• 12 •

On to Cairo

Before reaching Vicksburg late Friday afternoon, Tom Leathers was pleased to see that the Natchez, fiercely striving to catch up, was gaining, though slightly, on the Robert E. Lee. Checking his watch, he estimated that, except for the head start the Lee had got at New Orleans, the Natchezwas running only about eight minutes behind, a lead that was not at all insurmountable. But he had lost more time at the Vicksburg wharf, putting off passengers and their baggage and taking on fuel. That done, he had steamed off again, renewing his hot pursuit, but with more time to make up.

In the early evening, just above the mouth of the Yazoo River, as the Natchez approached Buckhorn Landing at Milliken’s Bend, Leathers’s chief engineer, Andy Pauley, discovered that the pump that drew river water into the boat’s boilers had suddenly quit and could not be restarted. He diagnosed the problem as a broken valve. There was nothing to do but head the Natchez into shore, tie up to a tree on the riverbank, shut down the engines, remove the valve and fix it. Pauley made the repairs, but consumed thirty-four precious minutes in the process. Then he started up the engines again, and the Natchez carefully backed out into midstream and resumed its urgent run, its captain fuming in frustration.

Then came a new misfortune. In the darkness of Friday night the speeding vessel, despite the reputation of its pilots, lost the channel and ran into shallow water near the shore off island No. 93 and grounded on the river bottom. Only after more anxious minutes were the pilot and the engineers able to dislodge the boat by reversing its huge paddle wheels. It then returned to the safety of the main channel, where it straightened up in deeper water and re-entered the race.

Under way again, the Natchez passed the steamer Frank Pargoud, which was headed downstream. Leathers had heard reports that Cannon had arranged to have the Robert E. Lee refueled from the speedy Pargoud rather than tying the Lee up to burdensome barges to take on fuel. The passing of the Pargoud, whose crew failed to answer the Natchez’s hail, a sign that something was not quite right, silently told the enraged Leathers that the reports were true.

The Frank Pargoud maneuver was indeed Cannon’s latest trick. The Pargoud was owned by John W. Tobin, Cannon’s long-time and wealthy friend who was aboard the Lee, giving Cannon moral support and expert advice as well as enjoying the history-making ride. The Pargoud’s usual run was between New Orleans and Greenville, carrying passengers and freight. But on the night of Friday, July 1, 1870, it had no passengers, no lights beaming from its stateroom windows, and the only freight it bore was one hundred cords of knotty pine wood, oozing thick, sticky sap that would make it burn bright and hot, just the fuel needed for a racing steamboat. By prior arrangement, Tobin’s boat had stood idling in mid-stream just below Greenville, waiting for the Robert E. Lee. When the Lee had appeared, between two and three o’clock in the morning, the Pargoud, its bow pointed upstream, had steamed up alongside the swiftly moving Lee as it passed. Lines had gone out, lashing the boats together, and the two steamers had raced side by side while brave and hardy roustabouts walked gangplanks laid between the boats, carrying armloads of firewood from the main deck of the Pargoud to the main deck of the Lee.

While the two boats were tied together, with planks between them, Governor Warmoth and Doctor Smyth, both with other matters doubtlessly on their minds, had seized the opportunity to disembark from the Lee and had made their way across the gangplank to the Frank Pargoud to return to New Orleans. When the transfer of wood and the two passengers was completed, the Frank Pargoud had cast off the lines that bound it to the Robert E. Lee, and its captain had let his boat fall behind the Lee, then had made a big Uturn in the river and headed back downstream, a dangerous night’s work efficiently done. Meanwhile the refueled Robert E. Lee continued on through the darkness, rushing toward Helena and Memphis.

