New Orleans: The “Rob’t E. Lee” Leaving the Crescent City In 1875


Of all the steamboats that plied the Mississippi, the first Robert E. Lee built in 1866, was perhaps the most famous. An early riverman said one time, “You can't have 'steam kettles' racin' up and down the rivers for very long before the bettin' men come out. Steamboatin' in nothing else but getting' cotton to market first,… and that means racin'!”

The Natchez, one of six by the same name, built by Captain Tom Leathers, was designed for one purpose, to beat the first Robert E. Lee, supposedly the fastest steamboat on the Mississippi. For months, both the Robert E. Lee and the Natchez worked the St.Louis-New Orleans route, but on different days; then Captain Leathers tossed down the challenge: He would depart New Orleans at the same hour as the Robert E. Lee.

The race was on! It was 1870, in the twilight years of the great riverboats. Captain Leathers did not alter his vessel, but the Robert E. Lee skipper, Captain John Cannon, took the race dead seriously, as if his reputation depended on the outcome of the contest.

He stripped his vessel of all unnecessary weight: glass panels, doors, hoists, anchors, rigging, and anything else that would slow the boat down. He even tied the vessel to the shore with a single line, and at exactly 5:00 p.m. on the appointed day an axe cut the line, and the Robert E. Lee was away with a three minute edge over the Natchez.

Up the Mississippi they plowed with a full head of steam and bets totaling over half a million dollars. The telegraph lines along the river flashed news of the race all over the United States.

It was the race of the century. Above Vicksburg, the canny Captain Cannon had a surprise for the Natchez people. He had engaged another steamboat to speed side by side with the Lee and toss over extra cordwood for her boilers piece by piece, as the Lee's head of steam crowded safety margins.

The cry of “Foul! Foul!” went up, but the race continued. Near the entrance of the Ohio River, both vessels entered a fog. Captain Cannon pushed on, endangering the Robert E. Lee and all other river traffic; the Natchez tied up until the weather improved. Of Course, the Robert E. Lee steamed into St. Louis first-three days, eighteen hours, and fourteen minutes out of New Orleans-while thousands cheered. She beat the Natchez by more than six hours.

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