News & Events
Discover Mid-America May 2004
A river excursion reflects the nations journey
Before the Civil War and the advent of the railroad, the nations great water—the Mississippi—was Americas connection to the vast natural resources of the upper continent. Steamboats ruled the heavy freight and passenger trade. For the foreseeable future, the riches were there for the taking and the riverboats would rule the waters.
But shortly before the Civil War, the arrival of the Chicago and Rock Island Railroad on the banks of the Mississippi River marked the beginning of what would be a precipitous slide in the fortunes of the riverboat trade. The railroads would take over—and focus the nations already westward looking vision firmly that direction.
And nothing was more fitting to illustrate this seminal event as the Grand Excursion, a celebration the Chicago and Rock Island sponsored in 1854 upon the completion of the track from Chicago to the Mississippi. Grand Excursion on the Upper Mississippi River is a compilation of thirteen essays covering the trip itself, the people who attended and their influence on the tastes of the nation of the day, and the actual physical and cultural geography of the river at the time of the excursion and their changes to the present.
Grand Excursions several authors make the book interesting reading, offering differing writing styles, voices and perspectives on a number of topics, all of which illuminate the Mississippi in a way thats rarely been done before. The book seldom (but sometimes) suffers the stiff writing that comes from professional historians. But the overall result is an all-encompassing view of the Mississippi as a cultural, commercial and environmental phenomenon.
Today, its difficult to appreciate what the Mississippi represented in terms of nature and natural resources at the time of the excursion. Besides those of commercial importance, a proliferation of specially adapted plant and animal species thrived in the pre-settlement riparian environment. Upland, the nations pineries once stood on whats now the wheat and corn fields of northern Illinois and Iowa and the livestock and row-crop farms of southern Wisconsin and Minnesota. Along the rivers banks, so much of the riverine landscape has been altered with towns and cities, extensive levees, farm fields and drainage ditches and industrial infrastructures. The river itself, from Minneapolis south, has been channeled and dammed with no less than 28 locks and dams, turning the river into a slow-moving chain of lakes.
But in 1854, when the Chicago and Rock Island Railroad assembled six hundred specially invited guests to ride its newly completed track from Chicago to Rock Island, things were much different. The landscape was touched, that was sure, but it still held the beauty and promise of its pre-settlement days. In this seeming wilderness, the guests would disembark their trains on the banks of the Mississippi and join others aboard steamboats to travel up the river past the junctions of the Wisconsin, Chippewa and St. Croix rivers to St. Paul. They would wine and dine in the small-but-bustling town and return a few days later to Chicago.
Initially, the Rock Island was billed as a way to establish the connection between the river and the citya way to bring the natural resources of the interior to market. But the lessons of eastern railroads had not been lost on the Rock Island investors and managers, many from the East. Railroads had not complimented with eastern river and canal resources. Being faster and more efficient in marketing and delivery of product, the eastern railways had effectively put state-sponsored canal companies out of business.
Out West, the railroad freed Americans from the river as a trade, settlement and travel route. In the East, there were often towns and settlements in frequent enough intervals to take care of the necessities of the steam locomotive. But in the prairies of Ohio and Illinois, the locomotives needs for frequent refueling and watering (every 7 to 15 miles), a railroad established new patterns of settlement.
The railroad, in short, created its own markets as it moved across the landscape. Within two decades, the nations settlement patterns had turned solidly West and river trade was essentially dead. Only when Roosevelts New Deal began to build locks and dams along the river did prop-driven tow boats begin move heavy freight between large cities on the river and usher in a new era of cultural, commercial and environmental change.
Grand Excursion is not only about a railroads inaugural celebration but also the striking expedition of a nation through the excitement and vagaries of its own development. The historians give insight into the changes modern society has wrought, from the end of the great log rafting days to the establishment of the nations first great river preserve on the upper Mississippi and modern commercial fishing in the river. Its a trip not to be missed.
Patrick Dobson is a journalist, poet, and freelance writer and editor based in Kansas City, MO. He publishes and edits the online literary magazine, the poetrysheet. His award-winning columns, editorials, and articles have appeared in PitchWeekly, eKC, and Discover Mid-America. His poetry and short stories have been published in the pages of The Kansas City Star, Review, Friction Magazine, Mid-America Poetry Review, The Same, and Thorny Locust. He is now pursuing a doctorate in history at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
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