Old Times on the Upper Mississippi: Recollections of a Steamboat Pilot from 1854-1863

By George Byron Merrick | Go to book overview

Chapter XIX
Steamboat Racing

It is popularly supposed that there was a great deal of racing on Western rivers in the olden time—in fact, that it was the main business of steamboat captains and owners, and that the more prosaic object, that of earning dividends, was secondary. There is a deal of error in such a supposition. At the risk of detracting somewhat from the picturesqueness of life on the upper Mississippi as it is sometimes delineated, it must in truth be said that little real racing was indulged in, as compared with the lower river, or even with the preconceived notion of what transpired on the upper reaches. While there were many so-called steamboat races, these were, for the most part, desultory and unpremeditated. On the upper river, there never was such a race as that between the “Robert E. Lee” and the “Natchez”, where both boats were stripped and tuned for the trial, and where neither passengers nor freight were taken on board to hinder or encumber in the long twelve hundred miles between New Orleans and St. Louis, which constituted the running track.

It is true, however, that whenever two boats happened to come together, going in the same direction, there was always a spurt that developed the best speed of both boats, with the result that the speediest boat quickly passed her slower rival, and outfooted her so rapidly as soon to leave her out of sight behind some point, not to be seen again, unless a long delay at some landing or woodyard enabled her to catch up. These little spurts were in no sense races, such as the historic runs on the lower waters. They were in most cases a business venture, rather than a sporting event, as the first boat at a landing usually secured the passengers and freight in waiting. Another boat, following so soon after, would find nothing to add to the profits of the voyage.

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