Origins of the “Crazy Idea”:

How the Grand Excursion Concept Was Born

A Memoir by Mark Vander Schaaf

September 8, 2001

With a Postscript - September 22, 2001

 

 

 

On June 30, 1994, I sent a memo to Dick Broeker, then president of the Saint Paul Riverfront Corporation, proposing a 2004 reenactment of an obscure historical event from the mid-nineteenth century.  The Grand Excursion of 1854, although nearly completely forgotten in 1994, was famous in its time.  Arguably the most spectacular tourist and visitor event in pre-Civil War U.S. history, the 1854 excursion celebrated the completion of the railroad to the Mississippi River with a steamboat flotilla trip by 1,200 East Coast VIPs from Rock Island, Illinois to Saint Paul.

 

Knowing of the Riverfront Corporation’s ten-year planning horizon for revitalization efforts in Saint Paul, I suggested that an appropriate way to celebrate the completion of ten year’s worth of projects would be with a new Grand Excursion.  Fatefully, I also volunteered to head up a committee to begin planning for Grand Excursion 2004.  Dick Broeker’s response was immediate and positive: “We’re going to do it – and you’re going to head up the committee!” were the words I recall on my voicemail the day after Dick received the memo.

 

Seven years later it became apparent that for a long time after 1994 there were few people other than Dick Broeker who believed that Grand Excursion 2004 would come about.  But by early 2001 there was a strong regional consensus to move ahead with Grand Excursion 2004.  The original proposal was a “crazy idea” that magically became drawn into an “irresistible current” with a life of its own (cf. “Here Comes Saint Paul,” Songs for Saint Paul compact disc, 2001; Ron Clark, “Grand Excursion Caught in Irresistible Current,” Saint Paul Pioneer Press, July 15, 2001).

 

The story of how the Grand Excursion 2004 concept journeyed from “crazy idea” to “caught in irresistible current” is a fascinating one that is well-documented and will no doubt be told in detail someday.  This memoir looks in a different direction.  Several times in the past year I have been asked how I got the idea for the Grand Excursion.  After telling the story to Riverfront Corporation staff Patrick Seeb and Chris Oshikata in an impromptu dessert at a Saint Paul sidewalk café, they encouraged me to put together this memoir to preserve the story for posterity.

 

Far from being a spontaneous insight, the Grand Excursion proposal of 1994 had roots stretching back more than a dozen years.  Indeed, the Grand Excursion concept evolved in four phases: (1) 1981: “The City” Proposal for a College Seminar; (2) 1985: Exposure to the “Circle City” Concept;  (3) 1991: “Nature and the City” Study Group; and

(4) 1993: “What Makes a City: Myth and Maps” Conference of the Placeways Institute. 

 

 

1981: “The City” Proposal

 

In the summer of 1981, I had just completed my second year as an assistant professor of general studies at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa.  I spent most of my first two years at Northwestern establishing my core competency as a teacher of interdisciplinary humanities courses for college freshmen.  In 1981, academic dean Harold Heie awarded me some grant money to stretch my imagination, to travel, and to develop some advanced seminars for college seniors.

 

Of the three seminars developed that summer, the one that most excited me was my proposal for an interdisciplinary course on the city.  This seminar would address urban problems and their solutions by drawing not only on the social sciences, the conventional source of wisdom regarding cities, but also the humanities.  In today’s language, I was contemplating the intersection between spirituality and the city – with spirituality understood as it typically is today, as a non-doctrinal sense of the sacred in the everyday things of life. 

 

My interest in this intersection stretched back many years before 1981.  At the green age of 13, when I was in eighth grade, I heard a presentation on city planning as a potential career and decided then and there that I wanted to be a planner.  This remained my career goal all through high school and even as an undergraduate – first at Iowa State University and then at Swarthmore College where I transferred after my sophomore year.  However, I was also convinced that city planners needed a well-rounded liberal arts education before specializing in their discipline at the graduate school level.  Consequently, I majored in history at Swarthmore, although with a self-defined urban studies concentration.

