IAGenWeb Project

 Iowa History

       An IAGenWeb Special Project



Stories of Life on the Rivers





  Written in Commemoration of Seventieth Anniversary of Great Rock Island Rail 
System—River Craft that co-operated in the Celebration of 68 Years Ago  


Fred A. Bill


Saturday Evening Post
Burlington, Iowa  




Transcribed by 


   An article in the Post recently to the effect that the Chicago , Rock Island & pacific Railway Company would this year celebrate its 70th anniversary, reminded us of the famous excursion made in June 1854 on the opening of the road to Rock Island from Chicago .


   Captain Russell Bleakely in his “Advent of Commerce in Minnesota,” in Minnesota Historical collections, Vol.  VIII, Part 3, says

Mr. Henry U. Farnham, of the firm of Sheffield & Farnham, contractors for the construction of the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railway, asked that some one from the Packet Company visit Chicago at the annual meeting of the stockholders of the C. R. E. & P. RR. In the winter (1853-4) prepared to make some arrangement to furnish a line connection from Rock Island to Galena and upper river points, as the railroad would be finished in the spring of 1854.  I made the visit and concluded the arrangement for business as soon as the road should be completed.


“While the conversation about the line to meet them progressed, it became known that we were building two new and very nice boats for business the next summer; and the inquiry was, can you promise us the exclusive charter of one of these new boats to take ourselves, families and friends to St. Paul and back in pleasant high water season?  I replied, “Most certainly, at anytime that suits your convenience, if you give us a week’s notice.”  They promised to give notice in due time.


  “Later Mr. Farnham gave notice that the invited guests on the excursion would exceed the number contemplated, and asked us to be prepared to send two of our packets to the party, but a little later he asked another, and finally the number was increased to five boats.”



   The boats furnished were the Golden Era, Capt. Hiram Bersie, G. W. Sparhawk, Capt. Montreville Green; Lady Franklin, Capt. Le Grand Morehouse, from the Galena & St. Louis Line, and the War Eagle, Capt. D. S. Harris, Galena, Capt D. B. Morehouse from the galena St. Paul Packet Co.


   So far as we know only one man of the crews of these five boats is alive today.  That man is William R. Tibals, Dubuque , Iowa , now hale and hearty and 90 years “young” June 07, 1922.  The Capt. Was then a cub pilot on the Galena and made the entire round trip.


   According to the published account in the papers at the time, the excursion left Chicago at 8:00 o’clock a. m. on Monday, June 5, 1854, 1000 strong in 9 coaches and arrived at Rock Island at 5:00 p. m. same day.


   Left Rock Island same evening and arrived at Galena Tuesday morning.  Here in spite of inclement weather there was a large crowd assembled.  Many of the excursions were driven to the lead mines and an address was made by Captain Gear, one of Galena ’s early settlers.  Responses were made by Ex-President Fillmore, Judge N. K. Hall and Professor Sillman, of Yale.  


  At Dubuque, crowd nor demonstration was expected on arrival late in the afternoon, the whole population seemed to have turned out, in spite of the rain, and the city was decorated with flags and bunting.  The people cheered and the canon boomed and there were more speeches.


  On leaving Dubuque the Galena and Golden Era were lashed together.  Some sections of the boils deck railing on each beat were removed and a gangway constructed so the people could easily pass from one boat to the other.


   A short stop was made at La Crosse and the next stop was at Tempealeau, then the largest village between La Cross and St. Paul, while Ex-President Fillmore was addressing the people his daughter went ashore and Captain Tibals says:  “Miss Fillmore was seen talking to a man on a horse.  In a moment he got off the horse held out his hand and Miss Fillmore put her foot in it and was mounted on the horse threw her leg over the horn of the saddle and rode off.


   Every one thought she was going to look at the village but in a short time she came in sight at the top of a high bluff that stands just above Tempaleau and waved her handkerchief.  All the boats saluted her by blowing their whistles.


   “Miss Fillmore told me the sight from the top of the bluff was the finest she ever saw.  She could see for many miles up and down the river and it seemed to her to be all island and she did not see how in the world the pilots found their way thru the myriad of channels, all seemingly alike. The river at that time was very high which added much to the grandeur of the scene.


   “Just as we were leaving a young man drove to the landing in a small spring wagon in which were two bushels of speckled trout which were taken on board and proved a rare treat to the excursionists.


   We, next learned at Holmes Landing, now Fountain City , Wis. , where a speech was made in German by whom I do not know.”


