- 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
As the last passengers came aboard—exact figures weren’t announced but the Natchez had about ninety and the Lee between sixty and seventy-five, including half a dozen experienced captains who had volunteered to go along as extra officers—and visitors went ashore, the tension fairly crackled. Smoke curled lazily from the stacks; black firemen, stripped to the waist and glistening with sweat, stoked furnaces, and engineers hovered anxiously over their machinery. The rival captains watched from their hurricane decks, acknowledged the cheers of the crowd, and turned their backs on each other.
At about five o’clock black smoke belched from the Lee ’s stacks. Fire axes severed mooring lines, and she shot out of her berth as the crowd roared. In midstream she pointed her bow upriver, gathered speed, and fired her saluting cannon as she passed St. Mary’s Market, the starting point for timed runs.
Captain Leathers, still taking bows on the hurricane deck of the Natchez , was caught by surprise. Although he promptly ordered lines cast off, he couldn’t leave the wharf until the Lee had cleared his stern. By the time the Natchez had squared away in pursuit, the Lee had gained about a mile as well as a time advantage of three and a half minutes. Old Tom descended to the boiler deck where he sat glowering at the stern of the Lee . He had been embarrassed in front of the home folks and was in no mood for conversation.
The first lap—140 miles to Baton Rouge—set the tone for the next four days. It was an unforgettable time for passengers, none of whom bothered to go to bed before the Louisiana capital was passed at 1:30 A.M. The reporter for the St. Louis Republican aboard the Lee wrote the most vivid account of those first hours: “The scene from the time of departure till dark last evening baffles description. As we steamed along the watery race track the whole country on both sides of the river seemed alive with a strange excitement expressed in a variety of gestures, the waving of handkerchiefs, hats, running along the river shore as if to encourage the panting steamers, and now and then far off shouts came cheeringly across the waters and were plainly heard above the roaring of the fires, the clatter of machinery, the dashing of the waters and the rushing of steam. … The settlements and plantations along the coast as we passed turned out their whole forces and seemed to have taken a holiday in honor of our flying trip.”
His colleague aboard the Natchez confessed that his hand shook as he sat down to write his dispatch.
When darkness fell, the river was outlined by huge bonfires on both banks, although they had died down by the time the racers reached Baton Rouge. Since the boats were hugging the opposite bank, diehards on the levee had trouble identifying them, but a lusty shout went up when the “Hoppin’ Bob” was seen as the leader. She swept past in the record time of 8 hours and 27 minutes from New Orleans, 6 minutes ahead of the Natchez .
Steaming through the night with little change in position, the boats arrived at Natchez, 300 miles out of New Orleans, in midmorning of July 1 to a tumultuous welcome. The landing area under the hill was packed and the heights above lined with carriages and wagons for a mile or more by a crowd overwhelmingly behind their city’s namesake. The welcoming committee even had a band on the wharf to serenade the Natchez , and when the Lee arrived first, it refused to play.
As the unwelcome front-runner swung in toward shore to pick up a pair of waiting coal barges, Captain Cannon shouted, “I’ll take those horns!” The Princess ’ antlers were removed from the wharf boat where they had hung so long and were placed on one of the barges and sent out to midstream. A few minutes later the Natchez pulled in to discharge and accept passengers.
Tom Leathers had achieved his ambition to beat the Princess ’ time, only to have the prize whisked from under his nose by Cannon, whose clocking of 17 hours and 11 minutes beat him by 8 minutes. By the time the Natchez took up the pursuit again, the antlers were on the Lee ’s hurricane deck, where excited lady passengers festooned them with ribbons.
On the 100-mile run to Vicksburg the Natchez , despite losing 6 minutes at Natchez and 9 more at Grand Gulf, Mississippi, closed to within 14 minutes of the Lee . The latter arrived at Vicksburg to the now usual reception at 5:30 P.M. , one day and 38 minutes out of New Orleans. Both took on more coal, and the Natchez docked briefly to let off passengers.