Cairo, Illinois: Trouble Right Here in River City
There has always been a certain glamour attached to river towns. Stories have been written about them (“Huckleberry Finn”), movies have been made about them (“Show Boat”), and songs are sung about them (“Waitin’ for the Robert E. Lee”). Photographs show happy crowds gathered on the river banks awaiting the arrival of a show boat or an excursion boat. But behind the glittering façade, there is another story—one that is much grimmer and far less glamorous.
For most of the nineteenth century, Cairo, Illinois was a quintessential river town: both a picturesque setting where ladies and their beaus gathered to wait for steamboats and a rough place where thugs and card sharks preyed on passengers who disembarked to transfer to boats going north to St. Louis, south to new Orleans, or east to Pittsburgh. A sign over B.S. Harrell’s riverfront store said it all: “Family Whiskey, Tar & Feathers, Cowhides, Bowie Knives and Slow Poison.”
One night, two dandies from Pittsburgh stopped over to wait for a steamer to New Orleans. They were fashionably dressed and carried pearl handled revolvers and Bowie knives. They had heard that Cairo was a rough place, and they wanted to impress local gangsters. But the locals were on to them and decided to have a little fun at their expense. When the travelers went into a bar to wait for the boat to New Orleans, a crowd gathered around them. The ruffians looked the travelers in the face and started bragging about what they had done to a couple of tourists the night before.
The first one wasn’t nothin’ extra. Quick as I knowed what was up, I stabbed him in the back. The second one started comin’ at me, but Dave grabbed a barrel and dropped it on his head, splatterin’ his brains all over the floor. Thinkin’ he might recover, I separated his jugular, and that was all there was to him.
The two dandies ran out of the saloon, ready to jump in the river if they had to. At that moment, a steamboat approached. As soon as the crew dropped the gangplank, the travelers jumped aboard. They would not get off even when they were told that boat was headed for St. Louis. Anything was better than waiting in Cairo.
A few days later, a Pittsburgh paper reached Cairo describing the murders in great detail. Even though it was all a fabrication, the writer of the article swore that he had witnessed the event and that he had even shot the two murderers. The story was copied and reprinted in newspapers all over the country, and the fame of Cairo spread.
Riding the Rails to Cairo
After many years of lobbying, the Cairo Company received a right-of-way grant for the Illinois Central Railroad to pass through Cairo. In 1855, the first train arrived from Chicago over the Illinois Central Railroad. It was such a momentous occasion that the passengers got off the train and marched to the Taylor House Saloon where they proceeded to celebrate by getting thoroughly drunk.
Rail traffic brought many tourists to the town between the rivers. Passengers getting off the trains were greeted by barkers who ballyhooed their cafes. One old black man stood at the “Blue Front” shouting: “Best meals in the city only 25 cents—nice place to wash and brush up.” A few doors away, at the “K.C.”, another barker also shouted about the “best meals in the city for only 15 cents.” Cairo boasted the distinction of having 90 saloons within its town limits—one for each 200 inhabitants. Whenever a new one opened, the owner threw the key in the river to signify that the door was never locked.
The best bars, known as “gin and sin dispensaries”, catered to pilots and businessmen by offering gaming rooms and betting facilities. Bar whiskey was usually concocted in the basement by blending barrels of sour-mash whiskey with water, prune juice, and caramel coloring. The “blend” sold for 25 cents a shot and came with a free lunch of cheese, cold cuts, rye bread, pickles, and hard-boiled eggs. “Uncle Joe’s” had a sign in front that read, “Welcome to all nations but Carrie.” Actually, Carrie Nation did visit once, but left without wielding her famous ax. Cairo was too much even for her.
Cairo was said to average a murder a week. One old-timer named Harry, reminiscing about the “good old days”, said Cairo wasn’t any better or any worse than other river towns. While it didn’t have any outstanding bad men like Billy the Kid or John Wesley Hardin, there were some cold-blooded scoundrels who gave the town a bad reputation. He recalled that one Sunday morning as he was walking to work, he saw three bodies with bashed-in heads, slit throats, and turned-out pockets. The body with the slit throat was a woman. But he quickly acknowledged, that was unusual.
