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The Great Steamboat Race

Photo of drawing of steam boat race

Mississippi steamboat races, as depicted here, are the stuff of myth, lore and legend. And none is more famous than the Great Race of 1870.

The course was 1,100 miles on a winding, twisting river fraught with sandbars, shifting shoals and treacherous snags. The contestants were two of the finest, fastest steamboats plying the “Mighty Mississippi” — with an open rivalry between the two captains in command. 

Newspapers covered the run-up to the start at New Orleans. The nation was enthralled. Wagers were made, some said to total in the millions of dollars. 

The 300-foot Natchez held the river speed record, making the big side-wheeler the favorite. But the “Monarch of the Mississippi” was the Robert E. Lee, a new 285-foot side-wheeler. A contemporary description was effusive: “The cabin and outfit of this great Southern steamer surpasses that of any boat that has yet graced the trade. … Her accommodations are on the same scale of grandeur and magnificence.” 

Power aboard the Robert E. Lee came from twin single-cylinder steam engines, each with a 40-inch bore and 120-inch stroke delivering around 120 pounds of pressure. It was enough to win the race. 

Around 10 a.m. on July 4, a buzz went through the crowd at the finish line on the St. Louis waterfront: “It’s the Lee!” Running almost nonstop and avoiding the river’s many perils, Capt. John Cannon had skippered the Robert E. Lee upstream between the two river ports in three days, 18 hours and 14 minutes, averaging around 15 mph. (Four to five days was considered a good run, and the trip would often take much longer.) Capt. Thomas Leathers and the Natchez, delayed by fog, posted a time of three days, 21 hours and 58 minutes. 

It didn’t matter. “Both the winner and the loser and all of St. Louis partied all day and well into the night,” according to information at

This article originally appeared in the October 2017 issue.



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