Never before and never
since has such a large collection of prominent people visited Rock Island or
Davenport. The same probably can be said for most other stops on the 1854
Grand Excursion. Further, it is unlikely that such an occurrence will ever
be repeated in the future.
Our research, which utilized newspaper and other contemporary accounts in
addition to registers signed in Chicago and on three of the boats, suggests
that a total of nine hundred to one thousand people participated in the
Grand Excursion. Over six hundred were on the two trains from Chicago to
Rock Island. However, a number of them, perhaps one third, chose not to
continue on the boats; most returning to Chicago and others going downriver
to St. Louis on the steamboat McGee. The boats also had between 600 and 700
passengers, obviously including people who had arrived earlier at Rock
Island in addition to people from the Rock Island area.
Geographic distribution of Easterners who signed the
Grand Excursion register in Chicago, June 5, 1854
Where were they from?
Well over half of the Grand Excursion guests came from the state of New
York, and about twenty percent from New York City. It was clearly an eastern
affair, the South having no representation that we know of. Rail connection
did not yet exist between the North and the South and, in these pre-civil
war days, the two were quite separate in economy and politics. However, only
part of the “East” is found on this list. New York, Connecticut, and western
Massachusetts are well represented, but very few people came from elsewhere
in the East. Of the four largest cities in the country at the time, only New
York had a large representation. Boston sent only eleven, Philadelphia one,
and Baltimore none.
The locational base of the organizers and their personal and professional
geographic networks help to explain this pattern. Both Farnam and Sheffield
were living in New Haven in 1854, accounting for the relatively large party
from that city, and the offices of the Rock Island Railroad were in New York
City. Also, New York City housed a substantial proportion of the nation’s
powerful people, a principal target for invitations. In addition, Farnam had
grown up in upstate New York, and had worked as an engineer on the Erie
Canal, which connected Albany to Lake Erie near Buffalo along the Mohawk
Corridor. The main rail route to the west was aligned along this corridor,
connecting at Albany to New York City and Boston. Both Farnam and Sheffield
had come to know many people involved in canal and rail enterprises located
in these areas. Indeed, large numbers of guests came from the cities aligned
between Albany and Buffalo. Buffalo was the home to President Fillmore who
no doubt brought along a number of his groupies. Particularly interesting is
the large contingent from Utica and Rome, neighbors along the Mohawk
President Millard Fillmore
Who were the Excursionists?
Well over one hundred politicians were in attendance, including one
President (Millard Fillmore, 1850-53), two other presidential candidates
(John Parker Hale, 1852, and Samuel J. Tilden, 1876), three U. S.
Postmasters General, three U. S. senators, eight governors (including
Illinois Governor Joel Aldrich Matteson, 1853-57), four lieutenant
governors, fourteen members of state legislatures, and as many as ten
mayors. Also included were numerous judges and local politicians, and people
who held government appointments at various levels, including military
Fifty-nine journalists were there, eight from Illinois and two from Ohio.
The remaining fifty came from the East. Nine newspapers in New York City
were represented, as were three from Albany, and two each from Buffalo,
Utica, Poughkeepsie, New Haven, Boston and Springfield (Mass.). Some of the
journalists were prominent editors and/or founders of their newspapers and a
few became famous for later endeavors. Clergy on the trip included several
people with college or university affiliations (including Harvey Curtis who
became President of Knox College in Illinois, 1858-62), and some who rose to
higher positions in the church hierarchies. An eclectic group of writers and
artists added to the variety of people on the Excursion, as did a small
group of prominent academics from Yale, Harvard, and Dartmouth.
Many of the guests were affiliated with railroads. In general, it was
successful politicians and businessmen who invested in railroads and became
their officers. Several played roles in building railroads in the East and
the West. These included Presidents of the Chicago and Rock Island, Henry
Farnam, and John A. Dix and John Bloomfiled Jervis of New York. William
Walcott of Utica and Thomas Clark Durant of New York both had towns named
after them on the Mississippi and Missouri line just west of Davenport that
would later be part of the Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific Railroad. Henry
Farnam’s infant son, who later became a professor at Yale and also wrote his
father’s memoirs, was along for the ride.
Almost one third of the guests were female. A relatively small proportion of
politicians and journalists brought along spouses (all wives), well under
twenty percent. For them, this perhaps was a fairly routine affair, just one
of many “business” trips. In contrast, over thirty-seven percent of the
Business/Professional people brought wives. Many of these folks were
merchants, bankers, or doctors whose professional scope was largely local,
or perhaps regional. Because a visit to the west on a first class excursion
was an opportunity of a lifetime, more of them made this a family affair.
Railroad affiliates (officers, directors), clergy, and academics were in the
middle of these two extremes, about thirty percent bringing wives.
