• 14 •
When the Robert E. Lee approached the lower end of Jefferson Barracks, more cheers of greeting were shouted across the water by passengers on the steam ferryboat East St. Louis, which was tied to the riverbank to provide a reviewing stand for a multitude of spectators. As the Lee steamed past Jefferson Barracks it received a three-gun artillery salute from the old Army post, and the Lee returned the salute with its signal cannon.
At the northern end of Jefferson Barracks four excursion steamers, filled with celebrants, stood in the river waiting for the Lee, and when it appeared, the crowds on the steamers and those on the bluffs above Jefferson Barracks roared their greetings and congratulations. Adding to the tremendous welcome was the excursion train that was now dashing toward St. Louis abreast of the Lee, blowing its whistle in ear-splitting salute, as the Lee’s pilots repeatedly answered with the steamboat’s whistle, filling the sultry air with sounds of raucous celebration. The cheering mass of spectators along the shore grew thicker as the Lee reached Carondelet and proceeded on toward downtown St. Louis. The scene was recorded in an eyewitness account by a reporter for the St. Louis Democrat:
Long before the Lee was expected, the people began to assemble on the wharf boat, the steamers and the houses fronting the levee. Every boat was crowded with anxious spectators, men, women and children, all determined to see the boat when she came in....
At ten minutes past 11 o’clock a cry was heard from the crowd standing on the levee at the foot of Market street —“There she comes!”
The cry was caught up by the people on the steamers and wharf boats, and along the whole line of the levee it was passed, and “There she comes!” was heard from Market street to the shot tower. There was a movement of the crowd, and all eyes were turned down the river, but no boat was in sight. Then voices exclaimed, “That’s a sell!” and the people settled down again, watching with anxious eyes for the first faint cloud of smoke that might appear in the distance. A few minutes passed, and the word was given that she was “Coming sure!”
View of the St. Louis riverfront as it appeared in 1871, a year after the race. The Robert E. Lee’s arrival on July 4, 1870, was greeted by a cheering mass of spectators along the shore, by passengers on excursion steamers waiting in the river and by the ear-splitting whistle of a train dashing beside the river, abreast of the Lee (Library of Congress).
A tug now put out, and proceeded to the foot of Chouteau Avenue, meeting the Lee near that point. At 11:20 the black smoke from the Lee’s chimneys was seen rolling past the foot of Cedar street. A minute later and she shot into view at Market street, and the boom of cannon announced her arrival. The multitude held their breath in eager expectancy, while ever and again the voice of the cannon proclaimed the progress of the victorious steamer. An old colored fireman shouted: “I golly! dat puts me in mind of war times!”
At twenty-five minutes past 11 o’clock the Robert E. Lee passed her place of mooring, at the New Orleans wharf boat, firing a gun as she got opposite. Now the pent-up enthusiasm of the people broke forth in shouts and yells, waving of handkerchiefs and tossing of hats. The salute was returned by those on board the Lee. As she passed we observed two colored men sitting aside the cross-timbers of her jackstaff ; one seemed to be playing the banjo, while the other was yelling at the top of his voice....
The Lee passed on to the head of Bloody Island, where she rounded to. The multitude followed her up the levee, and there was a scene of the wildest confusion — men, women and children hurrying along as in chase of the boat; baggage wagons and hotel coaches dashing through the crowd — people rushing on shore from the steamers and wharf boats, and everybody panting with excitement.
The shouts were not so loud as it was expected they would be from the size of the crowd. The enthusiasm was not so demonstrative as became the importance of the occasion. The colored boatmen, however, made a great deal of noise, some of them yelling at the top of their voices, some falling on the ground and rolling over in the agony of delight.
Slowly the victor backed about, and gracefully moved down stream, then rounded to again and came alongside of the wharf boat, to which she was made fast. Then there was a grand rush on board, and the friends of the officers grasped their hands, and tendered their congratulations.1
The victorious Robert E. Lee had reached its destination at 11:24:30 a.m., and its official time from New Orleans to St. Louis was announced to the cheering crowd on a long, canvas banner tied to the larboard railing on the boat’s boiler deck :
N.O. TO ST. LOUIS, 3D., 18H. 14M
The Lee had not only beaten the Natchez to St. Louis but it had also beaten the record time for a voyage from New Orleans to St. Louis, set by the Natchez on June 22, 1870, less than two weeks earlier, by three hours and forty-four minutes.
