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Not long after it had pulled away from Cairo, the Natchez engaged its first obstacle. Near the Illinois shore it ran aground on a sandbar, which cost it more time as it backed and struggled to free itself, then, managing to escape, sped forward again as night fell upon the river. Minutes later a new menace, more blinding, more threatening than nightfall, came seeping silently over the dark river. Fog. In places along the river’s course the gray fog was a wispy veil. In other places it was too thick to be penetrated by the eye. The riverbanks disappeared behind it.
The Natchez now was passing its obstacles with extreme caution, slowly hugging Elk Island, staying to starboard of it, slipping past the pair of midriver islands called the Two Sisters. At Dog Tooth Bend the boat struck bottom again. More time lost. When it was free again, the Natchez’s pilot showed more caution, feeling his way along, stopping and reversing engines when he suspected a threatening sandbar, before ramming into it.
The wits among the passengers aboard the Natchez, having abandoned all hope of catching up to the Lee, began making jokes about the Natchez’s creeping pace. The best chance of seeing the Lee again, one wag remarked, was on its return trip from St. Louis. The St. Louis Republican’s reporter aboard the boat, at last giving in to the Natchez’s bleak situation and faintly critical of the Natchez’s pilots, wrote that “the race with the Lee ... was virtually ended, unless the pilots of the latter should go crazy and jump overboard, and even in such a contingency there would be but little chance for the Natchez.”1
Captain Leathers, fulminating with curses and other blue language, apparently heard none of it and would not have been deterred if he had. He continued to press his pilots and other crewmen on. At another sharp twist in the river, called Hackett’s Bend, the Natchez grounded again, with a long scrape of the hull followed by a thud that halted forward movement. The reporter from the St. Louis Republican observed that “it really seemed we were engaged in a sleighing expedition instead of a steamboat race.”
It was now after nine P.M. The Natchez had left Cairo more than two hours earlier and had come but twenty-two miles. It was running out of the channel and into the river bottom about every two miles, suffering more delays each time it had to free itself. So much for the claim that the Natchez had the best pilots on the Mississippi.
The fog was deepening, but Leathers kept the Natchez inching through it, warning crewmen he had posted on the decks to keep a sharp eye out for whatever lay hidden ahead. It was clear to crewmen and passengers alike that he had no intention of stopping. He knew that the fog and low water must be hampering Cannon and the Robert E. Lee as well as the Natchez and all he had to do to stay in the race was to keep going. After all, the Lee, with its deeper draft, was more susceptible to grounding than was the Natchez.
He managed to make it past the shallows off Goose Island, then past the jagged, underwater rocks of the Grand Chain and past the landing at Thebes, Illinois, the lights of which could be seen through the hazy fog, which was just a thin cloud at that point. Above Thebes the river straightened, and the run got easier, except for the threat presented by a rocky islet that the Natchez must pass to larboard before continuing on into a deep channel. The Natchez slid safely past the islet, turned westward and sought the reassuring wharf lights of Cape Girardeau, which, it turned out, were barely visible through the worsening fog.
Above Cape Girardeau the river was again strewn with rocky hulks jutting up from below the surface, a section of the Mississippi appropriately called Devil’s Country. The little islands, not numbered as the islands below Cairo were, were known by such hellish names as Devil’s Island, Devil’s Tea Table, Devil’s Bake Oven and Devil’s Backbone. After them came Dog Island and Muddy Island, only slightly less forbidding. As the Natchez groped toward them, the fog became nearly impossible to deal with. Leathers tried to cope, inching the Natchez through the shrouded chain of rocky islets and doubtlessly wondering if he might at any moment come across a stranded Robert E. Lee, run afoul of the ruinous rocks — and perhaps hoping that he would. Now Leathers’s pilots were ready to give it up, the hazards being too great. All they could see, and then only fleetingly, was a small patch of water directly off the bow. Leathers, though, insisted that they keep going.
