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The Rock Island Excursion of 1854

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Black and white photo print of a drawing the state capitol c.1853–1873.

Black-and-white photo print of a drawing of the first Minnesota state capitol c.1853–1873.

On February 22, 1854, the Chicago and Rock Island Railroad completed the first rail line to connect the Mississippi River to the Atlantic Ocean. To promote that feat the company contacted notable East Coast citizens and journalists and invited them to ride their train to Rock Island. From there, the visitors took a steamboat trip up the Mississippi, stopping at St. Paul. The journalists, pleased with what they saw, wrote of the beauty and splendor of a region that many in the East thought was little more than a wilderness.

The event, which organizers hoped would convince guests to consider financial investment in the West, was a great success. About one thousand people attended. They took the train to Rock Island and climbed aboard one of several steamboats to travel into Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota Territory. The weather, apart from early thunderstorms and mugginess, was nearly perfect.

Within a short time the river party had made their way to St. Paul. Coming around the bend of the Mississippi to view the capital city, the passengers aboard the steamboats saw a place similar to their homes in the East. After seeing small communities along their route they now saw what would later be called the "New England to the West."

They reached the landing at St. Paul at eight o'clock in the morning on June 8—a day earlier than they were expected to arrive. Within a short time they were greeted by a mob of carriages ready to take them on a tour of the area. The tour took the party in different directions, making stops at Lake Calhoun, Minnehaha Falls, the Falls of St. Anthony, Fountain Cave, and Fort Snelling. One of the highlights of the trip occurred at St. Anthony. The group performed a "mingling of the waters" ceremony, breaking a bottle filled with salt water carried from the Atlantic Ocean over a log to "mingle" it with the fresh waters of the Mississippi that flowed along the falls.

They met back at St. Paul at around seven o'clock in the evening. Upon their return they were treated to a grand reception ball at the State Capitol. Many of the city's elite citizens attended, including Henry Sibley and Governor Willis Gorman. Former President Millard Fillmore, a member of the touring party, thanked the hosts for their kindness and spoke highly of the promise of the area. Later that night the whistles from the steamboats blew and the tour began the trip back down the Mississippi.

Soon after the boats departed, newspapers around the country carried stories of the wonderful life that could be had in the West. Reporters wrote of the region's untold beauty and unmatched opportunity and promoted it as a place for immigrants to consider as a new home. Newspaper editor Horace Greeley wrote in the New York Tribune of the West as a prosperous place with a bright future.

By joining the Mississippi to the Atlantic the railroad united what had been considered two separate regions of the country. Travelers from the East could now travel to western territories in days instead of weeks. This change opened the West to additional immigration. The flood of immigrants that arrived to the territory gave Minnesota a large-enough population to qualify for statehood. On May 11, 1858, only four short years after the June 8 trip to St. Paul, Minnesota became the thirty-second state of the Union.

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© Minnesota Historical Society
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Babcock, Charles. "Rails West: The Rock Island Excursion of 1854 as Reported by Charles Babcock." Minnesota History 34, no. 4 (Winter 1954): 133–143.
http://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/34/v34i04p133-143.pdf

"The Great Excursion!" St. Paul Daily Minnesotian, June 5, 1854.

"The Great West." St. Paul Daily Minnesotian, July 11, 1854.

Petersen, Penny A., and Charlene K. Roise. "Merrily Over the Prairie: The Grand Excursion Ventures to Saint Anthony Falls." Minneapolis: Hess, Roise, 2004.
http://www.mnhs.org/places/safhb/pdf/researchReport/Grand%20Excursion%20Final%20Report.pdf

Peterson, William J. "The Rock Island Railroad Excursion of 1854." Minnesota History 15, no. 4 (December 1934): 405–420.
http://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/15/v15i04p405-420.pdf

Roseman, Curtis C. Grand Excursions on the Upper Mississippi River: Places, Landscapes, and Regional Identity After 1854. Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa Press, 2004.

Sedgwick, Catherine. "By Rail and River to Minnesota in 1854." Minnesota History 25, no. 2 (June 1944): 103–116.
http://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/25/v25i02p103-116.pdf

"The Railroad Excursion: The Great Excursion from Chicago to Rock Island - Letter V." New-York Daily Times, June 9, 1854.

Trimble, Steve. "'High and Dry on a Sandstone Cliff': St. Paul and the year of the Chicago and Rock Island's Great Railroad Excursion." Ramsey County History 39, no. 1 (Spring 2004): 4–19.

Related Images

Black and white photo print of a drawing the state capitol c.1853–1873.
Black and white photo print of a drawing the state capitol c.1853–1873.
Watercolor painting of an interior view of Fort Snelling made c.1853.
Watercolor painting of an interior view of Fort Snelling made c.1853.
Oil on canvas painting of Fort Snelling created c.1855.
Oil on canvas painting of Fort Snelling created c.1855.
Painting showing a view of St. Paul, 1855.
Painting showing a view of St. Paul, 1855.
Steamboats Itasca and War Eagle at the St. Paul levee, 1859.
Steamboats Itasca and War Eagle at the St. Paul levee, 1859.
Black and white photograph of St. Anthony Falls taken c.1860.
Black and white photograph of St. Anthony Falls taken c.1860.

Turning Point

On February 22, 1854, the Chicago and Rock Island Railroad completes the first rail line connecting the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River, opening the door for additional travel to the western territories.

Chronology

February 22, 1854
The Chicago and Rock Island Railroad complete its connection between the Atlantic Ocean and Mississippi River.
1854
The Chicago and Rock Island Railroad announce a "Great Excursion" to celebrate the completion of the rail line.
June 5, 1854
The Great Excursion departs Chicago by train. In the evening, the excursion party boards steamboats at Rock Island en route to St. Paul.
June 8, 1854
The excursion party arrives in St. Paul a day earlier than city officials expected.
June 10, 1854
The steamboats carrying the excursion party arrive back at Rock Island.
May 11, 1858
Minnesota becomes the thirty-second state in the Union.