In New Orleans the feat of the Robert E. Lee and its captain and crew was extravagantly heralded on the front page of the Picayune, whose readers were informed:
The greatest steamboat race that has ever taken place on the Father of Waters is over, the hopes and fears of thousands are settled, and the R.E. Lee wears
proudly the title of CHAMPION OF THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER.
Not easily were her honors won, for her rival was swift of keel, and so closely contested the race that it may almost be said she shared the honors with her.
The people of the entire Mississippi Valley have been excited about this race as they never were before by any similar event, and the banks of the great river were thronged with thousands of deeply interested spectators during the progress of the race, all along the route from New Orleans to St. Louis.
It is not to be denied that the illustrious name which the victor bears had much to do with the popular sympathy for her in this contest. To such an extent was this feeling carried that we heard of parties who had their money staked on the Natchez declare they would prefer to lose it rather than the Rob’t E. Lee should be defeated.2
On reaching downtown St. Louis, Captain Cannon had sped the Lee past Walnut Street, where it was to land, and as if taking a victory lap, continued up to where the piers for the new bridge across the Mississippi were under construction, then had made a sweeping turn and headed back to Walnut Street, slowed his vessel and tied it up to the wharf boat there. Once it was tied up, the throng of well-wishers pushed their way onto the boat to congratulate all who were aboard, creating a lively celebration.
“On board the Lee,” the Democrat’s reporter wrote, “the scene was one the like of which is seldom witnessed. Although the police placed on the steps leading to the cabin were active and determined, such crowds passed up and through the cabin that hardly anything could be heard for the noise arising from the confused movements.”3
Cannon found himself swamped by the crowd, but managed to push free of the mass of bodies and make his way off the Lee and onto the wharf boat, where he was met by the official welcomers, including Captain Nat Green, who led him away from the throng and into a private office to escape the crowd and confusion, which he seemed to tolerate well enough. “He does not seem exhausted by the vigils necessary for the task performed,” the Democrat reporter commented. Among the dignitaries on hand to congratulate Cannon were a host of fellow steamboat captains as well as Mary Lee, the thirty-five-year-old daughter of the man for whom the triumphant Robert E. Lee had been named, and James B. Eads, designer of St. Louis’s new bridge.
A man of forceful personality and opinions, Eads volunteered to Cannon that he would bet a thousand dollars that if the Lee had an iron hull, instead of its wooden hull, it would have made the trip from New Orleans faster by five hours. He told Cannon that an iron hull would have made the Robert E. Lee a foot lighter in the water and he then pressed Cannon to tell him how much faster the Lee could have gone if its draft had been a foot less. Fortunately for Cannon, another well-wisher was brought to him to be introduced then and he was able to turn away from the argumentive Eads.
Captain Cannon did take time to answer other questions, though. One of his fellow steamboat captains asked him about the stage of water he preferred when attempting a fast trip. Cannon quickly responded, “Bank full of water. I want it bank full, always for my fast trip.”4 Cannon, the reporter observed, seemed “very happy,” and when asked about his feelings, Cannon replied that if he seemed happy, it was because he had met so many friends and was deeply gratified by the reception given him. Cannon attributed his success to the Robert E. Lee’s machinery, calling its engines “the best in the world” and claiming that except for the water leak, the boat’s machinery was in as good condition at the end of the race as it was when the Lee left New Orleans. Commenting on the fog that had slowed down the Lee and had critically delayed the Natchez, Cannon admitted, “Someone aboard was in favor of laying up,” apparently referring to himself, “but I persisted in running slow, and in a few minutes the fog was left behind.”5
Amid the hubbub, one of the Lee’s passengers, feeling effusive over the success of the Lee and Captain Cannon’s handling of the vessel, penned a note of gratitude and commendation to him:
We, the undersigned passengers of the Robt. E. Lee, take this method of tendering our thanks to Capt. John W. Cannon and his officers, for the pleasant trip just made, and would compliment Captain Cannon on his superior judgment and skill in the management of his boat, making the time quicker than it was ever made before. And we must say in praise of the noble craft, that everything worked to the satisfaction of all aboard. And we would hardly have known that she was on a fast trip had it not been for the continued cheering that greeted us at every landing as we passed. There was no excitement exhibited by the officers and crew during the whole trip. We would say to those who wish to take a pleasant, safe and speedy trip, to go on the “Robt. E. Lee.”6
The note’s author then asked his fellow passengers if they would like to sign the statement, and the thirty who affixed their signatures to the note thereby entered their names into the annals of American maritime history, forever identified as participants in the great river’s greatest race.7
It was almost six o’clock that evening when the Natchez came steaming into sight at St. Louis. As it passed Carondelet, steamers standing in the river greeted the Natchez with their whistles and bells, and the crowds on shore, standing on the riverbank and on the porches and balconies of houses, shouted and waved handkerchiefs. The crowds in downtown St. Louis, still celebrating the Fourth of July and the conclusion of the historic race, likewise cheered and hailed the late-arriving Natchez as loudly and enthusiastically as they had the Lee. As his vessel came up to its wharf boat Captain Leathers again pulled his new watch from his pocket and consulted it. It said 5:51 p.m., New Orleans time. The clock on the wharf boat, however, said 6:02, St. Louis time. In either case, the Natchez had finished the course some six and a half hours behind the Robert E. Lee.
