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Geochronology of the 1854 Grand Excursion


This section 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.

Route and timing of the 1854 Grand Excursion

The boats ran day and night to St. Paul, making several stops a day to “wood-up.” A four-hour stay at Galena Tuesday morning that included speeches and tours of nearby lead mines was followed by a short trip to Dubuque for a late afternoon stop. At Dubuque the ceremonies were limited to a few speeches at the waterfront because of heavy rain. At these stops, and virtually every other one, President Fillmore was a featured speaker. At midday on Wednesday, June 7, the party landed at La Crosse, then in the afternoon landed at Trempealeau. This was the place where Mary Abigail Fillmore, the President’s daughter, on horse back made her fabled climb of the bluff.

A Henry Bosse photo showing the view from Trempealeau Mountain.
From the Rock Island District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers


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:

…there they were, away down the river, five floating palaces, bringing hither a freight representing more of wealth and true dignity than any like squadron ever launched…. These splendid packets, now coming to town, were arranged and managed with great tact and skill, considering the rapidity of the current at this point, and after performing various revolutions, came up to the landing five abreast. The drums beat, the bells rung, the cannon roared, the whistle screamed.

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.

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