The St. Louis Republican reporter aboard the Natchez cried foul, as did fellow passengers who had bet on the Natchez and learned about the Frank Pargoud incident by way of the public announcement Captain Leathers made to those still awake at that late hour. They protested that Cannon and the Lee had disqualified themselves by using the Frank Pargoud as a sort of power booster while it took on its load of fuel. “The Lee won all her bets up to the time when the Pargoud improperly and unfairly aided her by making use of her own propelling power while transferring a heavy lot of pine fuel,” the reporter wrote. “The propelling power being thus divided, from another boat, loses the race for the Lee and all bets, notwithstanding she was in the lead. Hurrah for the Natchez!1

Having become a Natchez partisan, the reporter declared his confidence in the boat’s ultimate victory and the righteousness of its cause. “Everything goes lovely just now,” he wrote, “and the goose hangs a trifle high; but Capt. Leathers has a fearfully long reach, and aside from the question of the bets (which the Lee has forfeited) the Natchez has a good show to make the best time. We are making a fair, open business trip, although not attempting to do much business. But we are not making a run for a race, but to try and see what can be done in the way of fast work on a regular trip.”2 When he wrote that, the Robert E. Lee was twelve miles ahead.

Unable to resist the chance to make a buck, Leathers slowed down at Greenville and pulled up to the wharf to take on passengers, only to discover there were no passengers waiting to come aboard. He quickly hauled his lines back in and left, after losing another ten minutes. While at the wharf, though, he had learned from someone on shore that the Lee was an hour ahead of him.

About ten o’clock Friday morning the Natchez reached the mouth of the Arkansas River, passing the site of the washed-away town of Napoleon. At White River, at eight minutes past ten, the Natchez slowed again, this time to tie up to and tow a barge from which it took on three hundred boxes of coal and received the somewhat good news that the Robert E. Lee was fifty minutes ahead. The Natchez, now two-thirds the way between Greenville and Helena, had gained ten minutes since leaving Greenville.

When the Natchez was in sight of Helena, the hopeful reporter aboard wrote : “The Natchez will undoubtedly set a mark that will be the goal of other boats for years to come. If we had put her through without landing, taking our fuel from steamers with full head on, and for the sole purpose of racing, we could have made Helena at least an hour ago, which is the opinion of every man on board. Helena is now in sight. We will not stop, but I will send this ashore by a skiff, if possible.”3

At Hardin Point the Natchez received a warm welcome from the steamer Mollie Able, which stopped and swung sideways in the river, so that its bow pointed toward the Natchez, and it saluted Leathers and his crew with a blast from its whistle. The Natchezsignaled its acknowledgment with a blast from its own whistle.

Continuing to keep track of the race was the New Orleans Picayune, which on page one on Saturday printed a dispatch telegraphed to it when the two steamers had passed Helena:

H ELENA, ARK., July 2 — The Lee passed here at 4:30 [P.M.], the Natchez at 5:24. Lee 54 minutes ahead. All her window blinds were down and some plank off her wheelhouse, and she seemed to be driving through the water. Neither boat landed here. A party went out to the Natchez in a small steamer. On their return reported that the Natchez claims to have broken her pump and laid up for 30 minutes last night.

The Lee’s time from New Orleans to this place is 47 hours 36 minutes — the fastest time on record. The Natchez says her time to this place is one hour and a half faster than her last trip. The Lee cheered with her whistle when she passed, and was answered by two steamers lying at the wharf and the multitude of people on the shore. Those who think the Natchez laid up 30 minutes last night are still betting on her.4

The Natchez was showing how fast it could run, breaking all of its previous speed records so far. But it was still trailing the Robert E. Lee.

At Memphis the excitement and the crowd waiting at the river’s edge to see the racers were equally huge. The crowd’s anxiety was heightened by a breakdown in the telegraph line below Memphis, the eager spectators not knowing where the boats were or when to expect them at Memphis. A news reporter in Memphis described the situation:

All coming from the [Memphis telegraph] office were eagerly questioned, but no news could be gained, as the operator at Helena reported the boats not in sight at 3:45 [P.M.]. With every moment’s delay the excitement increased. At one time it seemed probable that the curiosity of the populace would not be gratified till the boats arrived at this place [Memphis], for the telegraph line between Helena and Madison was blown down by a sudden storm at 4 o’clock this afternoon. When this news was bulletined, a verbal cry of disappointment arose, and murmurs that some ruse was being practiced found many believers. But fortunately the telegraph operators were equal to the emergency. Repair men were immediately sent out from different stations, and by 7 P.M. the line was again in order, and the news came that the Lee had passed Helena at 4:30 and the Natchez at 5:24....

The curiosity of the people to see the boats as they pass is intense. Many have been on the bluff [on the river] all the afternoon, and since dark the crowd has increased till the whole bluff is now covered, and still people are coming in from all parts of the city.