Warmly greeted by a legion of friends, Leathers also faced the newspaper reporters and others in the crowd who had questions for him. He promptly let them know that he believed the Natchez had run a faster race than had the Lee. He conceded that the Lee had arrived six and a half hours before him, but maintained that allowances should be made for the difficulties the Natchez had encountered. He said thirty-six minutes should be subtracted from his boat’s running time for the time it lost when it had to stop at Milliken’s Bend for repairs to the valve of its intake pump, and more than six hours should be subtracted for the idle time the Natchez had spent waiting for the fog to lift. When all was considered, Leathers figured, the Natchez had actually made the trip in twelve minutes less than had the Robert E. Lee.8
Apparently no one in the crowd wanted to argue the matter with the formidable-looking captain of the Natchez. “The expression of his countenance,” one newspaperman reported, “is open, frank and rather pleasing. But if anyone is willing to calmly read that face, such a one would very probably conclude that he would not like to have him [Leathers] for an enemy.”9
To t h e St. Louis Republican reporter who had been aboard the Natchez all the way from New Orleans and had become one of its champions, Leathers’s argument made perfect sense. “The Natchez,” he wrote, “was beaten to St. Louis several hours, yet if an accurate deduction of the time she lost by accident to her pump and also by making two special landings for passengers alone, together with the time lost in the fog and by her numerous backings toward New Orleans from shoal water [were made], it will appear that her real running time to St. Louis is not greater than that of the R.E. Lee.”10
That same reporter, though, decided that the Natchez was no faster in the water than was the Lee, that they were equal. “The Natchez cannot possibly pass the Lee under way. She can get just so close as to ride on her swells and not another inch can she gain. The same would be the case with the Lee in the wake of the Natchez.... Were they let loose at New Orleans together on a big river they both would reach St. Louis in three days and twelve hours from New Orleans.”11
Captain Leathers, in an interview with a St. Louis Democrat reporter the next afternoon, July 5, remained steadfast in his belief that the race had not proved the Lee to be the superior vessel:
REPORTER : “Captain, are you prepared to admit that the Lee is faster than the Natchez?”
LEATHERS: “No. The Lee is not faster, by a long sight. No, sir.”
REPORTER: “Any objection to tell me something about your trip?”
LEATHERS: “No. We went to New Orleans and there were over 90 people’s names on the register for the Natchez and we were to take passengers at Vicksburg, Greenville and Memphis. We had 40 deck and cabin passengers for Cairo, whom we put on boats or tugs, and we brought through to St. Louis about 70 cabin passengers.”
REPORTER: “How about the Lee?”
LEATHERS: “She did not land alongside any wharf boat on the river. We lost thirty-six minutes at Buckhorn in Milliken Bend, and put out twenty passengers at Memphis.”
REPORTER: “Were you as thoroughly stripped as the Lee?”
LEATHERS: “We did no stripping except of the extra cattle dunnage, and my boat is in perfect order in every particular.”
REPORTER: “What is the fastest trip you can make from New Orleans to St. Louis?”
LEATHERS: I can come in 3 days 12 hours; but I am sure not to try it in shoal water. I think the Natchez has the capacity to do it. But for two of my stoppages, I would have beaten the Lee to St. Louis.”