 

Although I was intending to go directly from Swarthmore to a planning graduate program, I ended up taking a long detour into this career (which I eventually entered 14 years later in 1986 – but more on that in a few pages).   The branch of history that I learned to love the most was intellectual history; and the branch of intellectual history that especially fascinated me was the history of theology and religious thought.  In the summer of the year after graduating from college, I decided to keep pursuing that interest by enrolling in the School of Religion at the University of Iowa.  Seven years later, in 1979, I had my Ph.D. and by then had come to expect a career of teaching, not city planning.

 

In retrospect, the very long detour through Iowa’s School of Religion and four years as a humanities professor at Northwestern College was fruitful for my eventual city planning career – and certainly contributed to the birth of the Grand Excursion idea.  Several lessons learned in my detour have remained with me through life.  One is that the most powerful force in forming, sustaining and transforming communities is a good story.  Theologians call such a story a “myth” – meaning a deeply true story.  This theological usage is the opposite of the common meaning of myth as a completely false statement.  A good myth tells people where they are coming from and where they are going; it reveals what ails a community, and also points toward the cure for the ailment.

 

In the mid-twentieth century, some students of religion began to extend this notion of myth beyond the confines of traditional religious systems into an analysis of secular societies as well.  The idea of an “American Civil Religion” was developed, with a focus on the common beliefs and values that unite a society composed of diverse institutions and committed to separating the spheres of church and state.  Within this diversity, most Americans are nevertheless united by a common sense of divine purpose – to serve as a “light to nations” in order to spread the benefits of liberty throughout the world.  Crucial moments in American history become powerful and useful to our common life by taking on “mythic” overtones – Washington at Valley Forge, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, Martin Luther King’s speech at the Lincoln Memorial.  These stories and many more are deeply true stories that tell us as Americans where we are coming from and where we are going, that reveal what ails us as a nation and what we must do to be healed.

 

When I began my teaching career at Northwestern College, I found this notion of the mythical underpinnings of civil society to be a valuable teaching construct.  Specifically, I was charged with bringing coherence to an interdisciplinary course on Ancient Greece and Rome.  The course that I inherited featured a loosely coordinated variety of lectures on a huge smorgasbord of topics.  Students rightfully resented this approach and in their evaluations indicated a need for something to tie together all of the strands they were being exposed to.

 

The two keys to my reshaping of this course turned out to be myth and the city.  As previously suggested, the worldview and values of Greece and Rome (their “myths”) were the keys to tying together literature, history and philosophy.  And for both of those societies, there was clearly a specific place where each society’s guiding myth became supremely visible – for Greece that place was Athens; for the Roman Republic and Empire, the city of Rome was myth made visible.

 

In 1981, then, when I developed a proposal for a senior seminar on “The City,” I was taking a first step toward looking at the twentieth century urban world through the same lens.  I was asking what are the myths that guide our cities today?  What should be done if we’re unable to articulate such myths?  Is there a need to look for and uncover “underground myths” that perhaps have been forgotten but can fill the void?

 

I was excited by the ideas in my senior seminar proposal.  Happily, my dean was excited too.  Unhappily, the political scientist who chaired the faculty committee charged with approving senior seminars did not see the world through a mythical lens.  For him, the situation was clear – cities are the realm of the social sciences.  I was not a trained social scientist; therefore, I could not teach either a humanities-oriented seminar on the city, nor a social science-oriented seminar.

 

Although my disappointment over this decision was acute at the time, today I am thankful for it.  If my course had been approved, I might still be teaching rural Iowans about cities rather than living in a city and contributing to its development.  As it was, my preparations for “The City” had reawakened my dormant interest in city planning.  In the wake of the rebuff from my political scientist colleague, I decided that planning, not teaching, would be a better career for me.  In June of 1983, after two years of investigating both places and programs, my wife and I loaded up the U Haul and headed to Madison, Wisconsin where I would enroll in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning to get a Master’s degree and seek my fortune as a planner.

 

 

1985: Exposure to the “Circle City” Concept

 

In Madison, I learned the tools of the city planning trade I would be pursuing someday – economic development programs and policy, analytic techniques, facilitation of citizen participation, and the like.  But one of the most fascinating things I learned was another “crazy idea” – the brainchild of Phil Lewis, a landscape architecture professor who had spent his career articulating the idea he called Circle City.