A Sampling of People Associated with the Building of the Rock Island
Railroad and the 1854 Grand Excursion
(* indicates the person went on the Grand Excursion)
Charles Atkinson—born 1808; a founder of Moline (1843); member of the board
of directors of the Rock Island and LaSalle Railroad (1848), and later the
Chicago and Rock Island Railroad (1850); worked to route the railroad
through Moline rather than along the Rock River Valley; lobbied for a U. S.
Arsenal to be located on Rock Island (1861-1862).
*Hiram Bersie—died 1859; part owner with McMaster and Washburn of War Eagle
mills in Galena (1849); captained the Golden Era during the 1854 Grand
Excursion; $300 raised by the passengers on the Golden Era to present Bersie
with an inscribed silver pitcher.
*George Bancroft—1800-1891; wrote a ten volume History of the United States
(1834-1874); served as Secretary of the Navy (1845-1846) when he established
the U.S. Naval Academy; also served as Minister to Great Britain (1846-1849)
and Minister to Prussia/Germany (1867-1874); one of the first New England
*Francis P. Blair, Jr.—1821-1875; practiced law in St. Louis; served as
Missouri state legislator (1852-56 and 1870) and in U. S. House of
Representative (1857-1859, June 1860, and 1861-1862); through his political
influence and military service helped to keep Missouri in the Union during
the Civil War; served in United States Senate (1871-1873).
*Francis P. Blair, Sr.—1791-1876; journalist and politician in Kentucky and
Maryland; founded the Congressional Globe which later became the
Congressional Record; one of the founders of the Republican Party and
presided over its first national convention in 1856.
*Col. Joseph B. Danforth—born 1819; came from Vermont to Rock Island in
1851; bought half interest in the Rock Island Republican in 1852 and the
remaining half in 1853; appointed United States Custodian for the Island of
Rock Island (1853); a good Democrat he renamed the paper the Argus in 1855;
sold his interest in the paper to accept the appointment as purser in the
United States Navy (1857); purchased back his interests in the Argus (1859).
*Charles A. Dana—1819-1897; a member for five years of Brook Farm
Association (1841-1847) a community established by the New England
Transcendentalists; editor of the New York Tribune (1847-1862); served as an
observer (1863-1864) for the Union Army, then as Assistant Secretary of War
(1864-1865); editor (1868-1897) and part owner of the New York Sun.
*Thomas C. Durant—1820-1885; a founder of the Mississippi and Missouri
Railroad (1853), an extension of the Rock Island across Iowa; a vice
president of the Union Pacific Railroad, which completed a transcontinental
rail link with the Central Pacific (1869).
*Henry Farnam—1803-1883; a self-taught engineer who had worked on the Erie
Canal, he became the chief engineer of the Chicago and Rock Island Railroad
(1850), then its President (1854-1863); designed and superintended the
construction of the first railroad bridge over the Mississippi River from
Rock Island into Iowa (1856); a major benefactor of Yale College.
*Mary Abigail Fillmore—1832-1854; was hostess at the White House for her
father President Millard Fillmore during her mother’s (Abigail Power
Fillmore) illness; well known on the Grand Excursion for her horse back ride
up the bluff in Trempealeau, Wis. (then Montoville).
*Millard Fillmore—1800-1874; the thirteenth President of United States for
just over two and a half years (became president after Zachary Taylor became
ill and died in July 1850); as president he promoted river navigation
interests and Congress authorized the Western Rivers Improvement act at his
request (1852); Fillmore and his Cabinet assisted in fighting the fire at
the Library of Congress (1851); he and his daughter Mary Abigail were the
subject of much attention on the Grand Excursion.
* Elbridge T. Gerry—1837-1927; studied law then admitted to the New York Bar
in 1860; was an adviser to the American Society for the Prevention of
Cruelty to Animals; one of the founding members of the New York Society for
the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (1875).
Willis A. Gorman—1816-1876; territorial governor of Minnesota (1853-1857)
during the Grand Excursion; welcomed the excursionists at a ball and
reception the evening of their visit in St. Paul; served in Civil War with
1st Minnesota Regiment.
*Judge James Grant—1812-1891; resided in Davenport (beginning in 1838);
served as judge in that district and later as a member of the Iowa state
legislature where he served as Speaker of the House of Representatives;
first president of the Rock Island and La Salle Railroad (1848), later the
Chicago and Rock Island Railroad (1851) which he served as vice-president.
*Montraville Green—captained the Sparhawk during the 1854 Grand Excursion;
$260 raised by passengers to obtain an appropriate gift of gratitude.
