By Gregg Hoffmann Special to Published Feb 17, 2004 at 5:30 AM

You might need an icebreaker to navigate sections of the Mississippi River in February, but by this summer steamboats will easily chug down the river in The Grand Excursion.

From June 24 through July 4, The Grand Flotilla will commemorate the original Grand Excursion of 1854. In that year, 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."

According to the Chicago Tribune, the excursionists, including 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 might have been 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.

Grand Excursion 2004 already is attracting the attention of the modern media, with dozens of requests for information and queries about credentials for the events.

The Excursion actually is going on all year, with more than 50 communities and dozens of organizations taking part. Hundreds of events are planned. St. Paul alone has 150 events.

An education program has been developed for more than 700 schools in the region. It concentrates on the lore, ecology and cultural resources of the Great River region.

It will be the 10-day Grand Flotilla that climaxes the celebration. About a dozen steams boats will form the largest flotilla in more than a century. Trains, powered by steam locomotives, will complement the steamboats.

Wisconsin communities participating in the Excursion and Flotilla include Potosi, Cassville, Prairie du Chien, Ferryville, De Soto, Genoa, Stoddard, La Crosse, Trempealeau, Fountain City, Alma, Nelson, Pepin, Stockholm, Maiden Rock, Bay City, Diamond Bluff and Prescott.

Some of these communities, as well as participating communities in Iowa, Minnesota and Illinois served as the first settlements in the Midwest. They are rich in history of fur trading, mining and other industries.

On June 26, historic Cassville, the home of the Stonefield State Historic Site, will hold the Mississippi River Festival. Only three days later, on June 29, a Grand Flotilla Party is planned from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Several special events are planned at Prairie du Chien and nearby Wyalusing State Park on July 3-4. In La Crosse, River Fest, a great annual event, will coincide with the Flotilla on June 29 through July 4.

If you want to go across the river, to the quaint town of McGregor, Iowa, you can take in a rodeo and a fiddle contest. A complete list of events can be found at

The steamboats and trains, and your own car, are not the only ways to participate in the Flotilla. The Grand Excursion Bike Ride will leave Rock Island, Ill., on June 27 and travel 400 miles to St. Paul. Overnight stops will coincide with the steamboats docking schedule to allow cyclists to enjoy the entertainment and other events.

The first Excursion was considered a great success from an economic development standpoint. 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."

But, this economic boom had its drawbacks. In an article entitled, "1854 Success Brings Trouble to the Upper Mississippi," an unknown author wrote, "'Publicity from the Grand Excursion drew eastern capital and tens of thousands of immigrants to the Upper Mississippi Valley. The year after the Excursion, steamboat traffic to Saint Paul doubled, flooding the Minnesota Territory with 30,000 new immigrants. With the increased population, Minnesota became a state in 1858.

"Prosperity was everywhere and growth in the Mississippi Valley was rampant. Cities grew pell-mell out from their riverfronts. Water transportation connected to equine highways, then railroads, and finally modern highways. Industry, eager for shipping access, grew up around the landings and new rail lines.

"Over time, this prosperity and growth separated cities from the Mississippi. The transportation corridors and industry walled off the river's edge. Raw sewage and industrial waste were discharged directly into the river. The riverfront changed from being communities' welcoming, hustle and bustle front door, to being their inaccessible, grimy and polluted back door.

"Now, communities are redefining and reclaiming their relationships with the Mississippi. Old industrial sites and abandoned rail yards are being reclaimed for river trails, parks, marinas and housing. Citizen and business groups and foundations are joining with government at all levels, to advocate for, and implement, riverfront renewal and redevelopment efforts, as waterfront resources are seen as keys to re-establishing vibrant communities for the 21st century."

Grand Excursion 2004 has the potential to celebrate the true grandness of the first Excursion, but also educate people to not repeat the mistakes of the past.

Group and individual tickets are on sale for the Flotilla and other events in the Excursion. Steamboat packages range from 11-day excursions on the famous Delta Queen or Mississippi Queen, to breakfast and dinner cruises on lesser known, but still wonderful boats.

Go to the Grand Excursion web site or call 1-866-GEX-2004, Ext. 3, for more ticket information.

Gregg Hoffmann writes monthly Beyond Milwaukee columns on interesting events, historic places, funky characters and tourist attractions in out-state Wisconsin and the Midwest.

Gregg Hoffmann Special to
Gregg Hoffmann is a veteran journalist, author and publisher of Midwest Diamond Report and Old School Collectibles Web sites. Hoffmann, a retired senior lecturer in journalism at UWM, writes The State Sports Buzz and Beyond Milwaukee on a monthly basis for OMC.