Where nature smiles three hundred miles: Rail travel along the river

Jeff Crump

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

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At the time of the Grand Excursion in 1854, the scenery of the Upper Mississippi River presented the excursionists with a landscape that was seen as both picturesque and primitive. Yet even as they admired the untamed landscape of the Upper Mississippi, many of the travelers speculated on the future of the country and of the potential profits to be gained by its rapid settlement. Indeed, the Grand Excursion began as a railroad journey from Chicago to Rock Island and was sponsored and paid for by the Rock Island Railroad, a company that had a vested interest in promoting the development of the region. Even as the steamboats moved slowly upstream, railroad promoters planned to build tracks for the Iron Horse along the banks of the great river. Not long after the 1854 excursion, railroads became the major engines of economic, social, and cultural change along the river. Eastern capital in the form of rails and trains funneled people and goods along its banks and the railroad formed the backbone of economic development of the region. Yet the railroad was more than just a way to get from one place to another. In its heyday, the railroad represented the finest achievements of modern engineering and technology. Railroad engineers were the most heroic figures of their time and the trains they drove caused many a young man's heart to beat faster, moving with the rhythm of the rails. As described by landscape historian John R. Stilgoe, "For the small boy, grasping his father's hand as the crack express thundered past . . . the train existed as fiercely directed energy, as power magnified almost beyond comprehension."1 Riding on the railroad gave passengers a new experience of time and space. First of all, the sheer speed of train travel brought places closer together. As the speed and comfort of rail travel increased, rural residents of the Upper Mississippi region found that the burgeoning cities of Chicago and St. Paul were just a few hours away. Once aboard the train, passengers also experienced a new way of seeing the landscape. Viewing the landscape passing by at high speeds created a distancing effect for most passengers. As Stilgoe comments, "train travel provided a distinctive, almost cinemagraphic vision of the . . . environment beyond the plate glass windows."2 The passenger trains run by the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy (CB&Q) were emblematic of modern rail travel. During the heyday of the streamlined passenger train (1935-1960), the scenic route of the CB&Q along the Upper Mississippi River carried the most modern passenger trains ever seen. Among the Q's most famous trains was the Twin Cities Zephyr, connecting the Twin Cities to Chicago and making the 427-mile trip in six hours and fifteen minutes. One chronicler concluded: "Of Burlington Route you can truly say, it had sizzle. And no trains exemplified the Q's hustle and glamour more than the Twin Cities Zephyrs . . . between Chicago and Minneapolis."3 Other fast and luxurious passenger trains traveled the scenic Mississippi River route as well. The Great Northern's Empire Builder, the Northern Pacific's Mainstreeter, and the Milwaukee Road's Olympian Hiawatha, which crossed the Mississippi at La Crosse and reached the Twin Cities by traveling along the west bank of the river, also carried their customers at high speeds in unparalleled style and comfort. Although the streamlined passenger train was a new element in the landscape of the Upper Mississippi River Valley, the thrill of an excursion along the scenic valley remained timeless. Reflecting on the original 1854 Grand Excursion, William J. Petersen concluded that "promenading on deck and allowing the ever changing landscape to 'daguerreotype new pictures on the mind' formed the principle pastime for most of the travelers."4 The attraction of the landscape along the river was much the same among rail travelers in later times. This essay tells the story of passenger rail travel along the Upper Mississippi River at the height of the streamline era. It covers the years between the introduction of the streamliners in the mid 1930s to the end of the era in the 1960s. First, I discuss the development of the railway lines that paralleled the Upper Mississippi River, then, I examine the evolution of the streamlined passenger trains used by the CB&Q. To conclude, I present the voices of some of those who traveled and worked on the railroad.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationGrand Excursions on The Upper Mississippi River
Subtitle of host publicationPlaces, Landscapes, and Regional Identity after 1854
PublisherUniversity of Iowa Press
Number of pages16
ISBN (Print)9780877458852
StatePublished - 2004


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