February/March 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 2
The 1,200-Mile Race Between the Natchez and the Robert E. Lee
The first days of July, 1870, found busy river ports along the Mississippi stewing in an unprecedented atmosphere of oppressive, sticky heat and blazing excitement all the way from St. Louis to New Orleans. Roaring upriver under full steam past crowded wharves and levees sped the two most famous steamboats of the day—the Natchez and the Robert E. Lee .
Nothing quite like it had ever been seen before, and it would not happen again.
The 1,200-mile race was more than a contest between spectacular machines for the profitable prestige of being the acknowledged champion of the river. It was the climax of a long and bitter feud between the best-known and most respected river skippers of the era, Thomas P. Leathers and John W. Cannon.
A fascinating combination of arrogance, truculence, and charm, Tom Leathers was fifty-four years old in 1870. The six-foot-three, 270-pound redhead had been on the river for nearly thirty-five years, and since the 1840’s he had commanded a series of packets, each bigger and more luxurious than its predecessor. He ran them in the highhanded manner befitting a lord of the river, one minute overwhelming a pretty passenger with florid courtesy, the next bellowing sulphurous abuse at his black deckhands, who, it is said, took great delight and pride in his eruptions. His command of imaginative profanity was one of the wonders of the Mississippi.
All his life Leathers loved Natchez. He named seven of his boats for the city, which returned his affection with equal fervor.
A firm if sometimes exasperating and prickly friend, Leathers could be a nasty enemy. He was always eager for a fight; part of this was an act—he had, after all, a reputation to maintain—but he reveled in it. As he once remarked, “What’s the use of being a steamboat captain if you can’t tell everybody to go to hell?”
For all his belligerent independence he was a skillf ul and conscientious steamboatman, concerned for the safety and comfort of his passengers, and proud of his record for damaging less freight than any other captain in the river trade. Furthermore, his reputation for personal integrity was so high he had no difficulty obtaining financial backing up to a quarter of a million dollars on little more than his pledged word.
John Cannon, like Leathers, was a Kentuckian, born on a farm on the banks of the Ohio in 1820. While still in his teens he defied family objections to strike out for himself on the river. A nervy, quick-witted, and likable youngster, he became a rated pilot and by his early twenties was master of a number of small steamers on the Ouachita River.
Tall, slender, and dark-haired, Cannon was quiet and soft-spoken, his affability concealing an ambition as stubborn and implacable as Captain Tom’s. Generally conceded to be the peer of any steamboat operator in the lower South, in 1854 he moved in on the lucrative Mississippi River cotton and passenger trade between Vicksburg and New Orleans. His invasion of this major market brought him up against Tom Leathers, who viewed the Vicksburg-New Orleans run as his own.
As the rivalry heightened between the two men, so did their animosity. One who knew them well said they came to hate each other with a “holy hatred. ”
Leathers went one up on Cannon in 1859 with a brand new boat, his fifth Natchez . Built at a cost of $200,000, she was the most elegant example of “steamboat Gothic” yet seen in the trade. Unfortunately, her captain had little time to enjoy his triumph before the Civil War brought the feud to a temporary halt.
Virtually the entire Mississippi steamboat fleet was destroyed or worn out during the conflict. Leathers, who had gone deeply into debt to build the Natchez , was hit especially hard when the Yankees captured her after New Orleans fell.
Cannon had better luck. After the Confederacy requisitioned his packet Vicksburg , he took his other boat, the General Quitman , far up the Red River, where he concealed her so effectively she remained undisturbed. As soon as the shooting stopped he brought the Quitman out of hiding, refurbished her, and was back in business while Leathers fumed on the beach.
His quick comeback was so profitable that within a year Cannon had a new boat under construction at New Albany, Indiana. The vessel, which came off the ways in September, 1866, was the most sumptuous steamer built up to that time. She had accommodations for 240 cabin and 300 deck (steerage) passengers, such amenities as a children’s nursery, bathrooms, a barbershop, and a gleaming bar, and was driven by the biggest and most powerful engines ever manufactured in the West.
