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This content is shared with MinnPost by MNopedia, the digital encyclopedia created by the Minnesota Historical Society and supported by the Legacy Amendment’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.

167 years ago, the first rail link from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River was completed

To celebrate the feat, the Rock Island Railroad took a company of journalists and dignitaries on a rail and steamboat journey from the East Coast all the way to St. Paul.

painting of st. paul in 1855
Painting showing a view of St. Paul, 1855.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

On February 22, 1854, the Chicago and Rock Island Railroad completed the first rail line to connect the Mississippi River to the Atlantic Ocean. To promote that feat the company contacted notable East Coast citizens and journalists and invited them to ride their train to Rock Island. From there, the visitors took a steamboat trip up the Mississippi, stopping at St. Paul. The journalists, pleased with what they saw, wrote of the beauty and splendor of a region that many in the East thought was little more than a wilderness.

The event, which organizers hoped would convince guests to consider financial investment in the West, was a great success. About one thousand people attended. They took the train to Rock Island and climbed aboard one of several steamboats to travel into Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota Territory. The weather, apart from early thunderstorms and mugginess, was nearly perfect.

Within a short time the river party had made their way to St. Paul. Coming around the bend of the Mississippi to view the capital city, the passengers aboard the steamboats saw a place similar to their homes in the East. After seeing small communities along their route they now saw what would later be called the “New England to the West.”

They reached the landing at St. Paul at eight o’clock in the morning on June 8—a day earlier than they were expected to arrive. Within a short time they were greeted by a mob of carriages ready to take them on a tour of the area. The tour took the party in different directions, making stops at Bde Maka Ska (Lake Calhoun), Minnehaha Falls, the Falls of St. Anthony, Fountain Cave, and Fort Snelling. One of the highlights of the trip occurred at St. Anthony. The group performed a “mingling of the waters” ceremony, breaking a bottle filled with salt water carried from the Atlantic Ocean over a log to “mingle” it with the fresh waters of the Mississippi that flowed along the falls.

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They met back at St. Paul at around seven o’clock in the evening. Upon their return they were treated to a grand reception ball at the State Capitol. Many of the city’s elite citizens attended, including Henry Sibley and Governor Willis Gorman. Former President Millard Fillmore, a member of the touring party, thanked the hosts for their kindness and spoke highly of the promise of the area. Later that night the whistles from the steamboats blew and the tour began the trip back down the Mississippi.

Soon after the boats departed, newspapers around the country carried stories of the wonderful life that could be had in the West. Reporters wrote of the region’s untold beauty and unmatched opportunity and promoted it as a place for immigrants to consider as a new home. Newspaper editor Horace Greeley wrote in the New York Tribune of the West as a prosperous place with a bright future.

By joining the Mississippi to the Atlantic the railroad united what had been considered two separate regions of the country. Travelers from the East could now travel to western territories in days instead of weeks. This change opened the West to additional immigration. The flood of immigrants that arrived to the territory gave Minnesota a large-enough population to qualify for statehood. On May 11, 1858, only four short years after the June 8 trip to St. Paul, Minnesota became the thirty-second state of the Union.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.