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Say what you will about those supposedly staid Victorians, but they really knew how to throw a party.

In the Twin Cities, no party was larger or more spectacular than a mammoth celebration staged on Sept. 3, 1883, to mark completion of the Northern Pacific Railway's transcontinental line to the West Coast.

Nothing in the modern era compares to the size and scope of the celebration, a giant public holiday that seemed to have brought out nearly all of the Twin Cities' 100,000 or so inhabitants.

Both St. Paul, where the railroad was headquartered, and Minneapolis went all out for the event, transforming their downtown streets into decorated wonderlands. Ceremonial arches spanned major thoroughfares. Building fronts were festooned with flags, banners and signs. Miles-long parades drew thousands of spectators. Vast banquets (which offered samplings from buffalo tongue and broiled prairie chicken to spiced oysters and fresh lobster) were accompanied by bouts of florid oratory.

Numerous dignitaries attended, including President Chester Arthur and former President and Gen. Ulysses Grant. Another Civil War hero, Gen. Philip Sheridan, also took part. These American notables were accompanied by a raft of titled European bigwigs bearing such delectable monikers as Baron von Eisendrecker, Count Lippe-Weissenfeld and the Honorable Lionel Sackville-West.

To celebrate completion of the Northern Pacific Railway’s transcontinental line in 1883, the Twin Cities threw a massive daylong bash that attracted many of the area’s 100,000 residents.
To celebrate completion of the Northern Pacific Railway’s transcontinental line in 1883, the Twin Cities threw a massive daylong bash that attracted many of the area’s 100,000 residents.

Minnesota History Center

The man of the hour, however, was Bavarian-born Henry Villard, president of the Northern Pacific, although not long after the event he was ousted in one of the debt-ridden railroad's many changes of ownership. Such was the excitement of having a transcontinental line extending west from the Twin Cities that no one paid much heed to the Northern Pacific's shaky finances.

Instead, the day was all about making as big a public spectacle as possible.

It kicked off in St. Paul at 9:30 a.m. with the arrival of Villard, Grant and their retinue at the old Union Depot at the foot of Sibley Street. A procession that included military units in full regalia made its way down Third Street (now Kellogg Boulevard) as huge crowds looked on.

At Cedar Street the procession passed under an elaborately decorated Moorish arch built of wood and plaster and designed by none other than Cass Gilbert, then a young architect just beginning his career in St. Paul. A small dome rose above the arch, perhaps an intimation of the Minnesota State Capitol that Gilbert was to design a decade later. Flanking the arch were two platforms where "maidens," as one newspaper described them, scattered flower petals on Villard and the others as they passed by.

The street-spanning arch was one of five built especially for the celebration in downtown St. Paul. Several were also built in downtown Minneapolis, including what seems to have been the largest of the lot — a replica of the newly opened Stone Arch Bridge, complete with a mock train, which spanned Hennepin Avenue near Washington Avenue.

President Arthur didn't reach St. Paul until 3 p.m., by which time the main festivities had moved to Minneapolis, where the Villard party enjoyed an outsized lunch at the Lyndale Hotel near what is today Bde Maka Ska.

But it was Grant who seemed to most fascinate the local press, which provided copious coverage of the celebration. One uncharitable reporter noted that the great general "shows his increasing years, and is growing more portly." A few excess pounds, as it turned out, were the least of Grant's problems, and less than two years later he would die of throat cancer at age 63.

Once the dignitaries had expanded their waistlines at the Lyndale, they moved on to downtown Minneapolis for yet another giant parade, this one along Washington Avenue. Photographs of the parade show enormous crowds filling every inch of sidewalk and pushing out into the street to watch the procession.

It was no easy thing being a celebrity in those days, and after a long day of parading and speechifying, the dignitaries moved on to the biggest banquet of all, with 600 pedigreed guests, at the Lafayette Hotel on the shores of Lake Minnetonka.

The St. Paul and Minneapolis Pioneer Press, as it was known then, provided a diagram of the seating arrangement, which featured seven tables, some holding as many as 122 diners, a layout that must have made it very hard to pass the salt.

As if enormous piles of food weren't enough, the banquet-goers were also subjected to the usual round of "remarks" from various important people. Judging by excerpts published in the Pioneer Press, the orations were more soporific than scintillating.

It was well past midnight by the time it all ended. Come daylight, Villard and the others, no doubt grateful for their release, left for points west on the Northern Pacific to continue the celebration in other cities and towns.

A suitably dazzled Pioneer Press reporter dug deep into his bag of adjectives and summarized the event this way: "Superb, grand, beautiful, elegant — it was all of these and more."

Perhaps memories of the celebration still lingered 10 years later when the Northern Pacific went bankrupt for a second time. The financial crash of 1893, which touched off a lengthy depression, led to the railroad's collapse, after which James J. Hill and his Great Northern Railroad eventually took control of it.

The Northern Pacific continued to operate by that name until it disappeared into a merger in 1970, its passing a mere whisper compared with the joyous tumult inspired by its completion 87 years earlier.

Larry Millett is an architecture critic and author. He can be reached at larrymillett.com.