- 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 latter pushed on toward Cairo, 250 miles farther north, Captain Cannon faced a decision—to break off the race at the mouth of the Ohio and proceed to Louisville as advertised, or to change course for St. Louis. He had kept options open by arranging to have his Louisville passengers taken off at Cairo and also had called for a team of upper-river pilots to guide him if he decided to head north. The river was falling, the Lee had never run that stretch before, and his own pilots weren’t familiar with it, but he had a good bulge on the recently established Natchez record and an excellent chance to rub Tom Leathers’ nose in the dirt. He decided to shoot for it.
Caught up in the excitement of the race, half his passengers voted to stick with him. The rest packed their bags preparatory to leaving on the fly. Several miles below Cairo the steamer Idlewild pulled alongside, they clambered aboard, and their baggage was tossed after them.
At 6:00 P.M. , July 3, while several thousand residents of Cairo and the surrounding area cheered from the point above the Ohio, the Lee swung past the mouth of the river, exactly three days and one hour from New Orleans. She had shattered every record on the Mississippi except her own between Memphis and Cairo, set in 1867. The only reason that didn’t fall, too, was because Captain Cannon had slowed down to clean out the boilers before tackling the 175-mile lap to St. Louis.
Having disposed of his passengers, Cannon swung the Lee toward the Missouri shore, where two loaded coal barges and a pair of new pilots were waiting. As the now well-drilled crew swiftly transferred fifteen hundred bushels of coal, pilots Enoch King and Jesse Jameson reported to the pilothouse. They had come down the day before and were familiar with conditions along the final stretch, where the water level had dropped in places to less than nine feet.
Elated by the success, Cannon invited the gentlemen to join him in the bar for a toast on the house. They scarcely had raised their glasses when the Lee gave a lurch, swung broadside in the channel, and came to a dead stop. She had struck a sand bar.
Spectators ashore and aboard held their breath as the pilot worked frantically to free her and as the smoke plumes of the Natchez crept closer. After several tense minutes the Lee backed clear, straightened out, and took off. Whatever the Natchez might have gained by the mishap was quickly wiped out as she ran the same course, hit the same bar, and was hung up in turn.
After more than 1,000 miles the rivals were only 16 miles apart and it was still anybody’s race. Although trailing all the way, the Natchez was in familiar waters, the Lee was not, and a breakdown or another grounding could turn everything around. Exuding confidence in his ability to overtake the Lee , Tom Leathers was still very much in contention.
Then Nature dealt herself in. As the Lee passed Cape Girardeau, Missouri, the temperature took a sudden plunge. Soon fog began to close down, by midnight visibility was less than 100 yards and getting shorter. Cannon had every reason to worry that the Natchez , still in the clear, was cutting deeply into his lead.
He was right. When the Natchez finally encountered the soup some miles short of Grand Tower, Leathers was informed by a man on shore that the Lee had passed only 25 minutes earlier, barely moving. Leathers thought it over and made his decision: “Tie ‘er up!” he said. “I’m not crazy.” The Natchez remained locked in the thick white blanket for nearly six hours, Leathers confident that his rival was waiting it out, too.
But the Lee hadn’t stopped. Following an anxious conference with the pilots and others captains on board, Cannon gave the order to keep moving as long as possible, even if the Lee barely made headway. With two men taking constant soundings at the bow, all five pilots on the top deck, and double shifts manning the engines, the Lee inched ahead. At about two o’clock, a breeze sprang up and the fog thinned. Soon the Lee broke into the clear. Pilot King heaved a deep sigh of relief and signaled full speed ahead.
Under way next morning, the Natchez was just shaking out for the final sprint when she was informed at Grand Tower that the Lee had gone through at 2:00 A.M. Leathers knew then that he was beaten.