreover, it would have had to come from Leathers, an admission of Cannon’s pre-eminence which Captain Tom wasn’t about to make. Nevertheless, there is reason to suspect that he deliberately precipitated the confrontation.
At the close of the 1870 cotton-shipping season, both boats extended their runs north, the Natchez to St. Louis and the Lee to Louisville on the Ohio. Although running the same course as far as Cairo, Illinois, they left New Orleans on different days, the Lee on Thursdays and the Natchez on Saturdays.
On June 18 the Natchez pulled out of New Orleans. On the twenty-second she steamed triumphantly into St. Louis after a carefully clocked passage of 3 days, 21 hours, and 58 minutes. Despite twenty-one landings and delays at Memphis and Cairo, the Natchez had shattered by an hour and 11 minutes a record that had stood since 1844. Nevertheless, one small cloud hung over the remarkable feat. Leathers had failed to capture the Princess antlers.
Displayed on the wharf boat at Natchez, an impressive spread of elk antlers, the traditional river symbol of a record performance, flaunted the challenge: “Why don’t you take the horns? Princess ’ time to Natchez 17 hours and 30 minutes.” Since his Natchez IV had held the record until the Princess broke it in 1855, Captain Tom wanted those horns badly. He missed by 21 minutes.