| The Robert E. Lee Races the Natchez
July 4, 1870
Although legend and romance surround the era of the Clipper Ships and their races around the globe, no mode of transportation has so enthralled the American people as the steamboat - especially the paddle wheelers, replete with gamblers and southern belles, that plied the Mississippi. The stories of Mark Twain and Edna Ferber infused them with romance, Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein added a musical setting. For some fifty years steamboats, with their slender smoke stacks and columned decks carried trade and travelers up and down the mighty “Father of Waters,” and along its giant tributaries. While cardsharks preyed on unwary plantation owners returning home from successful trading in New Orleans, there was money to be made by everyone from the frequent races between boats. Faster and faster the great paddlewheels churned; in 1815 it took twenty-five days to go from New Orleans to St, Louis; by 1843 the time was whittled down to four days, nine hours. The most fabled race of all took place in 1870 when the Robert E. Lee made the trip in three days, eighteen hours, fourteen minutes, defeating its rival the Natchez by over three hours. All America, and some of Europe, too, participated in the betting as telegraphs flashed reports of the progress of the two boats. Over ten thousand people lined the shore at Memphis as they passed. The most fabled race was, indeed, almost the last race. The expansion of the railroads after the Civil War doomed the steamboat to near extinction on inland waters, although its successors survive and flourish on the Great Lakes even today.