Steamboat Round the Bend
Steamboat round the bend
The end of the Civil War ushered in the golden age of steam boating. Many steamboats that passed through Cairo were like floating palaces. The lower decks carried freight; the upper decks featured luxuriously furnished dining rooms, betting and dancing salons, staterooms, and promenades. White-jacketed stewards served food prepared by the best chefs owners could find. Refreshments ranged from soft drinks and sandwiches to champagne and caviar. In the gaming rooms, elegantly groomed river gamblers relieved unsuspecting locals of all their surplus cash.
Music was used to attract Cairo passengers to steamboats. When boats approached a landing, twin smoke stacks belched black smoke, and an orchestra or steam calliope announced their arrival. For entertainment, there were popular plays such as, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and “East Lynne”. Performances usually drew capacity crowds. In a time before movies and television, there was little competition. The showboat was a make-believe world of a make-believe life, wonderfully depicted in Edna Ferber’s novel and Jerome Kern’s musical, “Showboat”: the story of the “Cotton Blossom”, its beloved Cap’n Andy, his gorgeous daughter Magnolia, handsome riverboat gambler Gaylord Ravenal, the wise black dock worker Joe, and the exotic mulatto singer Julie.
In addition to the showboats, there were excursion steamers where, on moonlit nights, young men took their best girls out on the boat to escape the summer heat. Orchestras played dance music, and baritones sang, “Shine On Harvest Moon.” In such a setting, the young men usually parted with their class rings and pledged eternal devotion. Eternity probably lasted no longer than the return to mundane life in Cairo.
Waitin’ for the Robert E. Lee
Watch them shuffle along, see them shuffle along
Oh take your best gal, real pal
Go down to the levee, I said the levee
Join the shuffling throng
Hear the music and song,
It’s simply great mate, waiting on the levee,
Waiting for the Robert E. Lee.
Steam boat racing was another popular diversion in river towns after the Civil War. The races were a way to attract passengers. They were impromptu, and the outcome often depended on the daring and ingenuity of the crew. Safety valves on boilers might be tied down to permit a higher head of steam, and water levels might be carried at dangerously low level to generate steam faster. Pilots maneuvering for favorable position in the 200-mile stretch between Cairo and St. Louis risked sinkings by collision, fires, or explosions. But they were so skillful that only a few hundred steamboats were lost.
The Race of the Century
The most famous of all steamboat races occurred in the summer of 1870--the race between the two fastest steamboats on the Mississippi River, the Natchez and the Robert E. Lee to decide which of the two would become champion of the river. It was also viewed as a postwar battle between the North and the South. Captain Thomas P. Leathers, master of the Natchez, and Captain John W. Cannon, master of the Robert E. Lee were fierce rivals. During the War, Captain Cannon had sided with the North; Captain Leathers with the Rebels. Leathers hated the fact that Cannon had named his boat after the beloved Southern General.
The race was set for June 30, 1870. It would begin in New Orleans and end in St. Louis. Fortunes were wagered in every city in the United States—as well as in London and Paris. Major newspapers in London, Paris, New York, Philadelphia, and Boston sent reporters to New Orleans and St. Louis to cover the race. Special wires were installed along the course between New Orleans and St. Louis to telegraph reports to the world. All the cities and towns along the Mississippi declared holidays. At New Orleans, more than 10,000 people jammed the waterfront to see the start. About five o’clock in the afternoon, the Robert E. Lee eased into the stream and headed upriver to St. Louis. Five minutes later, the Natchez followed.
Cannon had often been the butt of Captain Leathers’ show-off pranks, and he was hell bent on paying him back. A few days before the race, he had his crew strip the Lee of all extra rigging and freight. He only allowed 75 select passengers who wanted to get off at Cairo, Illinois, to come onboard, and he made arrangements with a fuel barge upriver to refuel without docking.
