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WisBiz In-Depth: Grand Excursion 2004 recreates historic trip down the Mississippi

By Gregg Hoffmann

One hundred and fifty years ago, an entourage of about 1,200 of the most influential business and political people in the country took a "Grand Excursion" by train and paddlewheels of the Mississippi River to see what business opportunities the frontier offered.

The flotilla was tied to the completion of the Chicago and Rock Island railroad line to the Mississippi, the first such line to extend from the East Coast to the river.

According to The Galena Jeffersonian, the excursion was held because of the "desire to make a thousand more or less men of capital and influence acquainted with the enchanting beauty, boundless resources and the unexampled prosperity of the Great West."

It worked. Millions of dollars of capital flowed to the region. The train, combined with steamboats up and down the river, helped open the Midwest and beyond to commerce never before seen.

In just a few days, Grand Excursion 2004 will see if it can rival the success of the original extravaganza. The Excursion will include steamboat paddlewheels, trains and bicycles involving more than 50 communities up and down the river.

"The first excursion was really to get writers and others to understand what was here and what were the business possibilities," said Tom Tourville, executive director of the La Crosse Convention and Visitors Bureau and chairman of the La Crosse Grand Excursion Committee. "So, the first Grand Excursion was very business driven, and to some degree so is Grand Excursion 2004."

The excursion will start June 25 in the Quad Cities area and run until July 5, when the steamboats dock in the Twin Cities. A Chicago-Rock Island steam engine train also will be part of the excursion, as will a 400-mile bike ride that starts June 27 in the Quad Cities.

More than $4 million in cash, direct in-kind support and pledges has been raised from corporations, foundations and other private and public sector organizations in what has been a three-year planning effort.

"Grand Excursion has generated about 30,000 ticket sales," said Patrick Seeb, executive director of the St. Paul Riverfront Corporation and CEO of the Grand Excursion. "We have travelers from all over the United States, Germany, Japan and elsewhere. The bulk, however, are from within a hundred miles or a little farther – Madison, Milwaukee, Chicago, Des Moines.

"The real impact will come through the introduction of this region as a destination to millions through the more than 400 newspaper, magazine and other media stories that have already been done."

Xcel Energy, Red Wing Shoes, Watkins and the Riverboat Development Authority are listed as Official Sponsors. Under foundation and corporate support, the St. Paul Foundation, 3M, St. Paul Riverfront Corp., Hamline University, F.R. Bigelow Foundation, the Mississippi River Trail, The McKnight Foundation and Weber Shandwick Worldwide are listed. Dozens of other supporters are involved.

Seeb said the idea for Grand Excursion really started in 1994, when St. Paul decided to reconnect with its riverfront.

"People had literally turned away from the river, with buildings that looked the other way and scrap iron dumps on the riverfront," Seeb said. "One scrap iron dump was listed as the fourth worst polluted piece of property in the state, and today expensive homes are being built on the cleaned up site."

Grand Excursion Inc., a non-profit corporation, was formed in 2001 and has coordinated the effort of the excursion.

Listed among the group's goals for the excursion are to celebrate what has already been done along the river, serve as a "catalyst for additional local and regional efforts" and engender partnerships between communities along the river. A main theme is "communities along the upper Mississippi River have begun reconnecting themselves to the river."

"If you total up all the work and redevelopment that has been done by the communities along the river, it comes to $5 billion," Seeb said. "This is all about partnerships, and about getting back in touch with the river."

Wisconsin Ports

The Delta Queen, Mississippi Queen, Harriet Bishop, Anson Northrup, Julia Belle Swain, Spirit of Peoria and Celebration Belle are included in what will be the biggest flotilla of steamboat paddlewheels on the river since 1854.

A variety of cruises has been offered on these boats, as well as special packages for the trains. Communities up and down the river are coordinating celebration events as the flotilla, train and bikes pass through.

One boat is expected to stop at Cassville in Wisconsin. La Crosse and Prairie du Chien are the main Wisconsin ports during the trip.

"Tourism is a signature piece, with the boats, the trains and the bikes," La Crosse's Tourville said. "But, from the start, it was meant to tell what we have been doing in the area of riverfront development.

"In La Crosse, we have spent $1.5 to $2 million at Riverside Park, the harbor and other development along the river. A lot of this is celebrating that.

"Since the Grand Excursion was announced, I think a lot of communities up and down the river decided they'd better get things done."

Prairie du Chien is one of those communities, according to Sharon Cuchna, executive director of Prairie du Chien Area Chamber of Commerce.

"We've done a lot with our riverfront over recent years," she said. "There is a baseball complex being developed down there, and the Dousman Hotel is being developed on Ferriole Island. There are many other things that have been done."

The excursion arrives in Prairie du Chien on Tuesday, June 29, and in La Crosse on Wednesday, June 30.

One of the sub-themes of this year's Grand Excursion is that business development can be done in harmony with the natural environment of the river. The first excursion virtually ignored that aspect. For this one, education packages were presented to schools up and down the river emphasizing both the history and environment.

"We are paying homage to the river, and giving it the honor and respect it deserves with this event," Seeb said.

Governors' Race

A highlight of the excursion in La Crosse will be a paddlewheel race between Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle at 5 p.m. on June 30.

"An important outcome of Grand Excursion has been the spirit of cooperation and partnerships that have been forged among Mississippi River states and communities," said Pawlenty, who will be on the Harriet Bishop. "I look forward to a little healthy competition on the river."

Doyle said, "I look forward to this challenge with Gov. Pawlenty and will be proud to be on board the La Crosse Queen, one of our finest vessels."

The winner will receive a broom, a traditional trophy for steamboat races.

Tourville said the exact financial impact on La Crosse is impossible to project. "As for exact figures in economic impact, ask me the day after it's over," he said. "We're already getting a lot of media attention, and there are formulas you can use to put a price on column inches you receive. This is an opportunity to showcase the community.

"We've had a 25-person committee for two-and-a-half years planning this. That's a lot of work for what amounts to a day-and-a-half event. But, we feel it is a great opportunity to showcase our community and the river to others, and frankly to ourselves – those who live in the region."

Prairie du Chien's Cuchna said, "We feel the impact of auto travelers will be far greater than those coming on the river, but are looking to cater to both.

"Whether it's providing a bottle of water or gas or a night's accommodation, our local businesses will be impacted. We're looking to emphasize returning to the area. We're telling people you can't see it all in a day, so come back and explore further.

"We also are working closely with towns in Iowa across the river. We emphasize to not let the river divide us, but to have it unite us."

Highlights of the Prairie du Chien portion of Grand Excursion will be hot air balloons over the river and entertainment and programs at Villa Louis and Fort Crawford.

Cuchna emphasized that the wet spring has the water on the river high, but it should not interfere with any of the events or the flotilla.

Information on events in Prairie du Chien, La Crosse and other communities along the river can be found at http://www.grandexcursion.com.

--Hoffmann is a veteran journalist and former writer of the Milwaukee Insight column for WisPolitics.com. Hoffmann, now a resident of Westby, writes WisBiz In-Depth on statewide business stories.


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