 

Circle City is an actual place, albeit seen from unconventional perspective.  When Lewis was in the navy during World War II, he learned to navigate by the stars.  In the early 1950s, he saw one of the earliest photographs of the U.S. from outer space at night, and immediately noticed a kind of constellation – a circle of light in the Upper Midwest outlining a regional settlement pattern of cities and towns.  The southeastern anchor of Circle City is Chicago; its northwest anchor is the Twin Cities.  South of the Twin Cities, Circle City heads through the Minnesota community of Rochester, then down into Iowa and the cities of Waterloo, Cedar Rapids and (curving eastward) Davenport; in Illinois Circle City picked up the Quad Cities communities of Rock Island and Moline before heading toward Chicago.  North of Chicago, Wisconsin cities defined Circle City: Kenosha, Racine, Milwaukee, Green Bay and then westward through Wausau, Eau Claire and Menomonee before connecting to the Twin Cities.

 

For Lewis, the power of Circle City derives from its center – the magnificent driftless area bluff country through which the Mississippi River runs.  Indeed, this area has in a sense created Circle City because its difficult terrain causes development to be channeled into communities around the edge.  Lewis’ lifelong work was twofold: to create consciousness of Circle City as a region, and to ensure that the heart of the region remained protected from unsuitable development.  By 1985, he had established an organization called the Environmental Awareness Center, which occupied the entire basement of a University of Wisconsin library and filled it with maps, topographical models and all manner of sketches of development concepts.

 

As a former student of religion learning to be a planner, I was intrigued by Lewis’ ideas.   What resonated in the part of my mind still attuned to religious symbolism was the “mandalic” nature of the Circle City idea.  Mandalas are companion concepts to myths for many theologians.  A mandala is a simple geometric pattern that is able to capture and convey complex religious symbolism.  In a sense, mandalas are visual representations of myths in that they are typically connected with the central story of a religious tradition.  In Judaism, the Star of David references the balance between attentiveness to the things of earth and matters of heaven; for Christians, the cross is a reminder of the intersection of humanity and divinity in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  Religions as varied as Tibetan Buddhism and Native American traditions also have their own mandalas.

 

But if Circle City was a mandala, what was its myth?  Was there a compelling story that expressed the coherence of the four-state Upper Mississippi Valley region as a single community?  I was not aware of one, but I sensed even in 1985 that such a story would be enormously valuable – perhaps even necessary for the region to grow into a stronger community.

 

 

1991: “Nature and the City” Study Group

 

I received my M.S. in urban planning from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1985.  After a year of working for the Wisconsin Department of Development, an opportunity arose for me to work in my chosen field of city planning at the Saint Paul Department of Planning and Economic Development.  In December of 1986 I began my work with that agency and am still working there as this memoir is being written.

 

After four years of work as a Saint Paul city planner, I was ready to combine my earlier interests in spirituality, Circle City and contemporary city planning.   Near the end of 1990, I put together a proposal for a study group to be offered at my neighborhood church, St. Matthews Episcopal Church in the St. Anthony Park neighborhood of Saint Paul.

 

The study group was entitled “Nature and the City,” and was designed to explore its subject in an unconventional way.  The premise of the proposal was that insight into reconciling the natural world and urban community could be gained through keen attention to the seasons of the year, the festivals of the church, and indigenous spiritualities of American and European peoples, as well as contemporary urban and ecological theorists.  Two books provided the unifying principle for this initiative: The Calendar of the Soul, a book of meditations by the late nineteenth century German philosopher Rudolf Steiner; and The Christian Year, an exposition by Frances Evelyn Capel, a theologian in a small denomination inspired by Steiner’s teachings known as the Christian Community.

 

With the blessing of St. Matthews Church, this study group began meeting every two weeks from January through December.   Attendance ranged from 10 to 25 and included a fascinating variety of people from the church, the neighborhood and beyond.  Most fascinating to me was the regular participation of a former Saint Paul city councilmember and her opponent in one of her races.  Although both could be sometimes bitter opponents on matters of policy, both found the subject matter of the study group to be an enriching and unifying experience.

 

Another highlight of the study group cycle was a presentation by Steve Charleston, a Native American Episcopal priest who was then on the faculty of Luther Seminary and a member of St. Matthews.  His presentation on his “theology of the four directions” laid out his own vision of how the Christian tradition could be integrated with indigenous American spirituality.  A special feature of Rev. Charleston’s presentation was that it occurred shortly after he had been elected as the Episcopal Bishop of Alaska.  A year later, he would be further honored by being selected to preach in the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. on Columbus Day 1992 at a celebration of 500 years of cultural survival on the part of native peoples.