REPORTER: “Wherein was the Lee’s greatest advantage in this contest?”
LEATHERS: “She received one hundred cords pine wood off the Pargoud; that was her great aid and advantage, and then I lost six hours in the fog, and the thirty-six minutes I have mentioned before. But for those we would have beaten the Lee’s time to St. Louis some twenty odd minutes. My losing landings were at Buckhorn and Devil’s Island.”
REPORTER: “Then, as to your preparation for a race, captain?”
LEATHERS: “I made none. I took fuel at the usual places, and had assistance from nobody. No fuel but Pittsburg coal.”
REPORTER: “Your passenger receipts must be considerable.”
LEATHERS: “We had $3000 or $4000 passenger receipts. I wasn’t prepared to tear up my boat, but to carry passengers.”
REPORTER: “How did you expect to get along above Cairo?”
LEATHERS: “I expected to clean her out in this river. At Cape Girardeau I was only one hour behind her. I touched bottom twice, having missed the channel twice. We merely bumped, and immediately backed off.”
Here the interview ended, the reporter informing Capt. Leathers that he supposed the Natchez would beat the Lee’s time within six months, but he [the reporter] would not ask any information on that point.12
Leathers’s friends and backers in Cincinnati were generally more gracious, conceding the Natchez had been fairly beaten. The Cincinnati Gazette, perhaps speaking for them, expressed its feelings in a straightforward, no-excuses editorial published in a late edition on July 4:
The three days’ agony is over. We are glad of it. There can be no doubt as to which is the fleetest steamer on the Mississippi. The Robert E. Lee need not make another run until a steamboat is built in the future that, upon trial, will excel her in speed. Cincinnati may be proud of the Natchez for her beautiful model. Her machinery is also good, else she would not have made the run she did — sometimes even gaining on the Lee.
“Generalship” and many other things may have had their influence on the race, but the solid fact stares us in the face that the Lee has beaten the Natchez. The reason of this, to plain, common-sense people, is apparent, namely: The Lee is the fastest boat.
The Natchez was built expressly to beat the Lee. The question heretofore has been, “Will the Lee beat?” The only question now is, “Has she done it?” We think she has, and fairly, too. The thirty-four-inch cylinders could not cope with the forty-inch cylinders. Cincinnati must build another boat and try the large cylinders.13
By the next evening, Tuesday, July 5, the officers of the two steamboats were sufficiently recovered from their ordeal to attend the banquet planned to honor the loser as well as the winner. The celebration of the consummation of the great race was to be held at the Southern Hotel, four blocks back from the riverfront, on Walnut Street, a hotel widely known for excellent cuisine. The banquet’s organizing committee had engaged Postlewaite’s String Band to provide entertainment for the fifty or so invited guests, all men, most of them steamboat captains and officers. A long-time captain, Dan Taylor, apparently picked for his gift of eloquence, was to preside over the affair.
In the hotel’s banquet room the guests took their places at three long, parallel tables that awaited them. At the head of the table on the right was seated the St. Louis harbormaster, Captain R.P. Clark, and beside him sat John Cannon. The other officers of the Robert E. Lee sat on either side of the table, along with Cannon’s old partners, Johnny Smoker and John Tolle, and others. It was obviously the Lee table, with a model of the vessel set on it as a centerpiece. One of those seated at it, however, was N.C. Claiborne, who was related to Leathers by marriage.
At the head of the table on the left sat Captain W.W. Green. Tom Leathers sat to the right of him, and the other officers of the Natchez, as at the Lee table, were arranged on both sides of the table. Also at the table were, among others, Bart Able, captain of the Mollie Able, and John Christy, who had traveled from Memphis to be with his friend Tom Leathers at the celebration. At the center of the table stood a model of the Natchez.
Between the Lee and Natchez tables was the center table, which may have been regarded as the neutral, or barrier, table. At the head of it sat — and occasionally stood — the banquet’s master of ceremonies, Captain Taylor, and arranged on either side of it were the rest of the celebrants.
