Heyday Of The Floating Palace


In 1870 Leathers was in his prime as a steamboat captain—extremely self-confident about his Natchez and about himself. His one-time friend and associate but now bitter rival, Captain John W. Cannon, was running the Rob’t E. Lee when the sixth Natchez came out. Looking about for a spectacular coup to dramatize the superiority of the Natchez over the Lee, Leathers pushed the Natchez from New Orleans to St. Louis and broke the record of three days, twenty-three hours, and nine minutes which had been made in 1844 by the fast J. M. White. This brought matters to a head and although both steamboatmen denied they were racing, both started for St. Louis on June 30, 1870, within minutes of each other. Cannon had set about in earnest to win the race. He stripped his boat, took no freight, and arranged to refuel in midstream. Leathers, too sure of himself, took on a load of cargo and made no extraordinary preparations for the race. The boats were probably fairly well matched as to speed, everything else being equal, but the Admiral of the Mississippi was outguessed and outfoxed by the wily Cannon. The Natchez lost the race, undoubtedly the most exciting ever to be staged on the Mississippi, but to his dying day Captain Leathers would not admit that his was the slower boat.

The sixth Natchez operated some nine and a half years. In that time she made 401 round trips in the New Orleans-Vicksburg trade. She could carry 5,500 bales of cotton each trip, besides other freight and passengers, and could negotiate the distance between New Orleans and Natchez in sixteen and a half hours.

Leathers built a seventh Natchez when the sixth wore out, and she, too, was a big, handsome boat. For many years on Saturday afternoon at exactly five o’clock, he would appear on her boiler deck roof, vigorously tap his big bell for departure, and the Natchez would move out proudly from the landing, glide slowly downstream as far as the Mint, turn about, pause a moment, and then with black smoke pouring from her tall red stacks, speed swiftly up the river, firing her cannon and lowering her flag as she steamed past Canal Street. No wonder there was always a crowd at the levee in those days!

The seventh Natchez was a little too late for the big time. She did well at first but the plush days were past, and in 1887 Leathers had to lay her up because there was not enough business to keep her going.

For a man who had braved the river for sixty years, Leathers met a landsman’s death. When he was eighty years old, he was knocked down by a “scorcher,” which is what they called a hit-and-run bicyclist in 1896, and died of his injuries on June 13 of that year.

Steamboat races were generally impromptu affairs rather than staged races over long distances. To passengers, often bored by the monotony of a long trip and confinement in close quarters, racing was a thrill indeed, whatever the outcome. Everybody knew it was dangerous, from the captain on down, yet it was difficult not to yield to temptation when two well-matched boats came abreast of each other.

To those on shore, a steamboat race was a dazzling sight. To see two steamboats with flags flying, smoke rolling from tall chimneys, steam spurting from the 'scape pipes, foam flying from their bows, passengers and crews yelling, was a sight to be remembered.

In March, 1858, occurred a spectacular race which was probably the longest and most animated ever to be run on the Mississippi. This was the race between the Baltic and the Diana. Both boats left within two minutes of each other from New Orleans one Sunday morning, headed for Louisville, 1,382 miles away. So closely matched were they in speed that they were in sight of each other a great part of the way. At one time, near Point Worthington, the two boats “locked horns” and for some fifteen miles ran neck and neck together. The Baltic was the faster boat and she won the race; time: five days, six hours, twenty-two minutes.

There were much faster boats than the Baltic; one of these was the Peytona, a stepper in the New Orleans-Louisville trade. Joe Stealey, an old-time steamboatman reminisced in 1887 about a trip he had made aboard this boat in the fifties: “I was on the Peytona, when she made what I believe to be the swiftest time any steamboat had to her credit. She was coming up the Lower Mississippi, against the current, mind you. Old Captain Shallcross was her master. We all knew she was a fast boat, but the Captain would not let the boys put her to her best. One day, it being very warm, he lay down in the cabin and went to sleep. The boys determined to see how fast the Peytona would go. It was just forty miles to Converse, and therefore we knew how to calculate. They put on all steam and reached Converse in two hours, making twenty miles an hour. Captain Shallcross woke up at Converse and wouldn’t let the boys run her any further—but that was enough.”