 

From the standpoint of the Grand Excursion, the most important result of this study group occurred as a consequence of a conference in Santa Fe, NM on “Art and the Sacred” which I attended in March of 1991 with the intent of gaining ideas for the year’s theme.  At this conference I became familiar with an organization that seemed to me to be doing exactly what I had seeking to do in the Twin Cities – the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture.  This organization began as a program in civic leadership at the University of Dallas, but spun off as an independent institute in 1981. 

 

When I met the leaders of the Dallas Institute, their organization had been spending ten years bringing the insights of spiritual imagination into the heart of the city building process in the great southern heartland city of Dallas.  Study groups, conferences and workshops engaged business leaders, mayors, city councilmembers and other citizens to ponder the future of Dallas by engaging in reflection on mythological and literary themes relevant to their city’s situation.  For the most part, this reflection was informed by the theories of the archetypal psychology of Carl Jung; several of the institute founders were licensed psychotherapists, including James Hillman who is widely regarded as the greatest innovator in late 20th century Jungian thought.  But the Dallas Institute had also enlisted the support of a glittering array of urban social commentators who had been honored as fellows of the institute – including Jane Jacobs, William H. Whyte, educator Ivan Illich, and public television journalist Jim Lehrer.  In 1991, the institute had just scored one of the greatest and most unlikely coups in the history of urban planning – having been named the lead agency to develop a regional plan for the Dallas area.  Considerable funding for this project derived from the largest-ever National Endowment for the Humanities grant ever given up to that time.

 

At the March conference in Santa Fe, I met both co-directors of the Dallas Institute, Gail Thomas and Robert Sardello.  Both would eventually be instrumental in giving birth to the Grand Excursion concept.  But in March of 1991, it was Robert Sardello who resonated most strongly with the ideas I was working on in my study group.  As it happened, Sardello had begun to season his Jungian theory with ideas of the same Rudolf Steiner who had inspired my study group.  When he learned of my interest in Steiner and the city, his reaction was as immediate and shocking as Dick Broeker’s interest in the Grand Excursion would be in 1994.  “You’re us! I want to come to the Twin Cities to study with you,” were Sardello’s words after less than two minutes of get-acquainted conversation.  “Not very likely,” were my unexpressed thoughts.  But that’s getting ahead of the story.

 

One other resource from the “Nature and the City” study group deserves mention in this memoir – E.V. Walter’s 1988 book Placeways: A Theory of the Human Environment.  In a sense, Walter’s work was the complementary opposite of the work that was being produced by the Dallas Institute.  Whereas the Dallas people began with archetypal psychology and spirituality and reached out to the city, Walter’s career began with dissatisfaction with conventional urban sociology and eventually reached out to a more holistic way of interpreting the city. 

 

Walter’s theory of “topistics” (a holistic way of grasping a place as the location of shapes, powers, feelings and meanings) is laid out in his Placeways book.  To a great extent, this theory draws on ancient ways of imagining the city as a symbolic pattern whose meaning is better understood and dealt with through myth and ceremony than through positivistic sociological theory.

 

The Nature and the City Study Group came to a close in December of 1991.  Yet by that time, the group had set in motion processes that were to bear fruit in a variety of ways not consciously imagined at the time.  The closing words of the study group’s prospectus turned out to be oddly prophetic:

 

Because the activity of this study group is regarded as a cycle, it cannot come to a linear conclusion.  But it can – and should – result in balanced growth enabling the cycle to continue as an ascending spiral.  Indeed, it is the recognition of the spiral character of reality that may be the most important conclusion of this study.  The church year teaches us that some apparent opposites – nature and the city, matter and spirit – are really complements, although there will always be a creative tension between them.  Thus, in the deepest sense, the mission pursued by the study group will be never-ending.

 

Nevertheless, this particular study cycle could develop in several alternate directions after its first year.  The study group could explore other aspects of the relationship between the church year and our spiritual pilgrimage.  The material in the study cycle could be repeated for a different group.  Or the topics considered by the original group could be put aside for awhile, to allow them time to germinate and bear fruit.