The food and wine were as rich and bountiful as might be expected aboard a grand Mississippi River steamer, and Postlewaite’s String Band performed superbly, according to all reports. When the dinner had been consumed, wine glasses emptied many times, cigars lighted and Postlewaite’s musicians had been stilled, Captain Taylor rose from his chair at the center table and began an oration of complimentary remarks, followed by a reminder of what the guests had come to celebrate. “The two steamers that arrived at our wharf yesterday,” he said, revealing the public-relations aspect of the race, “have demonstrated that steamers can navigate even the difficult waters of the Mississippi and yet compete with the railroad, as they have done.”
His audience applauded in hearty agreement.
“There are many of you here,” Taylor went on, “who have been longer upon the railroad from New Orleans to St. Louis than any of the gentlemen who have arrived on these steamers.” More applause and shouts of agreement. “I speak of that in general terms, previous to congratulating our friends, the officers of the two steamers who have been so successful and who have so perfectly illustrated the fact that steamers can navigate the Mississippi River and yet compete with railroads on the land, even though they cut across the corners.” That statement was intended as a joke, as his listeners understood it to be, and they responded with laughter and more applause.
After a few more remarks in praise of steamboats, Taylor lifted his wine glass and announced, “I now offer you a toast, gentlemen. The crews of the steamboats Lee and Natchez!”
His audience quickly responded with their own raised glasses and drank his toast. Taylor then called upon Captain Cannon for a few words.
Cannon declined, and Colonel Claiborne of Kentucky, Leathers’s relative, stood to speak on behalf of Cannon. “I am related to both of these boats,” he told the celebrants, “to the Natchez by ties of blood, to the Robert E. Lee by state pride.” After reciting the achievements of the grand old steamer J.M. White as well as the Natchez and the Robert E. Lee, Claiborne reminded his listeners that the steamboat was invented by an American. “I make this statement,” he said, “when I know and feel that we have a better people, braver men and prettier women than there are in any nation.” Laughter and thunderous applause followed.
“There is a name, gentlemen, in this celebration,” he went on, turning serious. “There is a name upon the card that invited me to this ovation, and there is something in that name, and I beg you to go slow.” The room grew quiet. “If any words should pass my lips hastily, that should sound harshly upon the ears of the most sensitive, I will pour upon the wound the balm of a thousand oils before I get through.”
His preparations made, he then delivered his tribute to what was in that mixed audience a controversial figure — the Confederate general for whom the winning steamer was named, Robert E. Lee. “The whole people of this great country respect the man, though they condemn his course,” Claiborne said. He pronounced himself one of those who “rejoiced in the final victory of the Union” and then, seeking to salve the war’s wound, offered a little lightness. “Suppose,” he said, “we had divided, where would the Natchezand the Lee have stopped? Not at St. Louis. And we would have been put out of this banquet tonight, and the wine and good spirits and good cheer we have had.”
The audience responded as he no doubt had hoped, with laughter and applause. Finally, he raised his glass and called for, “Long life and good health to Tom Leathers and John Cannon!”
That toast downed, Captain Taylor stood and turned to Leathers for a speech. Like Cannon, Leathers declined. Captain Able of the Molly Able rose to speak for him. By now the wine evidently was having some effect on the relevance and the reality of the remarks. Able wanted America to have credit for more than the invention of the steamboat. He pointed out for the audience that an American, Samuel F.B. Morse, had invented the telegraph, and another American, Cyrus W. Field, was the man who had laid the trans–Atlantic telegraph cable. The celebrants, now in a mood to cheer any agreeable statement, cheered for Morse and Field and Able’s reminder of their accomplishments. He took time to deplore the recent war and declared himself happy that peace had been reached, allowing the occurrence of such a great event as the running of the race between the Natchez and the Robert E. Lee. “It is an event,” he declaimed, “which has stirred the American heart to its very core. There is no part of this great nation that has not responded to this great race of steam.”
He then grandiosely predicted that the attention drawn to the midcontinent by the race and the resulting realization of the vitality of Mississippi River commerce would in the immediate future cause the nation to move its capital from Washington to St. Louis. His audience cheered that also. “I trust,” he said, concluding, “this will be the inauguration of a better, more cordial and social era in the life of western boatmen, and though the railroad car goes and the telegraph flashes on every side, there is no obstacle to shut this mighty river.... Your sons’ descendants will yet navigate its great waters and perhaps achieve greater triumphs than those who passed before them.” He then returned himself to his chair. The speeches went on, however, speaker after speaker making fanciful remarks and calling for toast after toast. Everyone had a chance to rise and speak. One of those who spoke raised the memory of the late Captain J.M. Convers, former master of the old J.M. White, and at that, Postlewaite’s musicians started playing “Auld Lang Syne,” and the celebrants sang along. When George Clayton, chief pilot of the Robert E. Lee, was asked to make a speech, Postlewaite’s String Band broke out into the rousing strains of “Dixie.” Clayton, however, begged off the requested speechmaking, pleading exhaustion.
