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The 1854 Grand Excursion train route from Chicago to Rock Island went through the uncut prairie that in June was alive with wild purple cone flowers and black-eyed Susans, buttercups and marsh marigolds. One newspaper reporter on the Excursion described the prairie grass -- horse-high and waving in the wind -- as "the swell of a mighty ocean." This terrain was so very different from that in New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts, where most of the Excursionists were from. The New Haven newsman reported that the Easterners were surprised by the number of thriving Illinois towns along the route and specifically noted: "Joliet, Ottawa, Peru, Sheffield and Geneseo."
It has been stated that the Grand Excursion included the largest collection of prominent people to visit this part of Illinois at one time. Ex-President Millard Fillmore had plenty of politicians to debate: two Presidential candidates - John Parker Hale and Samuel J. Tilden - three U.S. Postmasters General, three U.S. Senators, eight Governors, four Lt. Governors, fourteen members of state legislatures, and ten mayors.
On the train with this collection of dignitaries, was Henry Farnam, who with Joseph E Sheffield, had built the Chicago & Rock Island Railroad and he invited these people to the all-expense-paid Grand Excursion to view their new railroad and to experience what was then the Western Frontier. Both men were from New Haven, Connecticut; Sheffield, the financier and ten years older than Farnam, chose not to attend the Grand Excursion. Farnam, the civil engineer, on the other hand, brought with him his wife, son George, and infant son Henry Walcott Farnam. Millard Fillmore's son Millard and daughter Mary Abigail accompanied him on the trip, his wife having died a few months before the excursion.
When they stopped for coal and water at Sheffield, IL, Farnam remembered that he and Joseph Sheffield had created this town two years earlier to supply coal for their trains and had flipped a coin to determined if the town would be named Farnam or Sheffield. Looking through the crowd at Sheffield, Farnam thought he had caught sight of Theodore B. Webb of Buda, who had driven an ox team and hauled the dimension timbers for all the work on the rail line between Tiskilwa and Annawan.
By late afternoon when the trains arrived at Geneseo, the Excursionists had been traveling for 5 hours and were getting hungry, having had only a box lunch at Sheffield. At each of the towns on the 181-mile route to Rock Island, they waved to the onlookers, who in turn shouted as they fluttered flags and fired off cannons. It was an exciting, historic day.
The Geneseo Republic reported that, "Every Person in [Geneseo] and surrounding countryside, it seemed, was there to see the historic event. As the train moved in, the engineer rang his bell madly and blew a blast on his whistle. The throng of people tumbled over each other backward in trying not to get away from this monstrous thing alive."
From the train window, Henry Farnam, the Excursion host, saw the Geneseo depot sign and he probably began to scan the crowd for people he knew there. Maj. James M. Allen, one of the 1836 settlers, had been a legislator in Springfield and it his memoir recorded his efforts to secure from the Illinois legislature the charter fro the Chicago & RI Railroad.
Farnam also might have looked for Samuel B. Reed, the railroad's civil Engineer who had been sent by the company to take charge of the division that laid tracks to Geneseo. he would become the chief civil engineer of the Union Pacific until it joined the Central Pacific at Promontory, Utah, May 10th 1869. In Geneseo, Samuel Reed met Miss Jane Eliza Earl, who had only recently arrived from Pennsylvania to become one of the assistants at the Geneseo Seminary, and taught "French, painting, drawing and ordinary English branches." She and Samuel Reed were now engaged and would marry in Geneseo in 1855.
As the train left Geneseo behind and continued on the last 25 miles to Rock Island, the Excursionists anxiously looked forward to seeing for the first time the Mississippi River, the subject of so many travel books. Most had never seen the "Father of Waters," and none would have been to the Minnesota Territory. An adventure lay ahead of them. It was not by accident that over 50 newspaper reporters had been invited on this trip. Each would send back daily news reports of what they did and saw on the Excursion - Free advertising for the railroad and the Western Frontier.
On June 5 1854 the train arrives in Geneseo, marking the beginning of a new era for Geneseoans.
For more information please visit the Library and pick up your copy of Victorian Geneseo "The Train is Coming."
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