Great preparations are being made for the reception of the boats. Tar barrels are placed ready to be fired as they approach, and a battery of artillery is in position ready to thunder forth a salute in honor of the victor. All seem wild with anticipation. Men, women and children are striving for favorable positions to witness the race, and all seem animated with an intense desire to gain a good look at the boats as they pass the city.5

Among the crowd, absorbed with the race, rumors, all false, were rife. One had it that the Robert E. Lee had broken down and was unable to continue the race. Another was that the larboard wheel housing of the Natchez had been blown off and that the Lee was towing the Natchez. Still another claimed that the Natchez was gaining on the Lee and that Captain Cannon had despaired of winning the race. Other rumors asserted that the recent telegraphic message reporting that the Lee had passed Helena fifty-four minutes ahead of the Natchez was a fraud perpetrated by friends of the Lee who had tampered with the telegraph wire.

The Lee had been expected to arrive about nine P.M.— despite Captain Cannon’s promising only to make Memphis by eleven — and the steamer Connecticut had left the Memphis wharf earlier that evening carrying a capacity load of passengers, at two dollars a head, all intent on seeing the two boats steam by. At ten P.M. the Connecticut was still out in the river, its passengers waiting and wondering where the racing boats were. The reporter covering the event at the Memphis waterfront seemed to grow as anxious as the other spectators:

1 0 P.M. The boats are not in sight yet. The crowd on the bluff in front of the river is immense. Nothing like it has been seen in this city for very many years. Seats have been impromptued for the ladies, and the whole front of the city looks like one vast amphitheatre, and the utmost interest is manifested on all sides.

Betting is very heavy, with the chances slightly in favor of the Lee. But experienced steamboatmen claim that the Natchez can more than make up her lost hour above this point, and great confidence is still manifested by the backers of the natty champion.

Tugs have been stationed in the river with barges of coal ever since 8 o’clock, but up to this hour nothing has been heard of either boat.

Old men who have not been to the levee for years came out on this occasion, to gaze upon the magnificent spectacle. Carriages, hacks, buggies and every specie of vehicle crowded the levee. Bonfires are prepared and will be fired as soon as the boats come in sight.6

The people of Memphis, the city itself, were planning a spectacular welcome for the race’s leader, which at last report was the Robert E. Lee. Not only the cheering crowds, the artillery salutes and the bonfires, but a breathtaking fireworks display were awaiting the Lee, the fireworks to be set off the moment the Lee was spotted clattering and splashing up the river, its cabin lights glowing from a distance, gleaming through the night’s blackness.

Then suddenly at twenty minutes past ten shouts of “Here she comes!” burst from the crowd as the lights of an approaching steamer, still far off, appeared and all eyes turned downriver. It was the signal that the celebrants had been waiting for. The barrels filled with tar were set ablaze, their flames quickly leaping into the night, firecrackers popped, cannons thundered, and barrages of skyrockets shot up, brightening the dark sky with brilliant color — an altogether dazzling winner’s welcome to the city of Memphis. But as the approaching steamer came closer, the cheering spectators along the riverfront could see it wasn’t the Robert E. Lee. It wasn’t the Natchez either.

The Thompson Dean had left New Orleans a few days before the Lee and the Natchez, making its regular, comparatively unheralded run between New Orleans and Memphis, and here it came, as if crashing the party, its crew and

Riverfront at Memphis in 1862. The spectacular welcome that the people of Memphis planned for whichever boat was in the lead when the racers reached Memphis was set off prematurely when in the darkness the excited crowd mistook the steamer Thompson Dean for the Robert E. Lee (Library of Congress).

passengers doubtlessly embarrassed by the mistaken fuss it had set off, its captain sounding its whistle in sheepish response as the boat slowed and glided up to the wharf.

The cannons then were reloaded, and a search for more fireworks was begun. The premature display was not entirely wasted, however. So brilliantly arresting were the fireworks that those on board the Robert E. Lee could see them in the sky as the Lee came by Presidents Island, in the great bend of the river just below Memphis.

A half hour later, at 11 P.M., the reporter in Memphis, recording every new, significant occurrence at the waterfront — although not bothering to mention the crowd’s awkward mistake — told his readers: “A bright light is just coming into view around President’s Island, six miles from the city. It is believed to be the Lee.”