Somewhere around Hamburg Island Leathers consulted his watch and learned that midnight was just minutes away. Evidently tired and expecting nothing but more tension and danger ahead, he at last decided he had had enough fog for one night. With some ninety passengers aboard and his boat and crew at risk, facing the mounting danger of smashing into fog-hidden rocks, Captain Leathers gave up the idea of a continued pursuit — for the time being. Around half past twelve, he ordered his pilots to feel their way toward the Missouri shore and get close enough for the deckhands to go ashore and tie the Natchez to a tree, and there they would impatiently wait for the fog to lift.
Warily braving the threat of sudden grounding, pilots Frank Clayton and Mort Burnham groped through the thick fog and managed to find the riverbank without running into it. Once the vessel was secured they ordered the Natchez’s engines stopped and resigned themselves to an indeterminate delay.
The place where they landed turned out to be Kinney’s Point, at the top of Devil’s Island, close to Shepherd’s Landing, the site of a woodyard run by a man named Delvory. Apparently thinking he had acquired a customer, Delvory at that late hour came walking through the fog to talk to the officers of the Natchez. From Delvory Captain Leathers learned that the Robert E. Lee had crept by Shepherd’s Landing not more than twenty-five minutes earlier. In the clutching fog, the Lee’s lead had shrunk to just twenty-five minutes. It still could be caught, Leathers believed, if the fog would dissipate enough for the Natchez to get back in the race. It was now 12:35 A.M., Monday, July 4.
The Lee, with its St. Louis pilots at the wheel, had steamed briskly from Cairo in daylight, and its passengers had happily received the salutes of passing steamers on their way downriver, the Nick Wall, the St. Joseph and the Olive Branch, before the sun set behind the trees that crowded the Missouri shore. Once the sun had sunk out of sight, the air swiftly took on a damp chill. On the Missouri side of the river bonfires were lighted, for the racing steamers or the imminent Fourth of July, or both.
At Cape Girardeau, which it reached about nine-thirty, some four hours and forty-four minutes out of Cairo, the Robert E. Lee was greeted by more bonfires. It was there that those aboard the Lee noticed the wispy haze drifting over the river, dulling the brilliance of the bonfires’ flames. Fog was moving in.
As the fog thickened, the Lee kept moving, but Captain Cannon called a conference with the St. Louis pilots, Jesse Jameson and Enoch King, and his regular pilots as well as others whose judgment he trusted. After conferring, and with the approval of Jameson and King, Cannon decided to keep moving despite the fog, which, deep into it, pilot Jameson claimed was the worst he had ever encountered in some twenty-five years on the river. “Ordinarily,” assistant engineer John Wiest reported later, “the boat would have laid up to wait for it to clear away, but those St. Louis pilots were game and never said anything about quitting.”2
What those pilots did say, though, was that they wanted the help of “the best eyes on board,”3 which they got, to help them keep the boat from harm. They also got some other extraordinary precautions ordered by Cannon. Cannon stationed both Jameson and King in the pilothouse and put his other pilots — Conner, Pell and Clayton — at the forward end of the texas deck, closer to the bow than were Jameson and King in the pilothouse. He then positioned three other sharp-eyed, river-wise crewmen on the main deck, at the boat’s prow. And he lowered the Lee’s yawl into the river, manned by sturdy oarsmen who would row it out in front of the Lee, with leadsmen aboard to measure the river’s depth with poles and weighted lines. Cannon then stationed himself forward on the hurricane deck, where he could watch and hear the warnings of the men on duty below and immediately relay those warnings to Jameson and King in the pilothouse.