Her interior opulence was breathlessly described by the New Albany Ledger on the eve of her maiden run: “The cabin and outfit of this great southern steamer surpasses that of any boat that ever graced the trade, and her accommodations are on the same scale of grandeur and magnificence. … The cabin with its rich garniture and splendid furniture, dazzling chandeliers, arched and fretted ceilings etched with gold, stained glass skylights, immense mirrors, the velvet carpets, the pure zinc white of the sides, the rosewood stateroom doors, the imitation Egyptian marble sills, all combined, make it bear an appearance of oriental luxury, magnificence and splendor seldom conceived and never before seen floating the wild waters of this so-called semi-barbarian Western world.”
The main cabin’s Wilton carpet, woven in a single piece, was 225 feet long and 17½ feet wide; the specially designed furniture was solid rosewood, and cushions and chairs were covered with heavy crimson satin. A Chickering grand piano at one end of the long gallery balanced a great plate-glass mirror at the other. Limoges china graced the 20 dining tables, and Reed & Barton furnished the silver service—enough for 240 diners at a single seating. Of the overall cost of $250,000, Captain Cannon had splurged $70,000 on these niceties.
As the sparkling white vessel steamed grandly down to New Orleans in October, 1866, true Southern hearts leaped at the sight of her. Blazoned in huge black letters on the paddlewheel housings was the most revered name in the recently defeated Confederacy— Robert E. Lee .
One Rebel heart untouched beyond reluctant admiration was that of Tom Leathers. He was still too deeply in debt to buHd a rival and had to lease older, smaller vessels to return to action. His pride was further bruised when he was reduced to buying a half interest in Cannon’s aging Quitman .
Leathers hadn’t lost his touch, though. Slowly and steadily he paid off his debts until, in 1869, he was ready to challenge the Lee ’s supremacy. He didn’t have the resources to swing it himself, but his word was sufficient to raise capital in Cincinnati, where a sixth Natchez was soon under construction. How much he went on the cuff for the new boat was never revealed, but it was close to $200,000.
The tonnage and carrying capacity of the Natchez were about the same, but passenger accommodations, while far from Spartan, didn’t match those of the Lee . Instead, Captain Leathers put his money on a personally designed hull with sharp clipper lines that provided speed without the excess weight of a big power plant and sliced through the water with scarcely a bow wave. With her exceptionally large wheels and bright red stacks towering 120 feet above the water, the new Natchez was a splendid sight.
Since the two rivals hadn’t been on speaking terms following an indecisive fist fight on a New Orleans street corner in 1868, no one expected a direct challenge to a showdown. Moreover, it would have had to come from Leathers, an admission of Cannon’s pre-eminence which Captain Tom wasn’t about to make. Nevertheless, there is reason to suspect that he deliberately precipitated the confrontation.
At the close of the 1870 cotton-shipping season, both boats extended their runs north, the Natchez to St. Louis and the Lee to Louisville on the Ohio. Although running the same course as far as Cairo, Illinois, they left New Orleans on different days, the Lee on Thursdays and the Natchez on Saturdays.
On June 18 the Natchez pulled out of New Orleans. On the twenty-second she steamed triumphantly into St. Louis after a carefully clocked passage of 3 days, 21 hours, and 58 minutes. Despite twenty-one landings and delays at Memphis and Cairo, the Natchez had shattered by an hour and 11 minutes a record that had stood since 1844. Nevertheless, one small cloud hung over the remarkable feat. Leathers had failed to capture the Princess antlers.
Displayed on the wharf boat at Natchez, an impressive spread of elk antlers, the traditional river symbol of a record performance, flaunted the challenge: “Why don’t you take the horns? Princess ’ time to Natchez 17 hours and 30 minutes.” Since his Natchez IV had held the record until the Princess broke it in 1855, Captain Tom wanted those horns badly. He missed by 21 minutes.
