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Grand Excursion flotilla arrives in St. Paul
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The Delta Queen arriving in St. Paul (MPR Photo/Lorna Benson)
An estimated 150,000 people turned out Saturday to welcome the Grand Excursion flotilla of paddle wheelers and steamboats to St. Paul. A steady rain fell for most of the event, but it didn't dampen the spirit of the Grand Excursion.

St. Paul, Minn. — People started lining up along the St. Paul riverfront hours before the big riverboats were scheduled to arrive. Kids passed the time by blowing on plastic whistles. While grown-ups listened to old time music.

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Image The Julia Belle Swain

The flotilla was scheduled to arrive at 2:45. It didn't. But the rain did. That prompted Linda Bellin of Brooklyn Park to wonder if she should give up her great seat and take cover in a nearby tent.

"It's lovely isn't it? This is part of the adventure," she reasoned.

Her daughter Melena convinced her to stay put.

During the first Grand Excursion 150 years ago, it was worse; not the weather, but St. Paul's reception. Hardly anyone showed up to welcome the 1,200 dignitaries who had traveled hundreds of miles to celebrate America's first railroad connection to the Mississippi. The event was monumental because it meant that land west of the river could be opened up to settlement. But no one in St. Paul seemed to care.

So this time the city put out the welcome mat. And as the flotilla finally came into view around 3 pm, each ship was greeted by cannon fire as it approached the LaFayette Bridge. In return, each ship answered by blowing its horn.

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Image Tight squeeze

"I've never seen anything like that. Really something. Boy they come a long ways too, don't they? Four-hundred miles some of em," said spectator Dick Hanson, who came from Janesville, Wisc.

One boat, the Julia Belle Swain, caught the eye of Grand Excursion Organizer Ted Davis. "The engines were built at the turn of the century and salvaged from another boat when this boat was built. Real steam-driven calliope. It's a beautiful boat. Operates out of LaCrosse now. Used to operate out of Peoria."

In all, 10 boats participated in the flotilla. But one of them almost didn't make it. The Mississippi Queen had been delayed for days in Hannibal, Missouri because it couldn't clear the bridge due to high water. Finally the water went down and Captain Paul Thoeny squeezed his massive boat through.

"We steamboated right from Hannibal and we were almost non-stop all the way to St. Paul. We're so glad to be here, believe me. Everybody is so glad to be here," he said.

Mississippi Queen passenger, Peggy Clenney rode the boat all the way from Missouri. The Dallas, Texas native says it wasn't the cruise she expected because everything just kept going wrong.

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Image The Mississippi Queen

"You know and then of course we get here and it rains. The only day we've had rain on the whole trip. So it just made the trip exactly the way it should be. It started out with disaster, ended that way. It's been fantastic," she said.

Clenney was heartened by the all the people who turned out in the rain to welcome the flotilla.

The big riverboats will spend several days in St. Paul. Many are offering river cruises to coincide with Taste of Minnesota.

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