T.P. Leathers a Man of the River
By Morgan Gates
with special thanks to Gordon Cotton
The “Big Muddy” is, no placid stream. Even today it will kill you in an instant if you are not on your guard around it. That was especially so in the days of the old steamboats when the Mississippi was a totally wild river unbridled by the works of man. The great American author Samuel Clemens (aka. Mark Twain) said the Mississippi "tears down, dances over, and laughs at the works of Man". In the Antebellum period, it was said that the average steamboat had a three-year lifespan. Within those three years, it would likely hit a snag, run aground, or blow up!
Those men who made plying the Mississippi their trade, were by necessity a tough and often colorful lot. T.P. Leathers was such a man. Leathers began his steamboating career in 1836, along the Yazoo River, a tributary of the Mississippi that at that time emptied into “Old Man River” just northwest of Vicksburg. Prospering he had his first Steamboat built in 1846 for the Vicksburg to New Orleans cotton trade. He named his boat the Natchez, it was the first of seven riverboats owned by Leathers to bear that name.
Leathers was undaunted by the dangers of the River when a boat was lost, be it to the river, fire or war, he replaced it with a bigger and better one. His 6th Natchez made 410 trips without an accident an amazing record for the day.
When the War began he sided with the Confederacy. After the War he refused to fly the Stars and Stripes for many years, stubbornly flying the Stars and Bars for many years.
in 1870 the Natchez and Robert E. Lee (owned by his archrival Captain John W. Cannon) raced from New Orleans to Saint Louis the Lee beat the Natchez by six hours but only by cheating, Leathers claimed that Cannon maintained full steam through foggy and dangerous river conditions thereby endangering both his boat and passengers.
Financially ruined by the war he was able to obtain a loan from a Bank in Ohio that allowed him to begin anew. Years later he was able to return the favor. During a financial downturn this same bank was experiencing a “run” as panicked depositors frantically removed their money from the institution, Leathers broke the run, by loudly announcing “My name is T.P. Leathers and I am here to make a deposit”! His name carried such weight that the mere act of making a deposit, restored faith of the shaken depositors.
In 1861 he acted as a second for his friend Judge William Lake. Lake was fighting a duel with a political opponent. As the pistols roared, a ball struck and mortally wounded William Lake. Leathers held his friend as he lay dying on the sandbar and brought the body back to Vicksburg. Many years later when he was retired and living in New Orleans he was walking down St. Charles Avenue, when he was struck by a bicyclist as he lay dying a passerby held him in his arms as he had Judge Lake so many years before, the passerby was Judge Lakes, grandson.
Leathers name lived on in river lore long after his death, for his daughter-in-law Blanche Leathers became the first woman to become a riverboat pilot, her career lasted into the 1930’s.
T.P. Leathers’ rocking chair along with a model of the Natchez of racing fame are now prominently displayed in the Old Courthouse Museum in Vicksburg.
Supper on the Mississippi
By David Maggio
Editor's note: Rediscovering Historic Vicksburg welcomes David Maggio as a contributing writer, see his bio on the "our writers" page or RDHV.com; this is his first essay.
Coming up on Thursday, September 27, the United Way of West Central Mississippi is sponsoring “Super on the ‘Sip" i.e., the Old Mississippi River Bridge. According to their literature, over 15 restaurants will be lined along the bridge ready to serve you along with seating for you to enjoy the food and sunset with family and friends. Live music will dance through the air. What an amazing event to attend; this is the first time I of which I am aware of this happening, but more importantly, the proceeds will be used by our local United Way.
As many of you know, there has been an effort for years to open the old bridge to pedestrian foot traffic as a tourist destination and as an exercise pathway for local and visitors. Unless you are over 55, most of the people in and around Vicksburg have never been across the bridge in a car, let alone walking across the bridge. If you participated in the Over the River Run, your concentration is about running and not stopping to enjoy the view. So, this event will afford you a unique opportunity to view the river from a totally different perspective. Save the date.
However, for me, it is a little different. For two summers in the early 1970’s, I worked on the new Mississippi River Bridge, earning money to help pay for my first semester of the year at Mississippi State. When I started in the summer of 1971, the only part completed on the bridge was the structure steel – the 12” wide I-Beams that would later be the supports for the concrete. To get from place to place on the bridge, you walked on that beam, with nothing below me but air and opportunity. On our lunch break, after eating, each person that wanted to try, put a dollar in the hat, and the person that could throw a ¾” flat washer from the new bridge across and through the old bridge, without hitting any obstructions, won the pot. Of course, it had to be timed perfectly according to the traffic on the old bridge, but I paid for a few books that way.
So, on the 27th, if you see me eying the new bridge with a washer in my hand, just put a dollar in the pot and give it a shot.
For more information on Supper on the ‘Sip go to http://www.unitedwayvicksburg.org/sip
Night at the Museum Vicksburg Edition
By Morgan Gates
Night at the Museum was the name of a Ben Stiller Movie released in 2006. If you are not familiar with this fantasy/comedy Ben Stiller is a newly hired night watchman at the American Museum of Natural History in New York who discovers that a magical Egyptian artifact causes the museum’s exhibits to come to life at night!
I’m sure we have all had our own imaginary versions of this movie play out in our heads, what if I could go back, what if they could come forward, how fantastic that would be. Of course, enchanted artifacts and time portals don’t really exist, but the next best thing is to watch a living history portrayal. It’s better really because we have air conditioning and refreshments!
On September 14th and 15th you will have the opportunity to see history come to life at the Old Courthouse Museum’s Night at the Museum presentation!
This years format: you will be comfortably seated in the historic old Courtroom, at 7PM the program begins. You will be treated to a series of vignettes as each 5-10 minutes long.
This year’s character portrayals:
Emma Balfour, the wife of a local Doctor, she was an eye witness to the events in Vicksburg during the siege.
Teddy Roosevelt, The President, he came to Vicksburg on a hunting trip and inadvertently inspired the world’s most beloved toy!
T.P Leathers, a famous Riverboat Pilot and his daughter Blanche the first female Riverboat Pilot
Kitty Foote, in a time when most African-Americans were considered property, she was a well-respected Free Woman of Color and a much sought after Mid Wife!
After the program: tour the Museum at your leisure.
For more information or to purchase tickets call the Old Courthouse Museum at 601-636-0741