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  1. #1

    Default Hero of the Big Race

    Unless you are a real student of the big race between the Robt. E. Lee and the Natchez, you've probably never heard of John Wiest. John and his parents immigrated from Germany when John was 7 yrs. old and settled in Louisville. As a young man John took a job in a foundry making steamboat engines and parts which sparked his interest in boats and steam engines. John went out on the boats and became a striker engineer on boats owned by John W. Cannon. When he got his engineers license he left Cannon and took a job as engineer on a boat on the Yazoo River, but Jon and Cannon remained friends.
    When the Lee was on its upbound trip before the famous race, at Vicksburg Wiest ask Cannon if he was going to race the Natchez; Cannon told him he hadn't made up his mind. When the Lee got to Louisville, some local business men approached Cannon and convinced him that he should race so as to settle once and for all which was the fastest boat. When the Lee reached Vicksburg on its downbound trip Cannon sent word to Wiest to meet him in New Orleans when the boat arrived. Wiest left the Yazoo River and went to the Lee in New Orleans.
    In New Orleans Wiest assisted in getting the Lee ready for the big race. On the morning of the race, the steamboat inspectors boarded the Lee; they set and sealed the safety valves at 140 psi. No sooner had the inspectors left than Wiest said he was able to sick a file under the safety valves without breaking the seal. Wiest said at no time during the race did the boat carry just 140 pounds of steam, in fact at some points they carried as much as 250 pounds.
    I don't know if carrying extra steam pressure caused it but soon after the boat left New Orleans on the famous race, a hot water line to the boilers located in the hold separated. John Wiest went down in the hold and repaired the line. In doing this John was badly burned. Later on that first evening of the race, one of the Lee's boilers started leaking; leaking to the point it was putting out the fires and they could hardly keep water in the boilers; but they didn't know exactly what or where the leak was coming from. They pulled the fires from under the center boilers, took fire hoses and cooled down the grate bars, removed the sheet metal from part of the fire box, and poked a hole in the fire brick. The Lee's two engineers weren't able to crawl into the infernal, one was too old and the other too "portly" so John Wiest volunteered to enter the fire box to find the source and extent of the leak. They tied a rope around his waist to pull him out and John crawled in dispite his burns from repairing the broken water line. Now, mind you, the Lee was still under power charging up the river. Wiest soon passed out from the heat, he was pulled out of the firebox and placed out on the starboard guard. When he came to, he reported that the packing gland on the mud drum leg on the fourth boiler from the right was the source of the leak....a simple fix. They took small pieces of hemp and put them in the intake side of the doctor pump. In the boiler the hemp was drawn to the leak eventually stopping it. Thanks to John Wiest the Lee didn't have to stop, tie to the bank and make repairs, if they had the results of the race may have bee much different.
    After the leak was stopped, John said he went out on deck and saw the Natchez about four hundred yards behind them; the closest the Natchez ever got to the Lee. During the rest of the night the Lee slowly pulled ahead increasing it's lead. The next morning Capt. Cannon came down to the engine room and told the engineers "to tame her down a bit", there was no need to push the Lee that hard. They had no more boiler trouble for the rest of the race.
    John Wiest stayed with Cannon on the Lee until the boat was retired about 6 years after the race. John then left the river and took a job as the chief steam engineer with the Louisville Water Co where he stayed for the next 40 yrs. He over saw the expansion of the Louisville pumping station and the installation of the huge triple expansion pumps....one still exists in place and can be seen if you visit the Water company's museum located in the old pumping station. Wiest was on duty that night in March 1890 when the great tornado tore through Louisville and blew over the beautiful stand pipe which is a Louisville land mark. Wiest retired in 1919.

  2. #2
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    Jim,

    Great story! Thanks for sharing!

    Carmen

  3. #3
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    Morning Jim,

    Thanks for sharing a great story from when boats were made of wood and rivermen were mate of metal. Russ

  4. #4
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    *Hero of the big race*
    Morning, Steamboating colleagues,
    Great historical account, Jim, and I'm eating it up word by word. Fine job. Veteran steamboat engineer, John G. Gibbs, wrote a letter to Capt. Ellis Mace years after the race with THE ROBT. E. LEE and then his career on the next LEE that had a disastrous engine failure on a Mardi Gras trip, 1879. One of her '40 inch by 10 ft. stroke' engines "ran through" tearing out the cylinder, struck the beam under five of the nine boilers killing two deck hands, crippling several more. Opinions from the crew, experts in the New Orleans foundry milling a new engine was "that engine on the former racer LEE had been badly worn out, stressed by the race. Racer LEE had eight boilers, 'new' LEE nine boilers." No doubt, knowing steamboat buffs, debates and arguments would arise over that. At this late date how could we really know and who cares?

    R. Dale Flick
    Old Coal Haven Landing, Ohio River, Cincinnati

  5. #5
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    Great story indeed! Of course nowadays, this would be wrong on so many levels. Thank goodness times have changed.

  6. #6

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    Bob...I never really thought about it being wrong. Guess it's a change in time. I knew some old rivermen who were of the "get it done" philosophy and to hell with the consequences. Times have certainly changed...for the better or worse? I'm not sure. Sometimes today I think we are too timid. If we listen to the corporate lawyers we'd never get anything done or it would be so complicated it just wouldn't be worth the effort. Without a lawyer looking over his shoulder, Capt. Cannon and his crew were able to keep the Robt. E Lee ahead of the Natchez.

  7. #7
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    You’re right to a degree, Jim, about never getting anything done. But high officials at my company used to do things like go inside a loaded asphalt barge (temps 260°-280°) to do work. I would not do that, and neither should he have. But they used to do stuff like that with the “get it done” attitude. I myself have done some questionable stuff and I bet you have, too. But some of the stuff bosses used to ask employees to do, or even did themselves, were just wrong. I can always get another job, but my license and my life are worth more to me than a job. A deckhand I used to work with put it like this:”They don’t own ya, Bud, they just rent ya”.

  8. #8
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    Jim,
    What is your source on the John Wiest information? I would like to incorporate this information into something I wrote a while back on the Lee/Natchez contest and would appreciate a reference. Enjoyed your write-up.

    Jerry Canavit, ASN

  9. #9

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    The Courier Journal archives which are on line. They did an interview with John Wiest late in his life in which he told about the race. I also used the story of the race found in the book, TREASURY OF MISSISSIPPI RIVER FOLKLORE by BA Botkin published in 1955.

  10. #10
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    Thanks Jim. I will attempt to access both the interview and the book. I have been researching the Race for a very long time but have not come across these sources. I look forward to reading them. Many, many years ago I used to correspond with Fred Way (and many others) about this subject. I have put together several rough drafts of an article but have never submitted anything for publication. Maybe it's time to dust off the files and have another go at it. Again, thank you for reminding me of one of my favorite steamboat topics.

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