- 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 Lee was coming down the Ohio when word of Leathers’ feat reached John Cannon at Evansville, Indiana. He was startled to learn that on her next trip the Natchez would leave New Orleans on Thursday, June 30, instead of Saturday as usual. Leathers had, in effect, placed a chip on his shoulder and dared his rival to knock it off.
The latter wasn’t anxious to try just then. The Lee , three years older than the Natchez , had been in constant operation for months, and although Engineer Bill Perkins had done everything to keep her in top shape, the boat needed an overhaul. Still, Cannon neither could nor would back off.
At Mound City, Illinois, the Lee stopped for some judicious stripping. The splash guards on the paddle-wheel housings were removed to permit the buckets (steamboat jargon for paddle blades) to work without the drag of dead water, sidings were taken off the pilothouse, and doors and windows fore and aft of the main cabin were unhinged to lessen wind resistance. On arrival at New Orleans, Cannon put ashore all unneeded furniture and tackle to further lighten the Lee —in fact, the story soon made the rounds that he was restricting himself to a single change of underwear to save weight.
Still basking in the glow of his recent triumph, Leathers did less to prepare for the showdown he had invited. His only gestures were to remove loose hold lumber and unship the swinging gangplanks at the bow to cut down air resistance. Both captains arranged for recoaling on the fly at various points.
Neither would admit to any intention of racing, although Cannon was quoted as saying that if he got away in front and Leathers tried to pass him, he’d discover the Lee was more than a hundred miles long.
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 soon were riding on the outcome. Sentiment figured strongly in the betting. The hallowed name of the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia held irresistible appeal to Southerners and romantic amateurs, although experienced boatmen and professional gamblers leaned toward the Natchez .
Both vessels were coal-burning, steam-driven sidewheelers. Each had two engines, one per paddlewheel, and eight boilers, four to an engine. The Lee ’s engines, however, were medium pressure with cylinders of larger bore than those of the Natchez , a high-pressure boat. The latter’s wheels were unusually large, four feet greater in diameter than the Lee ’s.
The Lee looked longer, wider, and taller than the Natchez but was actually smaller. She was 300 feet long with a 44-foot beam, while the Natchez was 307 feet long and a foot narrower. Cleaner hull lines enabled the Natchez to slip gracefully through the water in contrast to the Lee , which seemed to butt her way, throwing up a bigger bow wave.
On the other hand, the Natchez was top-heavy, slow in landing and getting under way, with a bad habit of “running off” (sideslipping out of control on sharp turns) in shallow water. Expert opinion rated the Natchez slightly faster at full speed but not enough to make any difference over the long, winding, and treacherous route from New Orleans to St. Louis.
Surprisingly, on a river where pilots played such a vital role, those involved in the great race got almost no attention. For the record, the regular pilots of the Lee were West Conner and James Pell, with George Cayton as apprentice, while Mort Burnham and Frank Cayton handled the wheel of the Natchez .
Thursday, June 30, 1870, was exceptionally hot and sticky even for New Orleans in midsummer, with few people on the streets and business almost at a standstill. In midafternoon, the hottest part of the day, the city came alive as traffic converged on the waterfront from all directions. By four o’clock a sweltering crowd of more than ten thousand packed the wharf at the foot of Canal Street where the Lee and Natchez , two berths apart, were preparing for the customary five o’clock departure. Several steamboats, filled to capacity at a dollar a head, were already moving to vantage points upriver to see the start. New Orleans hadn’t known such crowds and excitement since the war.