 

 

1993: “What Makes a City: Myth and Maps” Conference of the Placeways Institute

 

Indeed, the fruit born by the Nature and the City study group began to appear even before the year of 1991 was half over.

             

But before that story can be told, I must digress to acknowledge a major and ongoing influence on my thinking about myths, mandalas, cities, and regions – my wife, Elizabeth Vander Schaaf.  Elizabeth and I met as undergraduate students at Swarthmore College in 1970 and were married in 1973 immediately after we both graduated from that institution.  Both of us majored in the humanities at Swarthmore (she in English and I in history), then both of us went through humanities Ph.D. programs at the University of Iowa (she in English and I in religion).

 

In 1979, Elizabeth and I realized a dream of both of us getting college teaching jobs at the same place – Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa.  Not only were we both hired by the same college, but we were both assigned to the same team-taught freshman humanities course – Western Man 101, a semester-long interdisciplinary examination of Greek and Roman culture.  It was in this context that Elizabeth began to shape my views regarding the relationship between myth and the city.  In particular, her insights into theories of narrative patterns helped me to see the connections between the values of the Greeks and Romans and the shape that their cities took.

 

As I transitioned from humanities teaching to city planning in the mid-1980s, Elizabeth’s career also moved in some interesting directions – from feature editor at Isthmus (the Madison, Wisconsin alternative weekly), to English consultant for the State of Wisconsin, to theology student at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul, and finally to associate dean for graduate studies at Augsburg College.  By the middle of 1991, Elizabeth’s career was once again in transition, just at the time that an opportunity arose to learn more about the Dallas Institute that I had become familiar with in Santa Fe.

 

My March 1991 trip to Santa Fe coincided closely with the arrival of a new director at the Saint Paul Department of Planning and Economic Development – Robert Sprague, formerly a highly creative independent retail consultant.  One of Mr. Sprague’s new assignments with the City was to take the lead on implementing Mayor Jim Scheibel’s cultural initiative.  In part, this involved standard physical development projects (the move of the Children’s Museum to downtown Saint Paul was one of Sprague’s most prominent accomplishments), but its scope also included ideas on how to make cultural creativity a bigger part of Saint Paul’s community.

 

When Robert Sprague learned from me about the work of the Dallas Institute, a lightbulb of sorts went off in his head.  What if we pursued the idea of having a similar institute in Saint Paul?  He was so serious about the idea that he sent me down to Dallas for several days to study their institute and report on its replicability.  Because of Elizabeth’s long-standing interest in myth and the city, she also agreed to accompany me at her own expense and help craft the recommendations I would report to Robert Sprague.

 

For more than a year after returning from Dallas, Elizabeth, Robert Sprague and I refined the proposal for a Saint Paul version of the Dallas Institute – an organization we had dubbed the Placeways Institute, in honor of the ideas expressed in E.V. Walter’s book as discussed on page 7 above.  Our work also engaged Dallas Institute co-director Robert Sardello more than anyone else at that institution.  Strangely enough, Sardello’s Santa Fe expression of a desire to come to the Twin Cities and study with me did come true in a limited sense.  Our work in early 1992 resulted in a Robert Sardello visit and a small contract between him and the City of Saint Paul to write a critique of a major vision for the city that had recently been published by noted urban journalist, Neal Pierce.

 

Ultimately, the Placeways Institute did come into being by 1993, albeit briefly, modestly, and without direct City sponsorship.  As we shopped the concept to various community leaders, it became clear that there was not support from Mayor Scheibel to push for a Dallas-like Placeways Institute in Saint Paul.   However, an alternative organization did emerge to champion the Placeways Institute concept.  During 1992, I became involved in a monthly luncheon discussion group hosted by Saint Paul Pioneer Press religion editor, Clark Morphew.  This group loved the idea of the Placeways Institute.  Particularly excited by the idea was Joan Timmerman, a theology professor at the College of St. Catherine.  Joan soon became the chief collaborator with Elizabeth and me to put together a kind of pilot project conference, “What Makes a City: Myth and Maps,” which was held at the College of St. Catherine in October of 1993.