This time it was the Lee. Quickly the reporter added to his dispatch: “11:04— The Lee has just arrived and is taking coal barges in tow. Enthusiasm is immense. The crowd is cheering, cannons firing and bonfires blazing.”7

Two more terse adds to his dispatch told the rest of the story:

11 :10— The Lee has just left. Such an ovation has never been given to any boat before. The people are wild and bets are freely offered that she will beat the Natchez to Cairo one hour and fifteen minutes.

12:13 — The Natchez has just passed. The crowd is fast dispersing and a day of great excitement is over.8

The Natchez had stopped long enough to put fourteen passengers ashore, then had slipped back out into the river and taken on coal from a pair of barges that had been waiting for it, losing another seventeen minutes in so doing. By the time both boats had passed Memphis, the Lee’s enthusiasts, seeing its big lead, were so ecstatic over the race’s progress that they were offering odds of ten to one that the Lee would reach St. Louis first.9

The course northward from Memphis took the racing steamers past and through the group of islands called Paddy’s Hen and Chickens, site of the disastrous explosion and fire aboard the Sultana five years earlier, and twisted through the narrow, shallow channels in the darkness, which the Natchez’s adherents must have thought favored their boat, with its shallower draft. However, as the Natchez, running at racing speed again, steamed into the night, it ran into more bad luck, plowing into shoals again, off island No. 41 (the forty-first island in the river, counting downstream from Cairo), scraping its already bruised hull and once more forcing its pilot to back up repeatedly and churn loose from the river’s muddy bottom. The result was more lost time.

Through the labyrinth of islands the Natchez continued, threading its way past island No. 38, where it executed a sharp turn, then past Devil’s Bend and No. 37 and at last emerging onto a straight stretch that let it resume full speed.

Around five-thirty on Sunday morning, July 3, it drew abreast of Fort Pillow, then, just above the fort, it reached Plum Point, where on the morning of May 10, 1862, the Confederacy’s meager collection of civilian steamboats converted into warships to defend the Mississippi — the General Bragg (formerly the Mexico), General Beauregard (formerly the Ocean), General Sterling Price (formerly the Laurent Millaudon), General Sumter (formerly the Junius Beebe), General Lovell (formerly the Hercules), General Jeff Thompson (former name unknown), General Van Dorn(former name unknown) and the Little Rebel (formerly the R & J Watson)— won their lone victory over a Union fleet of ironclad gunboats, then had fallen back to Memphis to face a devastating defeat four weeks later.

On the Natchez raced, through another set of islands scattered in a narrow stretch of river, then back onto a wide straightaway, past Needham’s Island, which once had been a salient projecting into the river but now, cut off from the Arkansas shore by erosion, an island in the stream, then on beyond islands 21 and 20, then past Nos. 19 and 18, opposite the Missouri state line on the western shore.

Near island No. 14, shortly before Sunday noon, the Natchez came upon the steamer Belle of Memphis, approaching from upriver. While it was still a distance away, the Belle of Memphis courteously stopped her engines and paddle wheels to give the Natchezcalm water as it steamed by, then saluted the racer with a whistle blast, which was returned by the Natchez.

At No. 14 Captain Leathers again consulted his watch. Two days, eighteen hours and sixteen minutes had elapsed since he had sped the Natchez past St. Mary’s Market, making the present run two hours and forty-two minutes better than the boat’s previously best time — but still running behind the Robert E. Lee.

The Lee had passed No. 14 almost exactly an hour earlier and was about fifteen miles in front of the Natchez. Passing the Tennessee-Kentucky border on the eastern shore, the Lee steamed on toward New Madrid, Missouri, on the west bank, and reached it around one P.M. Then came a straight, twelvemile stretch that ended at island No. 10, situated in an S-shaped curve above New Madrid. Island 10 was another memorable Civil War site, where the guns of a Confederate fortification had checked the Union Navy’s advance down the Mississippi until the U.S. gunboat Carondelet bravely ran past it. The Carondelet was captained by Commander Henry Walke, a daring and imaginative steamboat naval officer who insulated his vessel with cordwood, hawsers and chain and tied a coal barge loaded with hay to the gunboat’s larboard side to ward off shot as the Carondelet steamed defiantly downriver to the right of the island on the night of April 4, 1862. On April 6 the Carondelet, from its position below No. 10, turned its guns on the island’s batteries and, joined by the gunboat Pittsburg, knocked out several of them. The Confederates, seeing their position was no longer tenable, withdrew from the island and abandoned their fortification, opening the way for the U.S. gunboats’ drive on Memphis.