   The Minnesota Pioneer of Thursday morning, June 8, 1854, is the editorial column gives notice the committee of arrangements as to the excursion which was known as “Guests of the Rock Island Railroad company” which was expected to arrive on Friday morning 9th inst.  Among other things in the way of entertainment there was to be a “Grand Ball” at the Capital, Tickets to same $5.00, admitting one gentleman and two ladies, with refreshments to be served by the committee. Six prominent citizens were appointed as floor managers and six other prominent citizens were appointed as a committee to “attend the guests from the boats to the Capitol”, which building seemed to be the rendezvous for the entire outfit.  The citizens of St. Paul and St. Anthony were requested to “tender the use of there carriages and wagons” for the guests.


   The boats reached St. Paul about 8:00 o’clock on Thursday morning, June 8th, and made a fine appearance on coming in, being as the Daily Minnesotan put it: “so arranged that they approached in order as regular as though they were an armed squadron taking their positions in line of battle.  Two full bands of music were on board, both of which struck up lively airs as the boats neared the landing.”  


  That the excursion arrived nearly 24 hours ahead of time was greatly regretted as the committee did not have its plans fully perfected but it made the best of a rather embarrassing situation and time did not hang heavily on the hands of the excursionists.  They were escorted about town and driven to St. Anthony Falls , and shown the beauties of the surrounding country.  


  The “Grand Ball” was the event and came off in fine style.  General Sibley called the assembly to order and Governor Gorman made a welcoming speech which was responded to by Ex-President Fillmore and Historian Bancroft.  The governor spoke of the manner in which National affairs had been handled by the Fillmore Administration to the east.  He also thanked the contractors for the enterprise and magnificence with which the plans of the excursion had been originated and successfully carried out.  Mr. Fillmore thanked the people of Minnesota for the cordial welcome given the excursionists and spoke of the adaptation of St. Paul as a summer place of fashionable resort and believed it would eventually be connected in an unbroken chain of railway with the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.  He would go home with enlarged ideas of the future greatness of Minnesota .  Mr. Bancroft said the country of the Mississippi valley was incomparable in scenery and promise and in most eloquent style delineated its past and enlarged on its present and its future.  


   Dancing was kept up until a late hour when the guests returned to their steamers and soon started on their homeward trip and the people of St. Paul went to their homes, all delighted with the rare entertainment enjoyed.  


  The Daily Pioneer, with true Minnesota enterprise, issued its Friday morning June 9th, paper in time for the excursionists to take along numerous copies as souvenirs of the occasion.  


  According to the Daily times, of St. Paul , in its issue of June 9, 1854, the boats all left the upper levee at St. Paul for Fort Snelling at 5:00 p. m. and returned at 7:00.  some of the excursionists went to the Fort by team, via St. Anthony, and all had an enjoyable trip weather by boat or land conveyance.


  The grand reception to the excursionists was held in the council Chamber of the Capitol; refreshments were served in the Hall of the House of Representatives and dancing was in another room in the building.  


  The Times was editorially in its issue of Saturday, June 10th under the heading “They Have Gone”.  “The guests of the Rock Island Railroad Co. have come and gone.  Unexpectedly rushing upon us like a whirlwind they took us by surprise but our citizens were equal to the emergency and deported themselves in a manner highly creditable to out city and Territory.  It is seldom that so large a gathering, composed of so much wealth, beauty, talent and refinement is seen outside our great cities or fashionable watering places and it is certainly a rare thing in the history of the North-West, to find men of mind, men of political distinction, men of enterprise eager to visit this hyperborean region.


   “A new era is truly dawning upon us, an era heralding tidings of joy, for if anything will induce capitalists to invest money in railroads whose continuous chain shall connect us with the east, it is a thorough knowledge of our territory and that knowledge we trust has been gained and will be disseminated throughout the land.”


  Everyone regretted that the stay of the party was so short.   In fact, the people were just about awake to what was going on when the party left.


  The pioneer in its issue of Saturday, June 10th, commented on the immense value the excursion would be to this section and gave due credit to Messr. Henry Farnham and Joseph E. Sheffield the contractors who built the Rock Island road and who were responsible for the excursion, and on the immense value that would accrue to this section from the excursion and sums up as follows:  “More will be known abut Minnesota in the eastern and middle states in the nest 90 days thru this instrumentality than would otherwise have been in ten years.  We look upon it as a means for accelerating our settlement by increased immigration and influx of capital, to an extent beyond any thing in our past history, and with a rapidity that will exceed the anticipations of even the most sanguine among us.  The prediction was prophetic.  That is just what happened.


