Grand Excursion: big Mississippi River party

Thanks to Millard Fillmore, expect a huge surge of activity on the Mississippi River next summer. One of the 13th president’s biggest parties, with the Rock Island Railroad Company, occurred there almost 150 years ago.

Now more than 50 riverfront communities are preparing for a high-profile re-enactment. There will be hundreds of events to attract tourists who float or drive upward, from the Quad Cities of Iowa/Illinois to the Twin Cities of Minnesota, from June 25 to July 4.

I’m telling you about this now so you can set aside the dates and plan for it.

Grand Excursion 2004 – called “a celebration so big, it takes one river and four states to hold it” – will be a flotilla of steamboats and other watercraft that will retrace the route that Fillmore and about 1,200 others took to celebrate commerce and transportation growth in 1854.

They rode the first continuous railroad connection from the East Coast to the Mississippi River. Then they boarded five steamboats and headed north.

Although scenic train rides from Chicago to Rock Island, Ill., are a part of Grand Excursion 2004, the bigger attraction will be 400 miles of riverfront activity.

Around 60,000 people are expected to go along for at least a part of the same river ride, even if it’s for just a one-hour harbor excursion in one of the port communities.

Seven riverboats and steamboats – including the 1925 Delta Queen, a National Historic Landmark that holds 174 passengers – will be a part of the flotilla.

Planning for this extravaganza began with the establishment of Grand Excursion Inc. in 2001. It is a non-profit entity that encourages a reconnection with the water, and a revitalization of riverfront communities. It all culminates with the summer flotilla.

So far, 17 Wisconsin communities are participating in the initiative, from Postosi to Prescott. It is a rare opportunity to put tiny, lower-profile places in the spotlight; Trempealeau, population 1,400, is one example.

Russ Stevens, a retired teacher and principal, is coordinating events there. “We want people to feel welcome,” he says, also noting that Trempealeau County will be 150 years old next year. “Even though the boats won’t let people off here (because boat landings aren’t large enough), they have to stop to go through the lock and dam, so what we do will be noticed.”

Russ considers his community to be a good place to watch the boats pass through and says that will happen June 29 to July 1. “We have some of the best viewing spots, up on the bluffs.”

Back in 1854, the flotilla stopped in Trempealeau for a refueling of the steamboats – a “wooding up” that gave the president’s 22-year-old daughter a chance to show her wild side. Abby Fillmore mingled with the locals, took someone’s horse for a ride, then waved at the crowd from the top of a 520-foot bluff above the village.

“You could never get a horse up there now,” Russ says. “It’s too rocky.” So when locals stage re-enactments of the ride next summer, they will use different horses and actresses in two locations.

“We think the small communities will be a great alternative to the crowds” that will gather in the larger riverfront cities, Russ says. So tents will be put up 10-12 days earlier than usual for Catfish Days (an annual event that is the first weekend after July 4).

Tents will be packed with river history – artifacts, folk singers, river-rats who tell stories.

Russ says 25-40 people meet monthly to plan Trempealeau’s Grand Excursion events, which also will include a variety show and a historical rendezvous encampment. “One of our challenges is to come up with something to give people on the boats,” he says. In 1854, it was … speckled trout.

The flotilla’s destination is the Port of St. Paul, where it’s expected to arrive July 3, then the Falls of St. Anthony in Minneapolis. One of the many activities in the Twin Cities will be an expanded version of the annual Taste of Minnesota.

“Without a doubt, Grand Excursion will be one of the biggest summer events that St. Paul has ever hosted,” says city tourism spokesman Brad Toll.

Throughout the 400-mile route, water excursions will depend upon the type of watercraft, cruise duration and where you board along the river. An all-inclusive, 11-night Mississippi Queen or Delta Queen cruise from St. Louis to St. Paul can cost up to $5,115. A one-hour harbor cruise on a smaller riverboat will cost $24.

Two bookings for boats giving rides from Red Wing, Minn., to St. Paul already are full. Until Oct. 31, there is a 2-for-1 discount for booking the 11-day cruise; call (800) 543-1949 or visit www.deltaqueen.com.

For more about Grand Excursion 2004, go to www.grandexcursion.com or call (866) 439-2004. The number of community events listed online is extensive – no, dizzying – and this is also where river excursion tickets can be purchased.

It will be a dynamic celebration of pride and prosperity along the Upper Mississippi. In total, $3 billion has been spent to improve riverfronts and river communities.

That includes modest boat landing improvements in small towns as well as major development endeavors, like the $188 million project in Dubuque, Iowa, that includes a new Mississippi River museum and aquarium.

In Minneapolis, projects have included the newly opened Mill City Museum.