On the occasion of General Robert E. Lee's birthdate in 1998, I composed the following salute to a deserving ancestor of mine. He was the pilot credited with the victory in an historic steamboat race on the Mississippi River, back in Mark Twain's time. It is a race that is not forgotten. I understand they still reenact it every year, and it is still called "The Great Race."
It seemed fitting to first submit my salute to a dixieland jazz mailing list on the Internet--of which I was a member. The required jazz content was met with the mention that a frisky young Preservation Hall Jazz Band was hired to play the victory celebration--in 1870! (They're rather long in the tooth, you see.) Dixieland bands have long been fellow travelers and entertainers on the boats.
Since a forefather was involved, I next sent the story to ten far-flung members of my extended family, many of whom I'd met for the first time at a reunion in Kentucky the summer of '98. Only two of them even acknowledged receipt of the story, proving that relatives I don't even know have no use for me!
So, maybe someone out there in cyberspace will enjoy hearing the tale again--as it happened--and as I imagine it happened.
It is not a well-known historical fact--no thanks to Mark Twain--but I believe it was largely due to the skills of my illustrious forefather, river pilot James Pell, that the steamboat Robert E. Lee was able to seize victory in its famous race against the Natchez, that summer of 1870. I shall now tell you just how Pell did that.
To refresh your memory: The two competing boats cast off in New Orleans, paddled furiously against currents and elements for some three days, and crossed the finish line in St. Louis on a glorious July 4th afternoon. The trip had not been without drama--and it was in the midst of it that James Pell entered the picture.
Along the route, near Cairo, Illinois, a thick fog settled over the famously tricky river. This was a serious matter, given the frequently changing sandbars, shoals, and banks of the mighty Mississippi. So, both boats throttled their boilers to a standstill to await Mother Nature's permission to continue. But then, Lady Luck, in the guise of a lanky Kentuckian in a black suit and string tie, strolled up the gangplank.
James Pell was one of the Lee's pilots, and a respected member of that community of men whose knowledge of the river was vast, and meticulous. Pell happened to know that particular fog-bound stretch of the river very well; it was his specialty--from Cairo to St. Louis; he possessed a unique feel for the river's ways along that route. So it was a dramatic moment when he quietly replied to Captain John W. Cannon, "Yup, Cap'n Cannon, I believe I can do 'er...." The Captain, you see, had asked Pell if he could safely pilot the boat straight through the fog and on to St. Louis.
At Pell's agreement, Captain Cannon abruptly sent orders below to raise pressure. What a risk they were taking! Their very lives were at stake, as a matter of fact, and the great boat's owners would take a dim view of the decision if it were to bring injury to the crew..or to their vessel.
Meanwhile, the astonished crew of the Natchez could scarcely believe their ears. Through the pea-soup fog the sound of the Lee's boiler's went up, followed soon by the steady churning of water. Someone on the Natchez's deck was heard to exclaim, "Why the goldarned fools!!" But the sound of the Lee's beating paddles soon faded into the distance, leaving the Natchez dead in the water, its crew gnashing their teeth in the thick, moist air.
James Pell, with his intimate knowledge of every bump and twist of the river, kept the Robert E. Lee pumping at full speed straight through that dangerous fog, and as a result of his singular skill arrived to victory in St. Louis a full six hours twenty-five minutes ahead of the Natchez.
A huge crowd of 20,000 cheering people greeted the Lee, amongst which was Captain Cannon's beloved daughter, Mary Lee--named for the boat, not the General. A joyful victory celebration was held that evening, with the dignified James Pell modestly accepting the approval of the happy crowd. The boat's owners raised many a toast to him that night, but Mr. Pell had only this to say.... "Shucks, it's only my job." Well, it may have been only his job, but everyone involved knew better.
Why would Mark Twain fail to mention the pilot credited with the victory in The Great Race? Twain himself was a river pilot, and is said to have been a good one, yet his account of the race in his classic book, "Life on the Mississippi," fails to mention James Pell's name, nor any of the other pilot's names.
Twain meticulously charts the arrival and departure times of both boats at each stop of the long journey. He surely mentions that famous fog. But, in spite of his deep respect for river pilots, he fails to mention my forefather's name. Shame on you, Twain!
And so, here in 20th. Century cyberspace, I offer this small attempt to right the wrong. Congratulations, James Pell! The River remembers you well; as do we, your many descendants, as we send our love and admiration to you on this day of celebration. We hope you enjoyed hearing the story again.
I'm told there is a spirited reenactment of The Great Race every year. Those of you in the neighborhood might want to take it in. It's said they run comfortable tour boats alongside the big paddle-wheelers. I might do it myself one of these years. It would be a marvelous opportunity to gloat and brag.
In fact I'll be able to drop more than one name. A number of my forefathers were pilots on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. It seems to have been a calling that ran in the family. Me, I like to sail, but I'd drop everything and come a-running likety-split at the summons to drive a paddlewheeler. Somehow I feel I've already done it.
copyright © 1998 Cliff Morris
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