At island No. 8, roughly a thousand miles from New Orleans, some of Cannon’s friends aboard the Robert E. Lee noted its elapsed time since passing St. Mary’s Market as two days, twenty-one hours and seventeen minutes and computed the Lee’s average speed at more than fourteen miles an hour since the start of the race.

As the Lee passed No. 8, the town of Hickman, Kentucky, came in sight on the east side of the river. From Hickman a St. Louis Republican reporter filed the latest dispatch on the race :

The Lee passed the wharf here at 3:4 1 P.M. [Sunday], railroad time, hurrying with unparalleled velocity. Clouds of spray were right and left by her hurrying bow, and the air was blackened with dense columns of smoke that issued from the heated chimneys. When the Lee appeared, the smoke from the Natchez was hardly visible twenty miles or more below. The whole population of the place — men, women and children — had been anxiously awaiting the arrival of the racers, and never before was there such a multitude upon the river banks as on this bright Sabbath afternoon.... As the Lee came up, the multitude greeted her with cheers loud and long. Two cannons, placed upon the wharf, were fired at short intervals, and the excitement of the multitude that thronged the river shore for a mile or more was boundless....10

The reporter at Hickman also gave news of the Natchez, as well as his opinion of its chances: “The Natchez passed up at 4:45. There was great cheering, and the guns were again fired. The Natchez was gaining steadily on the Lee as she passed, but she is hopelessly beaten.”11

From Columbus, Kentucky, the site of another strategic fortification lost by Confederate troops guarding the Mississippi, the St. Louis Republican’s reporter telegraphed:

The patience of the good people of this city and vicinity, who have been congregated along the river front nearly all day, has just been rewarded. The Lee passed at 4:41, apparently in splendid condition, driving through the water like some magic marine monster. She was munificently cheered. The Natchez is not heard from.12

The reporter later telegraphed to say: “The Natchez passed here at 5:51 12.”13 Above Columbus came Lucas Bend, where island Nos. 4, 3 and 2 clustered, tightening the channel of the river. Then came island No. 1, and beyond it stood Cairo behind its protective levees.

At Cairo, at the juncture of the Ohio and Mississippi, crowds of onlookers had poured into town, some traveling considerable distances by train, to view the passing of the steamers, and by early Saturday evening many of them had begun to cluster and camp along the levee, making sure they would not miss the big event, uncertain about when exactly the racers would arrive. Both boats would have to refuel at Cairo, and the spectators figured they would get a good, long look at them at that coaling stop. A dispatch from Cairo published in the Picayune described the scene :

The levee here swarms with people come from far and near to witness this historical race. Not only has the whole population of Cairo, men, women, children, the infirm and the aged, without regard to race, color, sex or previous condition of servitude, turned out, but strangers from St. Louis, from Cincinnati, Louisville and the Ohio River towns, and from the railroad towns in Illinois, are here too, standing at the same time on the banks of the Mississippi....14

As the Robert E. Lee came up to island No. 1 Cannon and his passengers could see the steamer Idlewild standing in the river. The Idlewild, its run ordinarily being between Evansville and Cairo, had come down the Ohio, stopped at Cairo, then had swung southward down the Mississippi and stopped at island No. 1, about twelve river miles below Cairo, to wait for the Lee. Aboard the Idlewild were some three hundred passengers, including a large group of excursionists who sought a close-up view of the racers, a number of other passengers who wanted to board the Lee and ride it to St. Louis on the final leg of the course, and two pilots, Enoch King and Jesse Jameson, who were especially knowledgeable of the vagaries of the river between Cairo and St. Louis, a stretch not so familiar to the Lee’s regular pilots, Wes Conner, James Pell and George Clayton, who were probably thankful to be relieved from their tasks during this critical last leg of the race.

