- 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
Sweeping upriver in the bright sunlight of a beautiful Fourth of July, the Robert E. Lee reached the outskirts of St. Louis to find most of the city out in holiday attire to greet the victor. A flotilla of crowded ferries and steamboats, whistles blowing and passengers yelling, fell in behind between levees lined with people from Carondolet to Bissell’s Point. Every bell and whistle within sound of the river was going full blast, and cannon were booming as fast as their gunners could reload. Newspaper accounts put the crowd at more than seventy-five thousand, the greatest turnout in St. Louis’ history.
Passing the New Orleans wharf boat at the foot of Walnut Street at 11:35 A.M. , the Lee fired her own gun signaling the end of the long run. She had covered the 1,200 miles in three days, 18 hours and 14 minutes, smashing the mark of the Natchez by 3 hours and 44 minutes. Her record still stands.
The Natchez pulled in shortly after 6:30 P.M. to a reception as vociferous if not as large as that for the Robert E. Lee . Her official time was later established at 4 days and 47 minutes.
Though he had finished far behind, Tom Leathers refused to acknowledge that the Robert E. Lee was faster than his Natchez —in fact, he never admitted he was racing. He always insisted that his run was a routine business trip during which he made regular passenger stops at Natchez, Vicksburg, Memphis, and other points. Furthermore, he claimed that, after deducting 33 minutes for repairs, the hours tied up in the fog and time lost in landings, the Natchez had actually beaten the Lee ’s running time by 28 minutes. Few bought his arguments.
The next night the officers of the two boats were guests of honor at a testimonial banquet in the Southern Hotel, but neither captain spoke and even the heat of the oratory failed to melt the ice. The next day the Natchez headed back to New Orleans and the Lee departed for Louisville.
The race was not only the greatest event of its kind in the history of the Mississippi; it was also the last. With railroads cutting into the trade, such spectacles were simply too costly. While their battle for business continued unabated, the rivals showed no further interest in settling the issue of supremacy. They returned to their regular schedules and ignored each other. There is no evidence they were reconciled.
Although in his prime at the time of the victory, John Cannon lived only twelve years more. About 1876 he apparently contracted a slow form of tuberculosis that gradually ruined his health. A broken thigh put him on crutches in 1878, but he continued to command steamboats until deteriorating health forced him ashore. He died at his home in Frankfort, Kentucky, in April, 1882.
Tom Leathers lived long enough to see his beloved steamboats in full retreat before the railroads. Well up in his seventies, he had become a river legend by the time he descended from a hurricane deck for the last time.
A week after his eightieth birthday, still vigorous and alert, the old man was knocked down by a speeding bicycle. His skull was fractured, and he never fully recovered consciousness, lingering on for two weeks before he died in mid-June of 1896. The hit-and-run cyclist was never apprehended.
The Robert E. Lee went into retirement in 1876. Cannon transferred her furnishings, fixtures, power plant, and name to a new vessel, and the gallant veteran was cut down for use as a wharf boat at Louisville. Her indignity did not last long; shortly after Cannon gutted her, she went up in flames.
The same fate overtook the Natchez . In 1879 Captain Leathers also built a bigger and finer Natchez , seventh of the name. The old racer was converted into a coal-storage barge for a Vicksburg coal company. She, too, was destroyed by fire in 1899.
Reminders of the legendary rivals remain, however. Odd pieces of furniture and silver service are scattered among descendants of the captains and in museums along the Mississippi. For many years a portion of the Lee ’s boilers were—and still may be—in use on a Louisiana sugar plantation, and one of her magnificent chandeliers hangs in a Port Gibson, Mississippi, church. A carved wooden Indian, once part of the Natchez furnishings, is preserved on an estate near Natchez.