 

The “What Makes a City: Myth and Maps” conference was explicitly modeled after annual “What Makes a City” conferences held in Dallas by the Dallas Institute.  And one of the two keynote speakers was Gail Thomas, Robert Sardello’s co-director at the Dallas Institute.  Gail spoke on myths and the city, while Elizabeth spoke on the relationship between maps and city myths.  The conference was brief – only a half-day event – but participation was strong and involved some notable community leaders.  It included a panel discussion of keynote themes moderated by Eric Utne, founder of the Utne Reader; and featuring panelists Judith Martin of the University of Minnesota Urban Studies program; Tom Fulton, executive director of the Minneapolis-Saint Paul Family Housing Fund; and Weiming Lu, executive director of the Lowertown Redevelopment Corporation (and a fellow of the Dallas Institute).

 

Both mayors were involved in the conference too – Minneapolis Mayor Don Fraser met  Gail Thomas at a dinner party the previous night and attended the entire conference; Saint Paul Mayor Jim Scheibel was unable to attend the conference proceedings but joined a small luncheon afterwards held to honor the keynote speakers and panelists.  At that luncheon, Eric Utne delivered a stirring, spontaneous sermonette about the importance of this way of thinking in addressing the problems and opportunities of the contemporary city.

 

For me, the two keynote talks helped to crystallize the ideas I had been developing throughout my adult life, explained earlier in this memoir.  Gail Thomas explored the myth of Dallas and the ways in which discovering and working with that myth had contributed to the healing of that city.  The myth of Dallas, she explained, is related to the boom/bust nature of that city’s economy, society, and community psyche.  Dallas is characterized by periods of hyperexpansion followed by violent contractions.  Familiar contemporary images such as the Dallas TV series and the Kennedy assassination play off this myth.  But in a fascinating way, the myth of Dallas can be found even in the neon sign on top of the city’s historic building – a sign of Pegasus, symbol of Mobil Oil Company, but also suggestive of the ancient Greek myth of Pegasus.  As Gail Thomas explained, the myth of Pegasus uncannily mirrors Dallas’ situation – reflecting on the dangers of high flights, but also suggesting a way of channeling the energy that leads to such flights.  Hearing this talk, I made a mental note – think about the neon sign on downtown Saint Paul’s historic skyscraper as a clue to the myth of our community.

 

While Gail Thomas helped crystallize my thinking about myth and the contemporary city, Elizabeth’s reflections on maps focused my attention on the mandalic form that might accompany a good urban myth.  Elizabeth’s talk focused on how the physical form of a community can often reveal much about its personality.  In particular, she spoke of Saint Paul and the predominance of forms suggesting enclosure – bowl-like valleys, caves, and even the great domes of the capitol and the cathedral.  Saint Paul is a place with many wonderful secrets that are, in a sense, captured underground – with the reportedly magnificent lake in Carver’s Cave under Dayton’s Bluff being a prime example of this phenomenon.  Although this lake was a sacred site known and honored among indigenous peoples for hundreds of miles, its entry was buried by nineteenth century railroad development and is both off-limits and often forgotten to Saint Paulites in our time.  In many ways, Saint Paul’s problem is the opposite of Dallas’ – while Dallas needs to be brought down to earth, Saint Paul’s treasures need to be daylighted.

 

 

1994: The Birth of the Grand Excursion Concept

 

My involvement in the Placeways Institute bore fruit in my rediscovery of the Grand Excursion half a year after the 1993 “What Makes a City” conference.  Indeed, the rediscovery of the Grand Excursion was a direct result of the conference.

 

The conference presented me with the following thoughts:

 

 

 

Soon after the conference, I embarked on a program to study Saint Paul and Upper Mississippi River history with an eye toward pursuing these thoughts.  My reading led me in time to William J. Petersen’s masterful Steamboating on the Upper Mississippi.  Midway through this lengthy work, I came across a story I had never before heard, told in a chapter entitled “The Grand Excursion of 1854.”  When I read Petersen’s account of this event, I was electrified, feeling that I had found a big clue to the myth of Saint Paul.  How odd that the most spectacular tourist event in pre-Civil War U.S. history culminated in Saint Paul, and yet in 1994 had been almost completely forgotten in our community.  (Can you imagine folks from high-flying Dallas ever forgetting such an event if it had occurred in their town?)  And how odd to learn that Americans in the mid-nineteenth century generally regarded the Upper Mississippi as one of the most lovely places in the nation, even the world – and yet in 1994 residents of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois were indifferent or even embarrassed when describing their part of the country.