*Daniel Smith Harris—1808-1893; settled in Galena (early 1820’s) where he
discovered a major lead source, which formed the basis of a successful
family business that helped to support their riverboat enterprises through
hard times; had been a riverboat captain for twenty-five years when he
captained the War Eagle on the 1854 Grand Excursion; passengers passed a
resolution of gratitude and a committee was to confer with other
excursionists to decide upon an appropriate expression of appreciation; a
famous and highly respected riverboat captain, Harris retired to Galena at
age 53 after his steamboat the Grey Eagle struck the railroad bridge at Rock
Island (May 1861).
*John Frederick Kensett—1816-1872; a famous landscape painter of the Hudson
River School; after experiencing the Mississippi River for the first time on
the 1854 Grand Excursion, Kensett created an oil painting of the bluffs
entitled Upper Mississippi and a pencil sketch of Lake Pepin; a founder of
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City (1870). To view the painting
Upper Mississippi go to http://www.slam.org/ click on Exhibitions, then
American Summer, then Things to See, then click on the painting by Along the
James Lendabarker—engineer on the first train on the Rock Island Railroad,
which ran from Chicago to Joliet and back on October 10, 1852; six new
coaches pulled by the “Rocket” engine made the one-way trip in two hours;
Lendabarker had been an engineer on a Great Lakes boat.
*Joel A. Matteson—1808-1873; settled in Kendall County, IL (1833); moved to
Joliet (1838) and became a contractor on the Illinois & Michigan Canal;
became a State Senator (1842); involved in the building of railroads,
especially by his support after he was elected governor (1853-1856).
*D. B. Morehouse—1807-1869; set a record with a time of 6 days and 15 hours
on the steamboat Iowa in 1840 for the round trip between Galena and St.
Louis, a record which stood until 1845; captained the Galena during the 1854
Grand Excursion; passengers passed a resolution to obtain an appropriate
gift of thanks for the captain and pilot; retired in Galena.
*Le Grand Morehouse—died around 1890; owned and captained the Lady Franklin
during the 1854 Grand Excursion; in her reporting Catherine Sedgwick praised
Morehouse for his courtesy; The Minneapolis Institute of the Arts has in its
collection an engraved silver pitcher dedicated to Morehouse from the
*William C. Redfield—1789–1857; saddler, meteorologist, and geologist;
curiosity about steam navigation lead to river (Hudson River) and railroad
business (Hartford and New Haven) interests; in 1823 he plotted a possible
railroad route connection between the Hudson and Mississippi Rivers of which
the portion between Chicago and Rock Island essentially became the route of
the Chicago and Rock Island Railroad; was a founding member and first
president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1848).
*William Schouler—1814-1872; represented the Cincinnati Gazette on the Grand
Excursion; later was editor of the Boston Atlas (1847-1853); became
Massachusetts State Adjutant General (1860-1866); gained notoriety for
telling President Lincoln about Mrs. Bixby losing all five of her sons in
the Civil War, after which Lincoln wrote a famous letter to her; Schouler
authored a two-volume history of Massachusetts in the Civil War.
*Catherine Maria Sedgwick—1789-1867; a prominent author whose first novel,
published anonymously (1822), was A New England Tale; wrote several other
novels through the 1850s; an active social reformer with an interest in
improving conditions in prisons and tenements.
Joseph E. Sheffield—1793-1882; involved in many business ventures, including
the railroad between New Haven and New York; joined Henry Farnam in building
the Chicago and Rock Island Railroad (1850); in spite of his central role in
the development of the railroad, he did not attend the Grand Excursion;
pursued philanthropy after his retirement (1856), including substantial
gifts to Yale College.
*Benjamin Silliman—1779-1864; first professor of chemistry and natural
history at Yale University (1802-1853); his mineralogy and geology
collections were instrumental in the establishment of the Peabody Museum at
Yale; studied a meteorite that fell to the earth in 1807 and determined that
its chemical composition was made of materials found on earth; founder and
editor of the American Journal of Science and Arts (1818-1846); first
president of the Association of American Geologists (later to become the
*Samuel J. Tilden—1814-1886; studied law at New York University and was
admitted to the bar in 1841; became a successful corporate lawyer
specializing in reorganizing and refinancing railroads; New York State
Assembly (1846); New York State Democratic Party Chairman (1866); Governor
of New York (1874); Democratic nominee in 1876 presidential election when he
won more popular votes than Rutherford B. Hayes (Republican) but lost the
election by one electoral vote; gave a large portion of his estate, which
was merged with other gifts, to establish the New York Public Library
*Thurlow Weed—1797-1882; in 1830 founded and became editor of the Albany
Evening Journal which he ran for 35 years; became a leader in the Whig Party
(helped elect U. S. Presidents William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor)
and in 1855 became a dominate force in the Republican Party; an
envoy/emissary to England and France to keep these countries for getting
involved in the Civil War; along with others, Weed left the Grand Excursion
at Rock Island to travel down river to St. Louis.
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