The harbormaster, R.P. Clark, volunteered a few tall tales, one of them being how his baldness was a result of Indians shooting his hair off with muskets. More laughter and cheers. One of the most senior members of the audience, Captain Reuben Ford, stood and boasted to the audience that in his long career on the river he had held every job known aboard a steamboat. “You were not chambermaid!” Dan Taylor rejoined, drawing huge laughs and howls from the crowd.
The toasts became all inclusive — to the citizens of St. Louis, the citizens of New Orleans, the chairman of the banquet committee, the proprietors of the Southern Hotel — until at last the celebrants were ready to call it a night and make their way home or back aboard their vessels.14 Captain Cannon and his officers returned to the Robert E. Lee. Captain Leathers found accommodations on his wharf boat.
Early the next morning, Wednesday, July 6, Cannon and his crew made ready to depart St. Louis, and at eight o’clock the Lee drew in its lines and backed away from its wharf boat as a crowd watched from shore. It steamed upstream to the northern end of the waterfront, then turned about, fired its signal cannon, and with a full head of steam, glided swiftly past downtown St. Louis, headed for Mound City, where it would enter drydock and undergo repairs to overhaul its engines and boilers and restore its stripped upper works and have its hull repainted as well.
If Cannon thought Tom Leathers might be planning to stage another race with the Robert E. Lee, running downriver this time, he need not have worried. Leathers and the Natchez spent July 6 and 7 taking on passengers and freight for the return trip to New Orleans and did not leave St. Louis until the evening of July 7, well after the Lee’s departure.
The racing of the Natchez and the Robert E. Lee had indeed ended.
While the Natchez was resuming its service between New Orleans and St. Louis, the Robert E. Lee remained in Mound City undergoing repairs and restoration until September 1, then steamed away to New Orleans and on September 20 departed New Orleans, again hailed by a huge crowd on the riverfront, to resume its regular run to Vicksburg, making the first trip of its regular service since the race.
Tom Leathers, still bent on proving the speed of the Natchez, on October 16 raced against the Lee’s record time from New Orleans to Natchez and beat it by nineteen and a half minutes, winning back the horns. Less than two weeks later the Robert E. Leereclaimed the horns by bettering the Natchez’s latest best time by fifteen minutes, making the trip from New Orleans to Natchez in sixteen hours, thirty-six minutes and forty-seven seconds.
On December 2 1, 1870, the steamer Potomac accidentally rammed the Lee at New Orleans, staving in its hull and sinking the Lee, but without any loss of life. While it was being raised, a fire broke out on the New Orleans riverfront on January 1, 1871, destroying four steamers docked there, but leaving the water-logged Robert E. Lee untouched by the new disaster. After it was lifted from the river and refitted, the Lee returned to service, still competing with the Natchez for business if not in races.
During the cotton season of 1874 the Lee on one voyage to New Orleans hauled a load of 5,741 bales aboard its decks, surpassing the record load of five thousand bales carried by the Natchez on a trip in 1872.
By 1874, Captain Cannon’s eldest son, William, twenty years old in August of that year, had joined the crew of the Lee.
In 1876 Cannon took the Robert E. Lee up the Ohio River to Jeffersonville, Indiana, opposite Louisville, on its final voyage. The superstructure was stripped and its parts disposed of, some of the elegant chandeliers from its saloon being donated by Cannon to the Presbyterian church in Port Gibson, Mississippi, and its trophies being transferred to the Lee’s successor, the Robert E. Lee II, larger and even more luxurious than the vessel it replaced. The wornout hull of the old Lee was towed to Memphis, where it served out the remainder of its useful years as a wharf boat. The new Lee was launched on April 25, 1876, with William Cannon as its clerk and John Cannon as its captain.