Ever thinking ahead, Captain Cannon had made arrangements for the Idlewild to meet the Lee and bring him the pilots as well as to take from the Lee the passengers from New Orleans who had bought passage to Louisville and other stops along the Ohio. Those passengers would be transferred to the Idlewild in mid-stream, in the same way the Lee had taken on firewood from the Frank Pargoud.

Once the Lee was sighted, around five o’clock, Captain Gus Fowler of the Idlewild restarted his engines and as the Lee drew near, the Idlewild steamed upstream, its captain hoping to keep up with the Lee and, as one eyewitness believed, match its speed against the Lee’s. That idea was banished in a few minutes, assistant engineer John Wiest related, the Lee having to slow down to allow the Idlewild to stay abreast of it. The Idlewild performed the same act as the Pargoud had done, Wiest reported, casting off as soon as the passengers and baggage had been transferred, while the Lee resumed full speed, passing Cairo.15

Having reached Cairo at six P.M., the Robert E. Lee had made it there from New Orleans in three days and one hour, beating the previous best time, made by the A.L. Shotwell, by two hours and forty minutes, thereby laying claim to another set of horns.

Cannon had also made arrangements for refueling at Cairo. Waiting near the Missouri side of the river was the steam tugboat Montauk with four barges loaded with coal, two for the Robert E. Lee and two for the Natchez. Perhaps because Cannon’s coal order had come to the supplier earlier than that of Captain Leathers — whose telegram ordering the coal and the arrangements was not received until Sunday, the day the coal was needed — the two barges of coal intended for the Lee were positioned toward midstream in the river for a relatively easy pick-up, and the two intended for the Natchez were positioned toward the Missouri shore, in shallow water that could pose a danger for the Natchez. The Lee slowed down to pick up the waiting barges. One was tied to the Lee’s larboard side, and the other to its starboard as it continued upstream, its crewmen manhandling 1,500 bushels of coal aboard the Lee in the process.

Also coming aboard the Lee were a number of newspaper reporters, who boarded the vessel on the fly. One, apparently desperate to share in some of the race’s drama, related the experience to his editor: “Owing to the fact that neither the Lee nor the Natchezlanded here [Cairo] your correspondent was so engaged in making arrangements to get on board and off again, that no regular report can be sent to you. Dropping on board the Lee in mid-river as though shot from a cannon, I managed to obtain the following items during the two-mile ride....”16 He then went on to succinctly relate high points of the Lee’s voyage, information that had previously been published.

Another reporter, evidently no fan of John Cannon, offered his commentary on the race as viewed from the Cairo waterfront :

It is precisely 6: 10 P.M. and the steamer Lee has just passed a point opposite Cairo ... bound for St. Louis. She has no time to pay her respects to Cairo in respect for the prolonged shouts upon shouts that the multitude threw across the water toward her as she passed.

The avenger is on her track, and though she is ahead of the White’s time and ahead of the Natchez’s time, and ahead of everything in the world except herself, she has no leisure for courtesies and compliments.

The race is considered virtually ended, without an accident between here and St. Louis to delay the Lee till the Natchez can overhaul her.

But she is not content with simple victory. She has spent much labor and sacrificed much money to prepare for this race and is determined to set her peg where it will not be pulled up soon. The J.M. White’s time remained untouched for twenty-six years. Capt. Cannon wants his boat’s time to remain untouched to the end of the present century.17

At 7:08 P.M. the Natchez, having slowed to pick up its six hundred boxes of coal on the run, as the Robert E. Lee had done, without mishap, passed Cairo, now running about twenty miles behind the Lee.

Both boats were entering the final and most crucial leg of the race, from Cairo to St. Louis, with night quickly enveloping the river and the water at a low stage. A steamer descending from St. Louis, the Rubicon, had arrived at Cairo just minutes earlier than the Lee and had reported that there was but eight feet of water in the main channel above Cairo. To make matters worse, the Mississippi above Cairo was an obstacle course of islands, rocks, sandbars and narrow, often perilously shallow channels. Because of those dangers, some steamer captains routinely refused to take their boats on the run between Cairo and St. Louis after dark.

But Captain Cannon, relentlessly racing northward, was undaunted. And Captain Leathers had no choice but to follow.

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