The Lee was coming down the Ohio when word of Leathers’ feat reached John Cannon at Evansville, Indiana. He was startled to learn that on her next trip the Natchez would leave New Orleans on Thursday, June 30, instead of Saturday as usual. Leathers had, in effect, placed a chip on his shoulder and dared his rival to knock it off.
The latter wasn’t anxious to try just then. The Lee , three years older than the Natchez , had been in constant operation for months, and although Engineer Bill Perkins had done everything to keep her in top shape, the boat needed an overhaul. Still, Cannon neither could nor would back off.
At Mound City, Illinois, the Lee stopped for some judicious stripping. The splash guards on the paddle-wheel housings were removed to permit the buckets (steamboat jargon for paddle blades) to work without the drag of dead water, sidings were taken off the pilothouse, and doors and windows fore and aft of the main cabin were unhinged to lessen wind resistance. On arrival at New Orleans, Cannon put ashore all unneeded furniture and tackle to further lighten the Lee —in fact, the story soon made the rounds that he was restricting himself to a single change of underwear to save weight.
Still basking in the glow of his recent triumph, Leathers did less to prepare for the showdown he had invited. His only gestures were to remove loose hold lumber and unship the swinging gangplanks at the bow to cut down air resistance. Both captains arranged for recoaling on the fly at various points.
Neither would admit to any intention of racing, although Cannon was quoted as saying that if he got away in front and Leathers tried to pass him, he’d discover the Lee was more than a hundred miles long.
News that the long-anticipated contest was on flashed along the river, across the nation, and to Europe via telegraph and cable. Dispatches out of New Orleans fanned speculation in San Francisco, Chicago, New York, Washington, Philadelphia—even in London, Paris, and Vienna.
Millions of dollars soon were riding on the outcome. Sentiment figured strongly in the betting. The hallowed name of the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia held irresistible appeal to Southerners and romantic amateurs, although experienced boatmen and professional gamblers leaned toward the Natchez .
Both vessels were coal-burning, steam-driven sidewheelers. Each had two engines, one per paddlewheel, and eight boilers, four to an engine. The Lee ’s engines, however, were medium pressure with cylinders of larger bore than those of the Natchez , a high-pressure boat. The latter’s wheels were unusually large, four feet greater in diameter than the Lee ’s.
The Lee looked longer, wider, and taller than the Natchez but was actually smaller. She was 300 feet long with a 44-foot beam, while the Natchez was 307 feet long and a foot narrower. Cleaner hull lines enabled the Natchez to slip gracefully through the water in contrast to the Lee , which seemed to butt her way, throwing up a bigger bow wave.
On the other hand, the Natchez was top-heavy, slow in landing and getting under way, with a bad habit of “running off” (sideslipping out of control on sharp turns) in shallow water. Expert opinion rated the Natchez slightly faster at full speed but not enough to make any difference over the long, winding, and treacherous route from New Orleans to St. Louis.
Surprisingly, on a river where pilots played such a vital role, those involved in the great race got almost no attention. For the record, the regular pilots of the Lee were West Conner and James Pell, with George Cayton as apprentice, while Mort Burnham and Frank Cayton handled the wheel of the Natchez .
Thursday, June 30, 1870, was exceptionally hot and sticky even for New Orleans in midsummer, with few people on the streets and business almost at a standstill. In midafternoon, the hottest part of the day, the city came alive as traffic converged on the waterfront from all directions. By four o’clock a sweltering crowd of more than ten thousand packed the wharf at the foot of Canal Street where the Lee and Natchez , two berths apart, were preparing for the customary five o’clock departure. Several steamboats, filled to capacity at a dollar a head, were already moving to vantage points upriver to see the start. New Orleans hadn’t known such crowds and excitement since the war.
As the last passengers came aboard—exact figures weren’t announced but the Natchez had about ninety and the Lee between sixty and seventy-five, including half a dozen experienced captains who had volunteered to go along as extra officers—and visitors went ashore, the tension fairly crackled. Smoke curled lazily from the stacks; black firemen, stripped to the waist and glistening with sweat, stoked furnaces, and engineers hovered anxiously over their machinery. The rival captains watched from their hurricane decks, acknowledged the cheers of the crowd, and turned their backs on each other.