“In the engine room,” Wiest, the eyewitness, said, “they were using a moderate head of steam, with a man at the throttle of each engine. If the cry came, ‘Hard a starboard!’ [signaling a sharp turn to starboard], the pilot stopped a wheel until the boat headed away from the [left] shore, and used the same tactics reversed if the shore was too close on his left.”4
Cannon was struggling with himself as well as the fog, trying to decide whether his obsession with getting to St. Louis first was driving him, his boat and all aboard to destruction. He was trying to decide whether it was time to call a halt, even if it meant that Leathers and the Natchez might pass him. For all he knew, the Natchez might not be in fog. Vacillating between stopping and continuing, he at one point told pilot George Clayton he wanted to put into shore, but Clayton apparently talked him out of it, reminding him that fog is not all encompassing, that it diminishes and has an end to it somewhere. And so the creeping Robert E. Lee continued blindly upriver, guided by the calls of the leadsmen in the yawl. Even so, it struck the riverbank once, then backed off and found the channel again.
Somewhere around Muddy Island, at about two o’clock in the morning, a breeze sprang up, and gradually the blinding mass of gray tore apart and melted into thin, blowing wisps, drifting aimlessly over the water. By the light of the moon, the Lee’s crew could actually see the water. The fog was gone. Up ahead, the big river was wide and clear. In the Lee’s pilothouse the pilot rang for the engine room to resume full speed as the yawl turned back to the steamer and the oarsmen and leadsmen climbed aboard. Captain Cannon and his pilots could then see the lights of the community of Grand Tower, which stood on the Illinois shore opposite the rocky islet called the Grand To w e r . T h e Robert E. Lee, steaming swiftly, was now just a little more than a hundred miles from St. Louis.
At Grand Tower a reporter for the St. Louis Republican issued terse reports on the race from his perspective :
G RAND TOWER, July 4, 1:50 A.M.— The R.E. Lee is now passing at speed unprecedented within the memory of the oldest inhabitant.
2:08 A.M.— The Lee is out of sight, abreast of Devil’s Oven. Nothing has been seen of the Natchez yet.
GRAND TOWER, 4:30 A.M.— Fog so dense that no boat can get through it. Nothing heard of Natchez yet.
The fog behind the Lee had unpredictably blown away and then had returned, thicker than ever, all to the disadvantage of the Natchez. As it remained tied up at Shepherd’s Landing, some of the exhausted crew members took as much rest as they could get. Others took turns standing watch, eager for the first sign that the fog was diminishing. After four hours of idleness, just before five o’clock on the morning of July 4, Captain Leathers, thinking he detected a thinning of the fog, ordered the engine room to crank up the Natchez’s engines and get it going again. After moving only a few yards, Leathers could see he was mistaken. The fog had yet to break. He ordered the boat tied up again.
Another hour and a half passed. Now it became clear that the fog was indeed dissipating. As the fog broke up, the Natchez started up once more, churning its way out into the middle of channel and steaming northward again. Whatever hope Leathers still had for catching the Robert E. Leemust have vanished like the fog when the Natchez reached Grand Tower and someone in a small boat rowed out to tell him that the Lee had passed Grand Tower at two A.M. and was six hours ahead of him.
About five o’clock the sun had come up, wiping out the last remnants of the fog, pouring light onto the wooded riverbanks and brightening the summer sky. It was going to be a glorious Independence Day on the river. On board the surging Robert E. Lee Captain Cannon, peering far astern, could see no sign of the Natchez, no telltale smudges of black smoke rising above the horizon. It was obvious to him that he and the Lee were far, far ahead.
Past Ste. Genevieve the Lee steamed, past old Fort de Chartres on the Illinois shore. By mid-morning it had passed Herculaneum, moving now at less than full speed, Cannon and his pilots knowing there was no longer need for it. At the Missouri village of Sulphur Springs, passengers aboard the Lee could see an excursion train of the Iron Mountain Railroad stopped on the tracks that ran beside the river, its passengers having left the train to stand on the riverbank to await the Lee’s arrival and greet it with waving handkerchiefs and cheers as it steamed past them, swiftly headed for the finish line.
Certain victory was now mere minutes away.