  According to an article in the Chicago Democrat the party there left St. Paul at 11:00 o’clock P. M. on Thursday, 8th , and reached Chicago at 5:00 P. M. the Saturday following, after a delightful trip down the river During the entire trip everything passed pleasantly and to the satisfaction of the whole party.  At Rock Island the War Eagle was chartered by a number of excursionists who desired to visit St. Louis.


   On the down trip meetings of the excursionists were held on each boat and resolutions passed and in some instances presents made to the boat or the captain thereof.  A couple of these resolutions may not be out of place in this article:  resolved:  that we have now seen with a joy which we cannot adequately express, and with new feelings of exultation in the grandeur and destiny of our common country, the exquisite and varied beauty and the boundless physical resources and capabilities of the region thru which we have passed; that we contemplate the multiplying population and the growing power and richness of the new states not with any sentiments of rivalry, but with gratitude to the God of our fathers, who endowed them with their foresight, and has rewarded their labor and self-sacrifice by giving to their children so goodly a heritage, and that the cheering welcome and the lavish hospitality which we have everywhere met from the pioneers of the advancing millions with which this region is to team, demand and receive from us a hearty acknowledgment.  

Third and Final Installment  


  On the down trip meetings of the excursionists were held on each boat and resolutions passed and in some instances presents made to the boat or the captain there of.  A couple of these resolutions may not be out of place in this article:

Resolved:  that we have now seen with a joy which we cannot adequately express, and with new feelings of exultation in its grandeur and destiny of our common country, the exquisite and varied beauty and the boundless physical resources and capabilities of the regions thru which we have passed; that we contemplate the multiplying population and the growing power and richness of the new States, not with any sentiment of rivalry but with gratitude to the God of our Fathers, who endowed them with their children so goodly a heritage, and that the cheering welcome and the lavish hospitality which we have everywhere met from the pioneers of the advancing millions with which the region is to teem, demand and receive from us a hearty acknowledgment.

  Resolved:  That especially in times, when the question of man’s capacity to govern himself, and a man’s invaluable and sacred right of Freedom, is assuming so great importance in every port of the civilized world, we rejoice that here is so fair a field for the demonstration of what perfect liberty and perfect civil equality, under the light of Christianity and aided by the inventions of science and the universal diffusion of knowledge, can do for the elevation and advancement of the human race, and we pledge ourselves o do what in us lies for the development of these great resources, and the perpetuation of the institutions bequeathed to us by our freedom loving ancestors.  


  The St. Anthony Falls express, a weekly paper published at that place in its issue of Saturday June 10, 1854, editorially comments on the size of the excursion and the great liberality of the Railroad company in getting up the excursion and giving an opportunity for as many people from the east to see the wonderful North-West and says:  “There cannot be a doubt that but that the 475,000 put into this excursion will prove a profitable investment.”  


  “The immediate effect of this visit from so many men who give tone to public opinion, cannot but greatly stimulate the development of our resources.  A thousand false impressions and erroneous pleas, in regard to territory, have been removed and corrected and these erroneous views proved a serious obstacle to out rapid progress.”


  Columns of matter in the eastern papers followed the excursion, and the comments were all favorable, if we can believe the Minnesota papers.


  Just how many were on the excursion we do not know as the full list was not published.  The papers gave the names of some seventy or eighty prominent people, among were Ex-President Millard Fillmore, son and daughter, Ex-Postmaster General M. R. Hall and family, Francis P. Blair, of Virginia Francis P. Blair Jr. of St. Louis; Wm. Redfield, and representatives from over forty prominent newspapers of the country including Chas. A. Dana, New York sun; Samuel Bowles, Springfield, Mass., Republican, and J. H. Sanford, New Your Journal of commerce.


  “I arrived in Galena only a short time after the excursion, when I learned of the grand success that had attended the effort to accommodate this host of the most noted ladies and gentlemen of the nation, with five of the best boats on the river between St. Louis and St. Pau, under the care of the most experienced captains and crews in the trade.  You may ell believe but you cannot realize, my feeling of relief to find this distinguished party in the hands of men so capable; and on board boats that I would not only carry and return them safe, but in the greatest comfort then known to steamboat travel on the Mississippi River.”  “It was said at the time that this was an advertising dodge to influence immigration.  There is no truth in such a supposition, but the success of this visit, and the character of the people, especially the editors, of the daily press of the country, did more than the best laid plan for advertising the country that has ever been made since, as the great paper of the day and the magazines of the country were all full of the most laudatory literature in relation to the country, the scenery on the river and the pleasure and comfort of the journey.  Good results came back to us in a thousand ways and for many years, as immigration commenced to turn its attention to Minnesota .”  


Fred A. Bill


back to History Index