Galena Getaway

February 25, 2003
Filed under Destinations

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Passing through the giant green floodgates on Main Street, we had our introduction to the
river town of Galena, Illinois. It was like a time warp, walking the main street lined with
stately 19th-century shops encapsulated in red-brick buildings. Here, tucked away in the
unglaciated hills of northwest Illinois, are fine old mansions and commercial buildings,
relatively unchanged since Civil War times. Today, the town is noted for some of the finest
period architecture in the Midwest – including examples of Greek Revival, Italianate and
Queen Anne styles. In 1969, more than 85 percent of the community was placed in the
National Register of Historic Places. Once a bustling Mississippi River port, Galena is now
more laid-back and more than warrants spending a few days to soak up the scenery. The lazy
river of today running through town gives no hint of the size and force it once had – 340
feet wide, with a channel 3 to 4 feet deeper than the Mississippi’s main channel. This busy
artery was only four miles from the mighty Mississippi. Lead mining was the all-important
industry in the mid-19th century, accounting for 80 percent of all lead mining in the
world. Galena is French for “lead.” In 1816, the first boatload of lead headed downriver.
In 1826, regular steamboats ran between St. Louis, Missouri, and Galena. Because of lead
mining, Galena became the largest port on the Mississippi between St. Louis and St. Paul,
Minnesota. The growth of Galena corresponded with the opening of the upper Mississippi
River to steamboat traffic. It’s difficult to imagine Galena a thriving town when Chicago
was just a swamp village. A supply center for the lead mines and a shipping point for the
growing river commerce, the town thrived and grew. As many as 15 steamboats docked each
day. The 1850s saw the surface lead deposits depleted. The Galena River became silted and
the railroads made inroads on Mississippi River commerce. Galena’s thriving boom era before
the Civil War turned to a long-term bust. The population in 1865 went from 14,000 to 7,000,
and the town went into dormancy for a century. The Old Customs House building still stands.
It houses the town’s post office, the second-oldest continuously operated post office in
the United States. Located at the corner of Green and Commerce streets, the 1857 structure
of limestone is a good place to pop in and send postcards back home. Much-needed exercise
was obtained by taking a walking tour to see for ourselves just what Galena had to offer.
Coming out of the old post office, turning right across a footbridge over Galena River, we
entered lovely Grant Park. Looking back, we saw the many upward-rising, picturesque church
steeples of the town. In the green and flowery surroundings ahead of us rose an imposing
monolithic statue of General Ulysses S. Grant. One hand in his pocket, the other tucked in
his vest, he stands as if he were expecting us. Below him, carved in the base, are the
words, “Grant, Our Citizen,” for he was Galena’s hometown Civil War hero. This is the focal
point of the park. The steamboat Itasca brought Grant, his wife and four children to Galena
in 1860. His father’s leather shop offered Grant employment until the Civil War when he
marched off only to return to a hero’s welcome in 1865. Walking east, uphill, we arrived at
the Grant home. Inside are many of Grant’s possessions and at least 90 percent of the
original furnishings. The 1860 home has been restored as it appeared during the post-Civil
War period. While living here, Grant received the news that he had been elected the 18th
president of the United States. Costumed interpreters tell the story of Galena’s
most-famous citizen. We took a “step into the past,” or several for that matter, as we
strolled around the town with our visitor’s guide in hand. With two historic buildings
underfoot, we were ready to visit many other architecturally significant structures. Over
on Park Avenue is the 22-room, 1857 Italianate home known as the Belvedere Mansion. Built
for a steamboat magnate and U.S. Ambassador to Belgium, it is furnished with formal
Victorian pieces. We gazed upon the infamous green drapes from the film Gone With the Wind,
as well as items from pianist Liberace’s estate. The Galena/Jo Daviess County History
Museum on Bench Street has an audiovisual Galena history presentation. Housed in the 1858
mansion are many memorabilia exhibits. Old Market House State Historic Site, built in 1845,
is one of the oldest remaining market houses in the Midwest. The handsome brick federal
building was the center of community life during Galena’s prosperous years. It was easy to
imagine clusters of farmers selling their produce from wagons parked outside and city
council members conducting business in upstairs offices, while down in the basement inmates
were behind bars in the city jail. A few blocks away, on the corner of Green and Main,
stands the DeSoto House Hotel, heralded in the 1850s as the best hotel west of New York
City. It’s still in business. It was here that Abraham Lincoln spoke from the second-floor
balcony. The seasonal free publication, The Galenian, lists 63 architectural sites to see
on the walking tour of Galena. It’s up to you. Many can be seen by taking Brill’s Trolley
Tours, the Galena Main Street Walking Tour or the Galena Trolley Tour. Along with the
historical architecture are many unique shops with exotic names. Walking down Main Street,
we passed by the Art Attack, Fig Leaf Intimates and Poopsie’s, to name only a few. A
shopper could spend a lifetime just browsing from one shop to another. What about dining?
We didn’t go hungry. For upscale Italian dining two miles from Galena, try the popular
fried green tomatoes. Even closer is Boone’s Place on Main Street in an 1846 historic
building with antique décor, Vinny Vanucchi’s Little Italy, Bubba’s Seafood and Pasta
Smokehouse. There’s no question where to stay – Palace Campground, a Good Sam Park, in the
rolling hills just west of Galena. This is an ideal spot to unhitch and enjoy what Galena
and its surrounding area has to offer. Galena, largely unchanged since Civil War times, is
one of those secret, memorable places that enables the traveler in this fast-paced world of
today to return to the past, to a town that time forgot.

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