In 1854, the Chicago and Rock Island Railroad became the first railroad to reach from the East Coast to the Mississippi River. To celebrate, Henry Farnam of Sheffield and Farnam, contractors for the railroad, proposed an excursion for a select group of stockholders, friends and family. Word spread quickly about the occasion resulting in a 1,200-person entourage traveling by steamboat from Rock Island, Illinois to Saint Paul, Minnesota, and to the Falls of Saint Anthony. According to the Galena Jeffersonian, “the object of the excursion, on the part of its projectors, is not so much pleasure merely, as a desire to make a thousand more or less, men of capital and influence acquainted with the enchanting beauty, the boundless resources and the unexampled prosperity of the Great West.”
Click here to follow the journey day by day.
According to the Chicago Tribune, the excursionists, among whom was former U.S. President Millard Fillmore, were considered “the most brilliant ever assembled in the West, statesmen, historians, diplomats, poets, and the best editorial talent in the country.”
The group who contributed the most to the purpose and results of the Excursion were the 50 newspaper editors. Through letters mailed from the trip, and later editorials, their writings informed and excited the nation about the Upper Mississippi Valley and the western frontier. By 1894, Captain Russell Blakely reported, “the success of [the Grand Excursion] did more than the best laid plans for advertising the country than has ever been made since…Good results came back to us in a thousand ways and for many years.”
The region attracted millions of investment dollars. Minnesota was catapulted into statehood and the entire region was positioned as a dominant force in the development of the nation in the nineteenth century. Read more about the U.S. in 1854.
This prosperity for the region came at a steep cost. The riverfront changed from being communities’ welcoming, hustle and bustle front door, to being their inaccessible, grimy and polluted back door. Read more about this profound impact.
2004 will be the sesquicentennial of the Grand Excursion. For the last 10 to 15 years, communities have been working together to reclaim their relationship with the Mississippi and reestablish vibrant riverfront communities. Planning for a celebration in 2004 has been an incentive in preparing for the national spotlight and has focused redevelopment efforts toward a common goal.