At about five o’clock black smoke belched from the Lee ’s stacks. Fire axes severed mooring lines, and she shot out of her berth as the crowd roared. In midstream she pointed her bow upriver, gathered speed, and fired her saluting cannon as she passed St. Mary’s Market, the starting point for timed runs.
Captain Leathers, still taking bows on the hurricane deck of the Natchez , was caught by surprise. Although he promptly ordered lines cast off, he couldn’t leave the wharf until the Lee had cleared his stern. By the time the Natchez had squared away in pursuit, the Lee had gained about a mile as well as a time advantage of three and a half minutes. Old Tom descended to the boiler deck where he sat glowering at the stern of the Lee . He had been embarrassed in front of the home folks and was in no mood for conversation.
The first lap—140 miles to Baton Rouge—set the tone for the next four days. It was an unforgettable time for passengers, none of whom bothered to go to bed before the Louisiana capital was passed at 1:30 A.M. The reporter for the St. Louis Republican aboard the Lee wrote the most vivid account of those first hours: “The scene from the time of departure till dark last evening baffles description. As we steamed along the watery race track the whole country on both sides of the river seemed alive with a strange excitement expressed in a variety of gestures, the waving of handkerchiefs, hats, running along the river shore as if to encourage the panting steamers, and now and then far off shouts came cheeringly across the waters and were plainly heard above the roaring of the fires, the clatter of machinery, the dashing of the waters and the rushing of steam. … The settlements and plantations along the coast as we passed turned out their whole forces and seemed to have taken a holiday in honor of our flying trip.”
His colleague aboard the Natchez confessed that his hand shook as he sat down to write his dispatch.
When darkness fell, the river was outlined by huge bonfires on both banks, although they had died down by the time the racers reached Baton Rouge. Since the boats were hugging the opposite bank, diehards on the levee had trouble identifying them, but a lusty shout went up when the “Hoppin’ Bob” was seen as the leader. She swept past in the record time of 8 hours and 27 minutes from New Orleans, 6 minutes ahead of the Natchez .
Steaming through the night with little change in position, the boats arrived at Natchez, 300 miles out of New Orleans, in midmorning of July 1 to a tumultuous welcome. The landing area under the hill was packed and the heights above lined with carriages and wagons for a mile or more by a crowd overwhelmingly behind their city’s namesake. The welcoming committee even had a band on the wharf to serenade the Natchez , and when the Lee arrived first, it refused to play.
As the unwelcome front-runner swung in toward shore to pick up a pair of waiting coal barges, Captain Cannon shouted, “I’ll take those horns!” The Princess ’ antlers were removed from the wharf boat where they had hung so long and were placed on one of the barges and sent out to midstream. A few minutes later the Natchez pulled in to discharge and accept passengers.
Tom Leathers had achieved his ambition to beat the Princess ’ time, only to have the prize whisked from under his nose by Cannon, whose clocking of 17 hours and 11 minutes beat him by 8 minutes. By the time the Natchez took up the pursuit again, the antlers were on the Lee ’s hurricane deck, where excited lady passengers festooned them with ribbons.
On the 100-mile run to Vicksburg the Natchez , despite losing 6 minutes at Natchez and 9 more at Grand Gulf, Mississippi, closed to within 14 minutes of the Lee . The latter arrived at Vicksburg to the now usual reception at 5:30 P.M. , one day and 38 minutes out of New Orleans. Both took on more coal, and the Natchez docked briefly to let off passengers.
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 .
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.
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.
The horns of the Princess also have survived. A treasured possession of John Cannon the rest of his life, the antlers passed through several hands until they wound up in the junk room of the Vicksburg Elks Club. Their identity and significance forgotten, they were saved from the city dump only at the last moment. Newly gilded and remounted, they now occupy a place of honor in Vicksburg’s Old Court House Museum. Natchez, where they really belong, can have its cherished mansions. Vicksburg’s got the horns.