Geochronology of the 1854 Grand Excursion
draws from the introductory essay by Roseman, Roseman, and Stahl, in the
2004 book Grand Excursions on the Upper Mississippi River.
Hundreds of prominent people from the East were sent an invitation in May 1854, which asked them to gather at Chicago for a June 5, 1854 departure to Rock Island. They were furnished with passage over a railroad of their choice to Chicago (and for the return trip east), and were afforded full accommodations for the six days of the rail and boat excursion. More people showed up in Chicago than anticipated, largely because invitees brought along friends and relatives who had not been officially invited.
On the morning of June 5, over six hundred people boarded two gaily-decorated trains in Chicago. The Grand Excursion had begun. The trains were to make the 181-mile trip to Rock Island in about eight hours. The first one hundred miles took them through several well-established towns on the Illinois and Michigan (I&M) Canal, which the railroad paralleled to LaSalle, including Joliet, Morris, and Ottawa. (Click here to see a map of the route.) At these and most other towns along the way, the trains were greeted by flag-waving crowds and bands and, in some places, the sound of cannon fire. In the afternoon, the excursion passed through Geneseo, crossed the Rock River over a brand new bridge at Colona, and steamed on to Moline. While approaching Moline, where the tracks emerged onto the floodplain of the Mississippi, most excursionists got their first glimpse of the mighty Mississippi.
Late in the afternoon of Monday June 5, at the town of Rock Island, excursionists were met by five steamboats to take them upriver to Minnesota Territory: the Galena, the Golden Era, the Lady Franklin, the G. W. Sparhawk, and the War Eagle. Late that evening, after visiting Davenport, they moved upstream across the Rock Island Rapids, which was crossed easily because of typical high spring waters. Soon, as general revelry ensued, the excursionists were greeted by a spectacular thunderstorm.
A Henry Bosse photo
showing the view from Trempealeau Mountain.
Late Wednesday evening, the five boats steamed through Lake Pepin, the widest spot on the Upper Mississippi. Early on a cool, clear Thursday morning, June 8, the steamboat War Eagle led a grand procession toward the St. Paul riverfront. A Boston Daily Journal (June 20, 1854) correspondent who had arrived at St. Paul earlier, observed the approach:
Despite having arrived a day early, transportation was hastily arranged for excursionists to visit St. Anthony Falls, now the site of Minneapolis. This place was the farthest north and west that most of the excursionists would ever visit. Here a “mingling of the waters” ceremony combined salt water from the Atlantic with the fresh water of the Mississippi. That day some excursionists also visited Minnehaha Falls and Fort Snelling. After a gala celebration at the new statehouse in St. Paul Thursday evening, the excursionists returned to the boats for a midnight departure to Rock Island.
The boats arrived back in Rock Island and Davenport on Saturday morning, June 10, the fastest having traveled some five hundred miles in about thirty hours. Later that day, most excursionists boarded Rock Island trains to return to Chicago, although upwards of two hundred of them continued south to St. Louis on the War Eagle and the Sparhawk. The Grand Excursion had introduced the West to the East via the excursionists themselves and through the extensive coverage of the celebration in Eastern newspapers. It was a grand celebration, befitting the completion of the first railroad line to reach the Mississippi River from the East.