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Rock Island throws a party
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A taste of 1854
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`Deafening acclamations' greeted the railroad in Rock Island

By John Beydler, Staff writer

Wednesday, Feb. 22, 1854 dawned sunny and cold in Rock Island. A chill wind blew off the Mississippi.

The city was abustle, nevertheless. The big day had arrived, as proclaimed on posters hanging from scores of buildings and posts: ``RAILROAD FESTIVAL.''

The first train on the newly completed tracks of The Chicago and Rock Island Railroad was to arrive at 5 p.m.

Photo/ Rock Island County Historical Society
The original Rock Island Rocket of 1852 ... it pulled the Rock's first train from Chicago to Joliet when that segment of track opened in 1852. It may also have pulled the first train into Rock Island Feb. 22, 1854.
At 4:30, the committee of welcome -- prominent men all -- was to assemble at the new depot, at what is now the northeast corner of 20th Street and 2nd Avenue. At 4:45, guests from Iowa were to assemble at the Rock Island House, the city's leading hotel, and then march to the depot.

The guests arriving on the train, from Chicago and points along the line, were to be welcomed with cannonfire and then shown to the dinner table set up at the depot. Then local residents with invitations were to be seated.

In the meantime, beginning at 2 p.m., the Rock Island House would be serving food free of charge to the general public.

After dinner, the assembled guests would march to the courthouse for the illumination of the cities -- lights would be set ablaze in houses and businesses on both sides of the river. Bonfires would mark the route.

Accounts of the day in several newspapers indicate the celebration was all its planners could have wished.

The editor of the Chicago Courant, who came over on the train, said its arrival was greeted by the ``deafening acclamations of the assembled thousands'' as well as ``joyful strains of music from the Moline Brass Band'' and ``the roar of Col. Swift's Chicago Artillery.''

Hundreds of people, many of whom ``had never seen even a picture of a locomotive,'' crowded around the engine, clambering over it and inspecting it minutely.

The dinner proceeded slowly, with many speeches and toasts -- to railroad builder Henry Farnam, the ``embodiment of the age''; to the ``nuptials of the Mississippi and the Atlantic''; to the citizens of Rock Island, to Davenport, to George Washington, to John Warner's bridge, to the states, to Irish laborers, to many other people, places and accomplishments.

The toasts were drunk, a Chicago paper noted, in ``honest tea and coffee,'' since ``alcohol was not permitted to poison'' the festivities.

Sated with food and satisfaction, the guests marched to the courthouse for the grand illumination of the cities, after which they dispersed to a round of parties before going to bed.

Profuse praise rained upon the party's planners during and after the day's events. The Chicago Democrat reported that the delegation from that city took time during its eight-hour journey home to organize a committee and draft a letter of thanks for the ``unmatched hospitality'' shown them in Rock Island.

The Feb. 22 celebration was but the ``local'' one. The ``national'' party came later, in the summer, when Mr. Farnam arranged the ``Grand Excursion.'' Hundreds of prominent easterners were taken by train to Rock Island, then up the Mississippi in steamboats, so as to impress them with both the railroad's accomplishments and the promise of the lands opened to development.

John Beydler is news editor of Quad-Cities Online.




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