Captain Leathers was more of a showman. He was savage, reckless and given to grandstanding when he raced. He would throw slabs of bacon fat and tubs of hog fat into his boilers at crucial moments to pick up speed. He would cut across rivals’ bows to make them slow down and send a cannon shot across the forward part of a steamer just to annoy its captain and amuse his own passengers. Not only did the Natchez carry freight for the famous race, Leathers filled his ship with passengers and even took on the passengers and freight the Lee had refused.
The two boats sailed close together for a while, but gradually, the Robert E. Lee began to pull away. When they reached Baton Rouge at 8:30 p.m., the Natchez was six minutes behind. Leathers was furious. He went below and ordered a dipper of whiskey for his firemen. Leathers was a great believer in the power of whiskey. He may have been right. The Natchez began to cut into the Lee’s lead.
When the Lee arrived at Vicksburg the next afternoon the two boats were virtually neck and neck. But at Vicksburg, Cannon pulled a clever maneuver. He had arranged for the steamboat Frank Pargaud, loaded with tubs of lard, pine, and other combustible fuels, to sit just off course. When the Lee signaled, the Pargaud pulled parallel. The crews lashed the two boats together and transferred the fuel while the engines continued to run at breakneck speed. Then the ropes were cut and the Lee dashed ahead. Leathers was furious, and bettors cried foul.
The Lee reached Memphis an hour before midnight on July 1 to find the bluff alight with hundreds of fires. The whole population, many of whom had bet their horses, houses, and clothing on the race, had gathered to see the two boats. The Natchez pulled in about an hour later. After that, the boats stayed in sight of each other. On July 3, shortly after 6:00 p.m., the Lee arrived at Cairo, greeted by another cheering crowd. Cannon was so certain of victory he doled out whiskey to his crew and the departing passengers. His boat had set a new record of three days and one hour for the run from New Orleans. The Natchez was an hour behind. But the joy ended when a sharp, scraping sound shook the boat from stem to stern. The Lee had come aground on a sand bar. While Captain Cannon ordered his pilot to turn every which way, valuable minutes were lost. Finally, the ship pulled away.
The men began to cheer, only to fall silent when they heard the blasts of a steamboat whistle and saw Captain Leathers’ smokestacks. The Natchez was gaining on the Lee. The contest turned grim as the channel narrowed, and the boats raced side by side. Even after they collided, neither ship would give way. One passenger on the Natchez found himself staring at a passenger on the Lee. In a spirit of good will, he extended his hand and said, “Good Morning.” His fellow passenger returned the greeting.
By midnight, it was still anybody’s race. Then, a thick fog closed in. Leathers decided to tie up and wait for morning. Cannon recklessly steamed on. His crew tested the river’s depth with fathom lines and prayed that the boat would not hit a snag or run aground. After an hour, the fog broke. Captain Cannon did a flip on the deck. He had won.
On July 4, at 11:33 in the morning, the Robert E. Lee steamed across the finish line at St. Louis: three days, 18 hours, and 13 minutes after leaving New Orleans. She had beaten the previous best time by more than five hours. Church bells rang, cannons shot off, locomotives whistled, and mobs stormed aboard to greet the captain and crew.
The Natchez pulled in at six o’clock that same evening also to the sound of bells, whistles, and cannon fire. At a celebration party, Captain Leathers was quick to point out that had the Natchez not stopped for fuel and had she not been delayed by the fog, she would have won. The riverboat gamblers who bet on the Natchez lost millions. But two, named Devol and Canada Billy Jones, actually made money. Devol and Jones had gone about twenty miles upriver from New Orleans on the Mayflower to watch the beginning of the race. On board were a number of naïve, rich young men. Devol and Jones took advantage of them and made a killing throwing three card monte. When the foolish gamblers ran out of paper money, Bill gladly took their gold watches and diamond rings. By the end of the game, the marks had been picked clean.
Farewell To All That
The race between the Natchez and the Robert E. Lee was the last hurrah of a dying era. A few years later, railroads controlled commerce along the Mississippi and the steamboat vanished. But before we consign the steamboat era to history, let's join the bystanders on the levee for a fond farewell to steamboat races, showboats, excursions, and the wonderful make-believe life they brought.
Filed under: Living in Interesting Times