Society: 1820-1870Lee vs the Natchez: What we know about the race

The most well-known steamboat race in American history, the Rob't E. Lee vs. the Natchez was never close.  Beginning on June 30, 1870 the Lee had a head start of a few minutes that turned into hours during the first day of the race.  Both boats experienced problems.  The Rob't E. Lee burst a steam pipe the first night allowing the Natchez to come within three minutes of her, the closest margin of the race.  Later the Natchez lost a water pump that cost it thirty minutes and had to stop again because of fog, losing five hours.

The Rob't E. Lee arrived in St. Louis on July 4, 1870 around 11:30 am in the morning; the Natchez followed, arriving at 6:00 pm.  People in East St. Louis and St. Louis turned out to watch the arrivals.

We find evidence of the popularity of the race in this newspaper clipping from the New Orleans Daily Picayune where both captains deny that the race would occur:

Upon reflection it was never a fair race.  Although both boats were comparable in size and power, their captains set out with different agendas.  On board the Rob't E. Lee were only seventy-five specially invited guests and no cargo.  Captain John W. Cannon outfitted the Lee to race.  The Natchez under the command of Captain Thomas Paul Leathers, prepared for a regular trip, taking on board a full complement of passengers and cargo.
The captains used different strategies.  While Captain Leathers planned to make regular stops for fuel and to unload cargo, Captain Cannon made arrangements to fuel the Lee while under steam.  During the race the packet Frank Pargoud, under the command of Captain John W. Tobin, met the Lee in midstream.  The crews lashed the boats together and transferred fuel from the Pargoud to the Lee.

<- Previous  Top  Next ->