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.
Newspapers across the United States and all across Europe have been promoting this race for at least six months, now. It is the most anticipated race in history. Citizens on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean are placing bets on the race at unprecedented levels. Some are speculating that $2 to $3 million dollars will be bet on this race (using relative share of Gross Domestic Product that is $3.7 billion today).
Part of this gambling frenzy, no doubt, has to do with the well known rivalry and intense personal animosity between each of the boat’s captains—John W. Cannon of the Lee and Thomas P. Leathers of the Natchez. They have cursed each other and made fun of one another in public and private for years. Everyone on the river knows, these two captains hate each other.
But, this race is not merely about sport, gambling, and “getting even”. It’s also about testing and improving boats. The speed of a steamboat is an important asset in making money. Customers who ship their goods to market want a fast boat. Passengers want to arrive at their destinations quicker. Therefore, all boat owners are doing everything in their power to improve the speed and safety of steamboats.
So, even though this race is exceptional, steamboat races are frequent occurrences on the Mississippi, the Missouri, and the Ohio Rivers. All too often, though, they end in disaster because boat boilers are pushed to the point of exploding. The Forest Rose blew up when it was racing the York Town back in 1857 on the Ohio. Two killed and dozens injured. Earlier that same year, the Ben Sherrod steamboat was racing the Prairie on the Mississippi, just below Natchez. A boiler blew on the Sherrod and the resulting fire killed 150 people. There have been many more such disasters on our rivers over the past 60 years of steamboat travel.
Hopefully, this current historic steamboat race– begun right here Friday afternoon– will end with no such disasters, as the boilers on both the Lee and the Natchez are stoked to the limit in the quest for knowledge, speed, money, and victory.
There were a few close calls in the steamboat “Race of the Century” but no disasters. Both boats finished the race intact.
At about 10:00AM on July 4, 1870, thousands of spectators stood by in St. Louis, gazing down river, waiting for the winner. Three days and 18 hours into the race, church bells rang, cannons roared, train whistles blew, and the waiting crowd in St. Louis cheered and yelled, “It’s the Robert E. Lee!”
Captain Cannon and the Lee were the clear winners. Then, six hours and 36 minutes later, Captain Leathers and the Natchez moved across the finish line to an equally rousing reception. Both the winner and the loser and all of St. Louis partied all day and well into the night on that unusually raucous Fourth of July in the summer of 1870.
Incidentally, Wymond Hurt of Tupelo, Mississippi, who suggested this story, had a great uncle who was the pilot on the Forest Rose steamboat that blew up in the race mentioned in the body of the story above. His great uncle’s remains were never recovered. Another of Wymond’s great uncles, Uncle Charlie, lived in Verona, just south of Tupelo at the time the Forest Rose blew up.
So, the “Race of the Century” and those deadly boiler explosions in the 19th Century “Era of the Steamboats” can still create their own types of, both public and private, Southern Memories.