Society: 1820-1870The Great Steamboat Race: Lee vs the Natchez

The most famous steamboat race in history had the venerable Rob't E. Lee against the newly built Natchez.  Below is an excerpt that reflects one interpretation of the beginning of the race.  The excerpt comes from Tales of The Mississippi, by Ray Samuel, Leonard V. Huber, and Warren C. Ogden.
An artist's depiction of the famous race between the Rob't. E. Lee and the Natchez in 1870.
"Launch stage," shouts the mate of the Rob't E. Lee.  Black, sweating muscles give a quick lurch, and the rousters on the Lee heave the gangplank so that it shoots in across the deck.  The bell rings.  Down come the axes on the bow lines and "Hoppin' Bob" backs out into the Mississippi, as thousands loose the pent-up energy of their throats.

As she lunges into the stream stern first, battered hats wave from the fo'cstle, and some-body strikes up a tune on a banjo.  The few passengers on the Lee wave at the wharf.  The big boat, slowed, heads round upstream.  With a groan as her buckets dig into the current, she shoots away like an arrow from a bow.

Capt. Cannon sets her head for St. Louis, and the Lee is off.  As she passes St. Mary's market, the official starting place for all steamboat timing, a thousand watch cases snap open.  Their owners look for the puff of white smoke to come from the Lee's cannon.

"Bang" goes the little signal piece.  Five-oh-three," note the countless timekeepers.

All eyes then turn to the "Big Injin."  Capt. Leathers rings his bell only after the last piece of freight has been hustled aboard, the last passenger safely across the stage.  With a mighty heave, the wheels of the Natchez back, as she widens the gap between her bow and the wharf.  Hitting the current, there is a pause, a long, maddening pause for the Natchez's backers.  Then the wheels dig in, the rudders begin to take effect, and the Natchez shoots after the Lee.

The watch cases snap open again.  "Bang!" say the "Big Injin's" guns.  Five-oh-six is the time.  The Natchez is three minutes behind her adversary, but nobody, least of all Capt. Leathers, gives it a second thought.

Rounding the Carrollton bend, the two giants of the river are within sight of each other still.  Then the Lee begins to widen the distance.  Some who stand on the levee shake their heads.

"The Natchez ain't in it.  She wan't see the Lee again 'til she reaches St. Louis."

On board the Rob't E. Lee, the seventy-five passengers begin to relax and enjoy what is rapidly turning into a routine run instead of a touch-and-go race.  The ladies drift into the music room and play the piano.  The men chat on the guards, and poker games spring up in the saloon, the clink of chips being the loudest sound above the purr of the engines and the steady swoosh of the paddle wheels.

It's a different picture on board the Natchez.  As the "Hoppin' Bob" becomes only a cloud of smoke around the next bend, gloom settles on the "Big Injin."  Capt. Leathers descends from his famous perch atop the hurricane deck and sits moodily in a chair on the boiler deck, deep in thought.  No one speaks to him, and he offers no conversation.  "Old Push" just sits.

<- Previous  Top  Next ->