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.