- Historic Sites
Heyday Of The Floating Palace
Nicholas Roosevelt’s fire canoe transformed the Mississippi.
October 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 6
The clerk was business manager and freight and passenger agent. He purchased fuel and supplies, hired and fired the lesser crew members, assigned passengers their quarters.
The assistant clerk was known as the “mud clerk,” a name derived from the muddy feet he got at landings, receiving and delivering freight in all sorts of weather.
The pilot, immortalized by Mark Twain, had to know every bend, every snag, and every sand bar along the way, by night and by day, in clear weather or in foul. In his lofty aerie atop the texas, encased in glass with a commanding view of the river; with bell-pulls and a speaking tube to convey his orders to the engineer—he was indeed a lord. The steamboat pilot was a combination navigator and steersman and a regular full-time officer aboard the vessel.
The captain was the boss of the boat. He was often its owner or part owner. It was he who arranged for the safety and comfort of the passengers, inspired confidence, and spread charm among the ladies—and he had to know every trick of the trade to stay in a highly competitive business. Of the hundreds of captains who commanded steamboats on the Mississippi perhaps the best known and most colorful was Captain Thomas P. Leathers.
Tom Leathers was born in 1816 in Kentucky; coming down the Mississippi in 1836, he and a brother began steamboating on the Yazoo River in a boat called the Sunflower. By 1840 he, another brother, and their associates built the Princess, the first of five boats by that name that they ran in the New Orleans-Vicksburg trade. In 1845 Leathers built the first Natchez; three years later he sold her and built another, larger, and finer Natchez, This boat, too, was soon superseded by a third Natchez which unfortunately burned in 1854 while at the New Orleans levee. Tom Leathers’ brother James died in that fire, and Captain Tom and his young wife barely escaped with their lives.
A fourth Natchez was soon built and placed in the trade. This boat proudly flew the U.S. Mail pennant, more and more business came its way, and soon the fourth Natchez was too small to suit her owner.
Shortly before the Civil War broke out, Leathers built the fifth Natchez. She was a beauty, the finest thing afloat on the Mississippi. Captain Leathers proudly showed her off, but, alas, not for long. After only a few months of service, New Orleans fell to Farragut, and Leathers sent the Natchez up to the Yazoo River to escape capture. Used as a ram during the war, the fifth Natchez was eventually burned.
After the war Leathers slowly recouped his fortunes. In 1869 he built his sixth Natchez, the racer. She, too, was a beautiful boat—as long as a New Orleans city block, with immense paddle wheels 43 feet in diameter driven by high-pressure steam engines capable of producing about 2,000 horsepower. It was said that she was as graceful in appearance on the water as a swan. Leathers mounted her whistle, which sounded like a huge bumblebee, on the inside of one of the smokestacks near the top. “The whistle is for awakening persons on shore, not on the steamboat,” said he.
Leathers had high standards in the conduct of his steamboat business; his boats were swift, they ran on schedule, and no detail was overlooked to make travel and transportation safe and sure. Moreover, Leathers had a flair for publicity that would have delighted a public relations man. He knew how to dramatize himself and his boats. For instance, the tall stacks of the were painted red, enabling anyone to spot his boat in the forest of sooty cylinders on the New Orleans waterfront.
Physically, Leathers was tall and well proportioned—a really big man. He had a heavy head of hair and always wore a beard. His face was not handsome, but a forceful one dominated by a firm, almost obstinate jaw. He habitually wore a ruffled shirt ornamented by a diamond cluster pin; his suits were of Confederate gray and he was an unreconstructed southerner who would not fly the American flag on his boats. In fact, he refused to recognize that the war was over until March 4, 1885, when at Vicksburg, he decided to bury the hatchet. The Democrats had won the election, so Leathers fired the cannon from the forecastle of his boat, and amid a celebration, declared the war ended, hoisting the flag which for some 24 years had not graced the jack staff of his boats.