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It was 1854 when the 13th president of the United States (a hot dog and a slice of apple pie for you if the name "Millard Fillmore" immediately came to mind) received an invitation from the Rock Island Railroad: C'mon out West, Mr. President, and get a look at some of our country's most extraordinary human achievements and spectacular natural sights – on our dime!
The company was referring to the completion of the first continuous railroad connection linking the East Coast to the Mississippi River – and of course, to the Great River itself. More than 1,200 dignitaries, politicians, journalists, business leaders and artists joined Mr. Fillmore on the celebratory junket known as the Grand Excursion.
The revelers boarded a train in Chicago and traveled by rail to Rock Island, Illinois. They then walked the gangplanks to a fleet of steamboats and puffed up the Mississippi from Rock Island to St. Paul, Minn., and the Falls of Saint Anthony in Minneapolis, stopping at many riverfront towns en route. The ensuing publicity put the Mississippi's backwaters on the front pages of newspapers across the country, prompting investment dollars and thousands of new residents to flock to the area.
The Grand Excursion 2004 aims to recreate the excitement of that 150-year-old rail-and-river adventure. This year, four states (Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota), 50 upper Mississippi River communities, and scores of organizations have planned hundreds of special events, festivals, parades and programs showcasing riverfront improvements, pathways and tourist attractions to celebrate the region's renaissance. Visit Grand Excursion 2004 or call 1-866-GEX-2004 for the complete schedule.
The event to cap them all will be the Grand Flotilla, June 25-July 5. This eleven-day trip – from the Quad Cities to the Twin Cities – is expected to be the largest steamboat flotilla seen on the river in more than a century. The Delta Queen, Mississippi Queen, Julia Belle Swain, Spirit of Peoria, and the good ship Harriet Bishop (named for Minnesota's first schoolteacher) are a few of the notable paddlewheelers that will churn those muddy waters. The flotilla will be attended by an armada of pleasure craft, and steam locomotives will chug along overland on special excursion rides. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, day, moonlight and other special cruises can be booked on the steamboats in different ports of call.
Prairie du Chien, La Crosse and Pepin are Wisconsin's ports of call for the Grand Excursion, but there will be plenty of events in other riverfront communities to enjoy as well – such as Cassville's Flotilla Party on July 29, which promises some of the best views of the big boats as they pass through the narrow channel below scenic Riverside Park. As the steamboats near the docks of Prairie du Chien on the evening of the 29th, they'll be greeted by an Evening Glowceremony with illuminated hot air balloons and music. Another good viewing point: Lock & Dam #6 at Trempealeau on July 1. Upriver, Pepin plans a Minnow Race on July 1 and a Street Dance on July 2. An annual favorite, the La Crosse Riverfest, June 29-July 4, coincides with the Grand Excursion. You'll find plenty of food, entertainment, music and crafts – and you may even meet the Great River's most acclaimed scribe, Mark Twain, wryly commenting on the changeable nature of the Mississippi's currents. A grand excursion indeed!