After ten years of service, the Natchez was also ready for replacement. In June 1879 Captain Leathers took it on a voyage to Cincinnati, where its successor, the seventh Natchez, was being built. On the way, it ran aground on a sandbar and despite all its efforts and the help of tugboats, it could not be dislodged. “It would be a damn sight more romantic for the old craft to die and be dismantled midstream,” Leathers remarked almost wistfully, “with years rippling around her, and not in the boneyard.” Then, perhaps thinking of the hazard to navigation the abandoned steamer would present — and of his liability for it — he had a quick second thought. “But,” he said, “it’s too damn troublesome.”
And so Leathers and his crew left the grand old steamboat stuck on the sandbar and waited till the river at long last rose and lifted the Natchez free. Once refloated, it was stripped and dismantled and the remaining hulk was sold for two thousand dollars. Like its former competitor, it became a wharfboat, permanently moored at the Refuge Oil Mill, on the Mississippi River below Vicksburg.
The glorious old racers had finished their last course.
A group of steamboat owners in St. Louis organized a corporation to consolidate their assets and strengths and chose Cannon to be its chief executive. He never lived to take the job, though. Plagued by a series of colds and poor health but unwilling to alter his schedule or work habits, Cannon contracted pneumonia and died at his home in Frankfort, Kentucky, on April 18, 1882 at age sixty-one. His body was buried in Frankfort. E.W. Gould, one of Cannon’s fellow steamboat captains, summed up the life of the gallant old steamboatman:
Laudable ambition was his peculiarity. Honesty and integrity marked his course through life. Kindness, generosity and suavity were prominent virtues in his character.
His great ambition to excel all competitors involved his health and his fortune. And although a man of remarkable physique and good judgment, his ambition probably destroyed both.15
Tom Leathers continued to operate the seventh Natchez and later the sternwheeler T.P. Leathers, but ran into bad luck with both. The hull of the seventh Natchez sprang a leak at Stack Island in the Mississippi and sank on New Year’s Day 1889. In November 1890 the T.P. Leathers, loaded with 1,700 bales of cotton and 8,757 sacks of cottonseed, also sank, about three miles above Natchez. He then built another T.P. Leathers and another Natchez, but turned the running of them over to his sons Frank and Bowling. The old captain remained a partner in the firm of Leathers and Hoey, steamboat agents in New Orleans, and took another son, Tom Jr., into the firm with him.
On the evening of June 1, 1896, a week after celebrating his eightieth birthday, Leathers set out for a walk from his big brick house at the corner of Carondelet and Josephine streets in New Orleans and as he was crossing St. Charles Avenue, one block from his house, he was struck and knocked to the ground by a bicycle speeding through the darkness. Bystanders carried him back to his house, where he died twelve days later, on June 12, 1896. His body was buried in the city cemetery in Natchez.
A eulogy by the New Orleans Daily States marked his passing. “There are many who regarded Capt. Leathers as the greatest of steamboaters,” it said with carefully chosen words. “Certainly no captain, in the history of the river, achieved greater success, was more widely known or more highly respected, and few men ever presented such a picturesque and commanding appearance.”16 At the funeral, the officiating minister, the Rev. Dr. B.M. Palmer, saw historic significance in the end of Leathers’s life. “He is one whose death,” the minister declared, “is like the death of the century.”17
Death for the Mississippi River steamboat itself was not long to follow. Ever since the Charleston & Hamburg line of South Carolina had run the first steam locomotive in December 1830, followed by the Baltimore & Ohio in the summer of 1831, railroads had been spreading across the country like vines. In 1835, just five years after the Charleston & Hamburg had carried some two hundred passengers on its historic first steam-locomotive run, there were 1,098 miles of track upon which steam railroads were operating in the United States. By 1840 there were an estimated 3,000 miles of track. Only four of the nation’s twenty-six states had no tracks laid by 1840— Vermont, Tennessee, Missouri and Arkansas. By early 1837 at least two hundred railroads were either already in operation or were being built, planned or being considered.
The United States postal service quickly saw the possibilities for moving mail by railroad. By 1834 it was using trains to send batches of mail in pouches. In 1838 the U.S. Congress enacted a law making all railroads postal routes, and having the mail sped along by rail became an ordinary occurrence.
