New Orleans, Louisiana, July 1, 1870: Both steamboats—the Robert E. Lee and the Natchez—promote themselves as “the fastest steamboat on America’s rivers.” Even though neither boat has ever lost a race, one of them is wrong. And, the day of reckoning has arrived.
At 5:00, yesterday afternoon, just off the New Orleans docks, a brief silence of anticipation filled the air. Each proud steamboat idled side by side, poised and ready. The starting pistol shot rang out. Silence vanished. Boat whistles blew. The paddle wheels churned. Passengers on both boats cheered and clapped. Thousands of spectators lining the banks of the Mississippi began whooping, shouting, dancing, and jumping. The noise of excitement crushed normal conversation, as the race of the century was on. The din dimmed only as the boats disappeared around the first bend.
Over the next few days, thousands of more spectators will be in every river port and thousands more on levees between those ports, both night and day, as the Natchez and the Robert E. Lee speed their way along the 1200 miles of the twisting, treacherous Mississippi River from New Orleans to St. Louis.