Historical Marker #1756 in Hawesville (Hancock County) cites the birthplace of noted steamboat captain and builder John W. Cannon. Cannon captained steamboats on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers during much of the nineteenth century and became famous by guiding the "Robert E. Lee" to victory over the "Natchez" in a well-known 1870 steamboat race.
Cannon was seemingly born for the river. Born in 1820 near the Ohio River in Hawesville, Kentucky, Cannon's family had migrated from Maryland to Kentucky two years earlier. As a young man, Cannon traveled by boat to visit his brother Elijah, who was a city marshal in New Orleans. At his brother's prompting, Cannon returned home to receive an education, but his brief time spent on the river ignited a passion. After an abbreviated season of schooling, Cannon returned to New Orleans and found valuable experience on several steamboat trips up the Red River. Through his work as a pilot and steersmen on a number of different steamboats he was able to save several thousand dollars.
By 1848, Cannon accumulated enough money to build the "Louisiana" in Jeffersonville, Indiana, at the famous Howard's Shipyard. In November 1849, while at dock in New Orleans awaiting departure, the "Louisiana" suffered a boiler explosion that killed a great number of the passengers, crew, and bystanders. Cannon was not on board at the time of the explosion. Although the disaster placed Cannon in deep debt, benefactors who knew the captain's skills helped him get started again.
Before the Civil War, Cannon had the "Vicksburg" and the "Gen. Quitman" built for the Mississippi River cotton trade. During the war the Confederates confiscated the "Vicksburg" and turned it into a gunboat. Cannon took the "Gen. Quitman" up the Red River where it was docked until after the war. In 1866, Cannon had his most famous steamboat, the "Robert E. Lee" constructed in New Albany, Indiana. It was a virtual floating palace. In 1870, the "Robert E. Lee" engaged in a famous race from New Orleans to St. Louis with the "Natchez," which was captained by Thomas P. Leathers, also a Kentuckian. The "Robert E. Lee" won this race, which became world-famous by making the trip in just three days and eighteen hours. The "Natchez" came up short by six hours and thirty-six minutes.
Cannon went on to captain other successful steamboats, including one he named for himself. In 1882, Cannon suffered an attack of pneumonia. He died on April 18 at his home in Frankfort and was buried in the Frankfort Cemetery.