 

When I suggested a reenactment of the Grand Excursion to Dick Broeker back in 1994, I could not consciously have predicted the powerful response that has built up over the years.  Yet at another level, the reception of the story is exactly what must be expected of a good myth.  A true myth takes on a life of its own.  Once the story is told in the right place at the right time, it resonates and begins to shape reality in ways that are beyond the conscious intent of the teller.  A myth is like layers of an onion – with new layers of meaning and significance that are uncovered over time and not necessarily visible at first.

 

As of September 8, 2001, it is still too early to speak definitively about the final impact of the story of the Grand Excursion on Saint Paul and the Upper Mississippi community.  A few observations, however, may be in order even at this early time. 

 

First, further investigation into the story of the Grand Excursion offers a suggestion as to why the “1st” sign in Saint Paul turned off, and how to turn it on again.  For Saint Paul, the Grand Excursion represented a kind of fall from paradise.  The excursionists who bubbled with enthusiasm over the landscape and people of the Upper Mississippi River north of Rock Island hit a kind of wall in Saint Paul.  Because the boats arrived a day early, Saint Paul citizens were unprepared to offer hospitality and instead reverted to free market profiteering off their visitors.  In other words, the city closed in on itself rather than extending itself warmly to others.  The corollary of the myth may be that in 2004, the city has a chance to reverse the “fall” of 1854 and to “get it right this time.”

 

Second, the story of the Grand Excursion suggests how the healing of the larger Upper Mississippi River community may occur.  The 1854 excursionists generally saw the river as a single community – not as real estate subdivided among four states.  Perhaps one reason why we and the world have lost sight of the magic of the Upper Mississippi is that it is on the periphery of several states, and thus marginalized by each.  Perhaps Grand Excursion 2004 can create experiences and institutions that can reverse this damaging fragmentation.

 

Third, and more subtly, the prominent presence of ex-president Millard Fillmore on the 1854 Grand Excursion paradoxically pushes us not to idealize that event too much.  Today, as in 1854, Fillmore is recognized as a mediocrity at best, with attitudes that were politically incorrect even in his own time.  An extreme Anglo nationalist, Fillmore was in favor of sending all Catholics back to Europe where they came from; obviously, his attitudes toward African Americans, indigenous peoples and others were even more problematic.

 

In a sense, Fillmore challenges us to commemorate 1854 with a big grain of salt.  We need to “get it right this time” in ways that go far beyond Saint Paul offering champagne to New York Times correspondents.  Faced with the ambiguous specter of Millard Fillmore, 2004 excursionists need to reflect on the need to get some other things right as well – to treat the river as an ecological community deserving great respect, and to treat all people who inhabit the land of the river as deserving great respect.

 

 

Postscript – September 22, 2001

 

The nation immediately recognized on September 11, 2001 that the events of that day changed our view of the world forever.  Some speak of that change as a loss of innocence, but a better term might be “dis-illusionment” understood quite literally as the loss of illusions that were perhaps comforting, but also limited our ability to deal effectively with the world as it really is.

 

From the standpoint of this memoir, it is interesting to observe what a central role the myth of a particular city – New York – has played in the story of September 11 and the days to follow.  If a person on the street had been asked to describe New York before this date, the adjectives likely would have been along the lines of: invulnerable, arrogant, materialistic, shallow, uncaring, and rude.  What a different picture we now have of this town: vulnerable but brave, compassionate and with an unparalleled community spirit.  Instantly the New York fireman has become a central icon of the American civil religion of the 21st century.  I suspect that the photo of the firemen raising an American flag over the ruins of the World Trade Center will become as immortal as the 1940s photo of the flag raising at Iwo Jima.

 

As America responds to the crisis of global terrorism, one might hope that the fresh new myth of New York will serve as a guiding light in the dark days to come.  Such a vivid image of community and compassion can help us remember that our response must not be one of blind rage, but rather the creation of constructive international institutions to neutralize the evils we rightly abhor.

 

The refashioned myth of New York has begun a process of redefining America’s self-understanding and its place in the world.  Just so, other treasured American places and their myths will also require refashioning in the years to come – including the places of the Mississippi River, the heart of America.  Surely, the myth of the Grand Excursion provides us with a fruitful way to begin this process in the place where we dwell.