Chapter 16 - Racing Days
IT was always the custom for the boats to leave New Orleans between four and five o'clock in the afternoon. From three o'clock onward they would be burning rosin and pitch pine (the sign of preparation), and so one had the picturesque spectacle of a rank, some two or three miles long, of tall, ascending columns of coal-black smoke; a colonnade which supported a sable roof of the same smoke blended together and spreading abroad over the city. Every outward-bound boat had its flag flying at the jack-staff, and sometimes a duplicate on the verge staff astern. Two or three miles of mates were commanding and swearing with more than usual emphasis; countless processions of freight barrels and boxes were spinning athwart the levee and flying aboard the stage-planks, belated passengers were dodging and skipping among these frantic things, hoping to reach the forecastle companion way alive, but having their doubts about it; women with reticules and bandboxes were trying to keep up with husbands freighted with carpet-sacks and crying babies, and making a failure of it by losing their heads in the whirl and roar and general distraction; drays and baggage-vans were clattering hither and thither in a wild hurry, every now and then getting blocked and jammed together, and then during ten seconds one could not see them for the profanity, except vaguely and dimly; every windlass connected with every forehatch, from one end of that long array of steamboats to the other, was keeping up a deafening whiz and whir, lowering freight into the hold, and the half-naked crews of perspiring negroes that worked them were roaring such songs as 'De Las' Sack! De Las' Sack!'--inspired to unimaginable exaltation by the chaos of turmoil and racket that was driving everybody else mad. By this time the hurricane and boiler decks of the steamers would be packed and black with passengers.The 'last bells' would begin to clang, all down the line, and then the powwow seemed to double; in a moment or two the final warning came,-- a simultaneous din of Chinese gongs, with the cry, 'All dat ain't goin', please to git asho'! '--and behold, the powwow quadrupled!People came swarming ashore, overturning excited stragglers that were trying to swarm aboard. One more moment later a long array of stage-planks was being hauled in, each with its customary latest passenger clinging to the end of it with teeth, nails, and everything else, and the customary latest procrastinator making a wild spring shoreward over his head.
Now a number of the boats slide backward into the stream, leaving wide gaps in the serried rank of steamers. Citizens crowd the decks of boats that are not to go, in order to see the sight.Steamer after steamer straightens herself up, gathers all her strength, and presently comes swinging by, under a tremendous head of steam, with flag flying, black smoke rolling, and her entire crew of firemen and deck-hands (usually swarthy negroes) massed together on the forecastle, the best 'voice' in the lot towering from the midst (being mounted on the capstan), waving his hat or a flag, and all roaring a mighty chorus, while the parting cannons boom and the multitudinous spectators swing their hats and huzza! Steamer after steamer falls into line, and the stately procession goes winging its flight up the river.
In the old times, whenever two fast boats started out on a race, with a big crowd of people looking on, it was inspiring to hear the crews sing, especially if the time were night-fall, and the forecastle lit up with the red glare of the torch-baskets. Racing was royal fun. The public always had an idea that racing was dangerous; whereas the opposite was the case--that is, after the laws were passed which restricted each boat to just so many pounds of steam to the square inch. No engineer was ever sleepy or careless when his heart was in a race. He was constantly on the alert, trying gauge-cocks and watching things. The dangerous place was on slow, plodding boats, where the engineers drowsed around and allowed chips to get into the 'doctor' and shut off the water supply from the boilers.
In the 'flush times' of steamboating, a race between two notoriously fleet steamers was an event of vast importance.The date was set for it several weeks in advance, and from that time forward, the whole Mississippi Valley was in a state of consuming excitement.Politics and the weather were dropped, and people talked only of the coming race. As the time approached, the two steamers 'stripped' and got ready. Every encumbrance that added weight, or exposed a resisting surface to wind or water, was removed, if the boat could possibly do without it. The 'spars,' and sometimes even their supporting derricks, were sent ashore, and no means left to set the boat afloat in case she got aground. When the 'Eclipse' and the 'A. L. Shotwell' ran their great race many years ago, it was said that pains were taken to scrape the gilding off the fanciful device which hung between the 'Eclipse's' chimneys, and that for that one trip the captain left off his kid gloves and had his head shaved. But I always doubted these things.
If the boat was known to make her best speed when drawing five and a half feet forward and five feet aft, she was carefully loaded to that exact figure-- she wouldn't enter a dose of homoeopathic pills on her manifest after that. Hardly any passengers were taken, because they not only add weight but they never will 'trim boat.'They always run to the side when there is anything to see, whereas a conscientious and experienced steamboatman would stick to the center of the boat and part his hair in the middle with a spirit level.
No way-freights and no way-passengers were allowed, for the racers would stop only at the largest towns, and then it would be only 'touch and go.' Coal flats and wood flats were contracted for beforehand, and these were kept ready to hitch on to the flying steamers at a moment's warning. Double crews were carried, so that all work could be quickly done.
