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The Natchez's Better Idea

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

If Captain Tom Leathers of the steamboat Natchez only known that Kewanee, Illinois, was the Hog Capitol of the World, and sent in an order for some Illinois hams, his boat might have won its famous race with the Robert E. Lee in 1870.

As it was, the Natchez lost badly. The Robert E. Lee made the trip from New Orleans to St. Louis in three days, eighteen hours, and thirteen minutes. Fleets of small boats rode out to meet her as she reached St. Louis; the shore was lined with cheering citizens, and church bells rang. When the Natchez pulled in several hours later, roustabouts on the Robert E. Lee held up a banner which said "Shoo Fly, Don't Bother Me."

There were rivermen afterwards who claimed the Robert E. Lee cheated by taking on coal from barges out in the channel without stopping, but there were no rules against that. The plain fact is, the Natchez made a serious mistake.

The Natchez was behind from the start of the race, pulling out of New Orleans three minutes behind the Lee. At each stop along the way, the Natchez fell further behind. As she passed Natchez Under the Hill, she was three minutes behind. By Vicksburg, the lag was ten minutes.

The only remedy was to crank the steam pressure up with a hotter fire. Captains often used pine knots full of resin to do this, but Captain Leathers needed more power. Just past Vicksburg, he ordered his crew to take down all the hams hanging from the rafters and throw them in the firebox where the fat would burn white hot.

The hams burned, all right, but the only effect was to whet appetites all along the shore for miles. "I want me some of that frying ham," folks were heard to say, licking their lips. "I'd like to get some of that fine ham."

But the Natchez herself never caught the Robert E. Lee. I bet those hams were those dried-up, puny Southern hams, Smithfield, or something like that. My guess is, the fat, juicy Kewanee hams would have done the trick.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by the Scott County Regional Authority, with additional funding from the Illinois Arts Council and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.