By the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 most of the country, particularly east of the Mississippi, was laced with railroad lines. The numbers revealed the trend. In 1850 total track mileage in the United States was 9,000 miles (up from 3,000 miles in 1840). By 1860 the total had risen to 30,000 miles. In 1870 the total was 53,000 miles, and by 1880 it had swelled to 93,000 miles and was still growing. The crowning achievement of the railroad builders came on Monday, May 10, 1869, when, in an act that was both the symbol and the deed of the railroad’s conquest of America, the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific railroads met at Promontory, Utah, and joined their tracks into a transcontinental rail route that stretched from New York to California.
Over time, a great deal of effort was put into making railroad passengers more comfortable. The cars’ interiors were decorated to resemble hotel rooms, with curtains, upholstered seats and varnished or painted woodwork. The most elaborate cars came to resemble ornate Victorian parlors, and by the 1860s passenger cars came equipped with toilets. In 1863 George M. Pullman, a cabinet and coffin maker turned building contractor and inventor, patented a sleeping car with upper berths that folded out to make a bed and, below them, seats that could be extended to form a lower-berth bed, all of his invention. In 1867 Pullman introduced another revolutionary innovation, a sleeper car to which was attached a car that was a rolling restaurant, with a compact kitchen and a gracious dining room included.
Trains then became hotels on wheels, and railroads sped into a whole new era of transportation, one in which steamboats became a dangerously threatened species.
For a time, showboats helped keep the Mississippi River steamboat a presence in the lives of people in communities along the river, even while railroads were thinning out the number of packets on the Mississippi. The steamboat had been adapted as a floating theater as early as 1836, when the Chapmans — a nine-member family of traveling actors — bought their first steamer and took it and their performances to communities on the Mississippi and its tributaries. Later showboats, some of them towing barges on which arenas had been built, were little more than floating circuses, with extensive menageries of exotic animals. The showboats lasted into the twentieth century. One, the Goldenrod, was operated by a succession of owners through the 1980s. In the 1990s it was renovated and operated as a dinner theater, docked at St. Charles, Missouri. It still survives as a National Historic Landmark, a museum piece, the last of the old-time Mississippi River showboats.
By 1875 it was obvious the Mississippi River steamboat was in its death throes. “The direct and immediate cause for the great decline in this important branch of commerce,” the former captain and steamboat historian E.W. Gould publicly complained in January 1875, “is, of course, the construction of so large a number of railroads.” What was not being constructed then, he pointed out, were steamboats. Whereas in the years shortly prior to 1874, an average of one hundred new steamers were built each year, Gould wrote in the Nautical Gazette, “in 1874 there was but a single boat built of any considerable capacity, of the usual kind, for freight and passengers, and but very few tow-boats, or any other character of [steam] boat.”18
With the spread of railroads, which could transport passengers and freight faster, cheaper and to more destinations than could river-bound steamboats, the public’s demand for steamboat service had simply vanished. Samuel Clemens charmingly captured the turn of events in his Life on the Mississippi, written in 1883, quoting from his conversation with an old-time steamboat clerk :
“Boat used to land — captain on hurricane roof— mighty stiff and straight — iron ramrod for a spine — kid gloves, plug tile, hair parted behind — man on shore takes off hat and says:
“‘Got twenty-eight tons of wheat, cap’n — be great favor if you can take them.’
“Captain says: ‘I’ll take two of them’— and don’t even condescend to look at him.
“But nowadays the captain takes off his old slouch, and smiles all the way around to the back of his ears, and gets off a bow, which he hasn’t got any ramrod to interfere with, and says:
“‘Glad to see you, Smith, glad to see you — you’re looking well — haven’t seen you looking so well for years — what you got for us?’
“‘Nuth’n’, says Smith, and keeps his hat on and just turns his back and goes to talking with somebody else.
“Oh, yes! Eight years ago the captain was on top; but it’s Smith’s turn now. Eight years ago a boat used to go up the river with every stateroom full, and people piled five and six deep on the cabin floor; and a solid deck-load of immigrants and harvesters down below, into the bargain.... But it’s all changed now; plenty staterooms above, no harvesters below.... they’ve gone where the woodbine twineth — and they didn’t go by steamboat, either; went by the train.”19
Clemens lived long enough to see the end of the steamboat era — and to lament it. “Mississippi steamboating was born about 1812,” he wrote, as if penning its obituary; “at the end of thirty years it had grown to mighty proportions; and in less than thirty more it was dead! A strangely short life for so majestic a creature.”20
Truly it was.