The chosen date being come, and all things in readiness, the two great steamers back into the stream, and lie there jockeying a moment, and apparently watching each other's slightest movement, like sentient creatures; flags drooping, the pent steam shrieking through safety-valves, the black smoke rolling and tumbling from the chimneys and darkening all the air. People, people everywhere; the shores, the house-tops, the steamboats, the ships, are packed with them, and you know that the borders of the broad Mississippi are going to be fringed with humanity thence northward twelve hundred miles, to welcome these racers.
Presently tall columns of steam burst from the 'scape-pipes of both steamers, two guns boom a good-bye, two red-shirted heroes mounted on capstans wave their small flags above the massed crews on the forecastles, two plaintive solos linger on the air a few waiting seconds, two mighty choruses burst forth--and here they come! Brass bands bray Hail Columbia, huzza after huzza thunders from the shores, and the stately creatures go whistling by like the wind.
Those boats will never halt a moment between New Orleans and St. Louis, except for a second or two at large towns, or to hitch thirty-cord wood-boats alongside.You should be on board when they take a couple of those wood-boats in tow and turn a swarm of men into each; by the time you have wiped your glasses and put them on, you will be wondering what has become of that wood.
Two nicely matched steamers will stay in sight of each other day after day. They might even stay side by side, but for the fact that pilots are not all alike, and the smartest pilots will win the race.If one of the boats has a 'lightning' pilot, whose 'partner' is a trifle his inferior, you can tell which one is on watch by noting whether that boat has gained ground or lost some during each four-hour stretch.The shrewdest pilot can delay a boat if he has not a fine genius for steering.Steering is a very high art. One must not keep a rudder dragging across a boat's stem if he wants to get up the river fast.
There is a great difference in boats, of course.For a long time I was on a boat that was so slow we used to forget what year it was we left port in. But of course this was at rare intervals.Ferryboats used to lose valuable trips because their passengers grew old and died, waiting for us to get by.This was at still rarer intervals.I had the documents for these occurrences, but through carelessness they have been mislaid. This boat, the 'John J. Roe,' was so slow that when she finally sunk in Madrid Bend, it was five years before the owners heard of it. That was always a confusing fact to me, but it is according to the record, any way.She was dismally slow; still, we often had pretty exciting times racing with islands, and rafts, and such things. One trip, however, we did rather well.We went to St. Louis in sixteen days. But even at this rattling gait I think we changed watches three times in Fort Adams reach, which is five miles long.A 'reach' is a piece of straight river, and of course the current drives through such a place in a pretty lively way.
That trip we went to Grand Gulf, from New Orleans, in four days (three hundred and forty miles); the 'Eclipse' and 'Shotwell' did it in one.We were nine days out, in the chute of 63 (seven hundred miles); the 'Eclipse' and 'Shotwell' went there in two days.Something over a generation ago, a boat called the 'J. M. White' went from New Orleans to Cairo in three days, six hours, and forty-four minutes. In 1853 the 'Eclipse' made the same trip in three days, three hours, and twenty minutes.<footnote [Time disputed. Some authorities add 1 hour and 16 minutes to this.]> In 1870 the 'R. E. Lee' did it in three days and ONE hour. This last is called the fastest trip on record. I will try to show that it was not.For this reason: the distance between New Orleans and Cairo, when the 'J. M. White' ran it, was about eleven hundred and six miles; consequently her average speed was a trifle over fourteen miles per hour. In the 'Eclipse's' day the distance between the two ports had become reduced to one thousand and eighty miles; consequently her average speed was a shade under fourteen and three-eighths miles per hour. In the 'R. E. Lee's' time the distance had diminished to about one thousand and thirty miles; consequently her average was about fourteen and one-eighth miles per hour. Therefore the 'Eclipse's' was conspicuously the fastest time that has ever been made.
(From Commodore Rollingpin's Almanack.)
In June, 1859, the St. Louis and Keokuk Packet, City of Louisiana, made the run from St. Louis to Keokuk (214 miles) in 16 hours and 20 minutes, the best time on record.
In 1868 the steamer Hawkeye State, of the Northern Packet Company, made the run from St. Louis to St. Paul (800 miles) in 2 days and 20 hours. Never was beaten.
In 1853 the steamer Polar Star made the run from St. Louis to St. Joseph, on the Missouri River, in 64 hours.In July, 1856, the steamer Jas. H. Lucas, Andy Wineland, Master, made the same run in 60 hours and 57 minutes.The distance between the ports is 600 miles, and when the difficulties of navigating the turbulent Missouri are taken into consideration, the performance of the Lucas deserves especial mention.
THE RUN OF THE ROBERT E. LEE
The time made by the R. E. Lee from New Orleans to St. Louis in 1870, in her famous race with the Natchez, is the best on record, and, inasmuch as the race created a national interest, we give below her time table from port to port.
Left New Orleans, Thursday, June 30th, 1870, at 4 o'clock and 55 minutes, p.m.; reached
The Lee landed at St. Louis at 11.25 A.M., on July 4th, 1870--6 hours and 36 minutes ahead of the Natchez.The officers of the Natchez claimed 7 hours and 1 minute stoppage on account of fog and repairing machinery. The R. E. Lee was commanded by Captain John W. Cannon, and the Natchez was in charge of that veteran Southern boatman, Captain Thomas P. Leathers.
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