- 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 speeding boats disappeared around the bend north of the city, they dropped out of sight for 300 miles. Not until they passed the next telegraph station at Helena, Arkansas, 90 miles south of Memphis, would the blackout lift.
During the early evening hours the Natchez appeared to be gaining until she reached Milliken Bend, where a broken valve in the cold-water pump forced a 33-minute tie-up for repairs. The Natchez also gave her first display of running off, almost piling into the bank before the pilot could straighten her out. Otherwise the second night passed quietly.
The next morning, approximately 100 miles above Vicksburg, the Lee met the steamer Frank Pargoud , which had been sent ahead with a load of pine knots to augment Cannon’s coal supplies. Swinging alongside, the Pargoud lashed on and added the power of her engines to those of the Lee while the crews transferred the fuel. The maneuver, revealed when the Pargoud got back to Vicksburg, raised a cry of “Foul!”
Backers of the Natchez promptly claimed all bets on grounds that the Lee had forfeited the race by receiving unfair assistance. Lee partisans replied that the Pargoud , being much slower, actually had slowed her down. The claim was taken seriously in London and Paris, where most bets were declared off, but generally was ignored in the United States.
The Natchez lost another 10 minutes landing at Greenville, Mississippi, during the morning but at the head of Island No. 82 the Lee ’s upper works were seen across a neck of land only about 12 miles ahead. At the mouth of the White River the deficit had been narrowed to 50 minutes and might have been pared even more except for the Natchez ’s repeated tendency to run off.
Meanwhile, the excitement and tension mounted in Memphis throughout July 2 as the news blackout continued. By midafternoon the crowd in front of the Western Union office waiting for news from Helena completely blocked the street.
At 3:00 P.M. , with still no news, the line from Helena went dead, blown down by a sudden storm in an uninhabited wilderness between Helena and Madison, Arkansas, 60 miles north. The telegraph company immediately dispatched mounted repair parties to find the break, but Memphis was left hanging. Finally, at about seven o’clock, a Western Union employee burst out of the office shouting like a newsboy hawking an extra: “We’re in touch again! News of the racers … news of the Lee !”
The Lee had passed Helena at 4:30 with the Natchez following 54 minutes later. Since the Lee was the favorite at Memphis, the report was received with jubilation and plans for a monster welcome. A line of bonfires was laid along the bluff, fireworks were distributed, and cannon (every river community seemed to be well supplied with ordnance left over from the war) were loaded with blank charges. Where guns weren’t available powder was packed under anvils to produce a highly satisfactory bang.
At about 10:00 P.M. , long before the Lee ’s estimated arrival time, the Memphis bluff was lined with festive groups eager for the first sight of their favorite steamboat. Out of the darkness to the south the lights of a big vessel, running full tilt, suddenly appeared around the bend. “Here she comes!” cried the crowd as the gunners jerked their lanyards.
The oncoming boat fired her gun in reply but when she cut loose with her whistle spectators realized something was wrong. That wasn’t the familiar deep sound of the Robert E. Lee .
The stranger was the Thompson Dean , which had left New Orleans a day before the racers. By the time the mistake was discovered, it was too late; when the Lee finally arrived a few minutes past eleven, most of the fires had burned out, the fireworks and saluting charges had been shot off, and the embarrassed Memphians had little left with which to greet her.
Slowing down only long enough to pick up waiting coal barges, the Lee acknowledged the pallid reception with repeated blasts of her whistle and hurried on. Shortly after midnight, an hour and 4 minutes behind, the Natchez pulled in to a quiet wharf and discharged her last passengers before St. Louis. Henceforth Tom Leathers would concentrate on catching up with the Lee .