For ten years previous to the outbreak of the Rebellion, steamboating on the Mississippi was in the height of its glory. Where expense of construction and management were of secondary consideration, the steamboats on the great river could offer challenge to the world. It was the boast of their officers that the tables of the great passenger-boats were better supplied than those of the best hotels in the South. On many steamers, claret, at dinner, was free to all. Fruit and ices were distributed in the evening, as well as choice cups of coffee and tea. On one line of boats, the cold meats on the supper-table were from carefully selected pieces, cooked and cooled expressly for the cenatory meal. Bands of music enlivened the hours of day, and afforded opportunity for dancing in the evening. Spacious cabins, unbroken by machinery; guards of great width, where cigars and small-talk were enjoyed; well-furnished and well-lighted state-rooms, and tables loaded with all luxuries of the place and season, rendered these steamers attractive to the traveler. Passengers were social, and partook of the gayety around them. Men talked, drank, smoked, and sometimes gambled, according to their desires. The ladies practiced no frigid reserve toward each other, but established cordial relations in the first few hours of each journey.
Among the many fine and fast steamers on the Western waters, there was necessarily much competition in speed. Every new boat of the first class was obliged to give an example of her abilities soon after her appearance. Every owner of a steamboat contends that his boat is the best afloat. I have rarely been on board a Mississippi steamer of any pretensions whose captain has not assured me, “She is the fastest thing afloat, sir. Nothing can pass her. We have beaten the—, and the—, and the—, in a fair race, sir.” To a stranger, seeking correct information, the multiplicity of these statements is perplexing.
In 1853 there was a race from New Orleans to Louisville, between the steamers Eclipse and A.L. Shotwell, on which seventy thousand dollars were staked by the owners of the boats. An equal amount was invested in “private bets” among outside parties. The two boats were literally “stripped for the race.” They were loaded to the depth that would give them the greatest speed, and their arrangements for taking fuel were as complete as possible. Barges were filled with wood at stated points along the river, and dropped out to midstream as the steamers approached. They were taken alongside, and their loads of wood transferred without any stoppage of the engines of the boats.
At the end of the first twenty-four hours the Eclipse and Shotwell were side by side, three hundred and sixty miles from New Orleans. The race was understood to be won by the Eclipse, but was so close that the stakes were never paid.