With its cobblestone streets, historic buildings, and occasional brushes with Civil War-era re-enactors, Galena, Illinois often feels like a step back in time to the mid-nineteenth century, the town’s heyday.
Back then, Galena was a bustling metropolis and the largest steamboat hub north of St. Louis. Its economy was driven by the lead mining industry, and the mansions of mine owners, entrepreneurs, and riverboat captains lined the Galena River, a tributary of the nearby Mississippi River.
While the lead boom has long since gone bust, the town’s appreciation and preservation of its history in recent decades have helped bolster the growth of another industry: tourism. Today, nearly a million visitors flock to Galena every year to revisit that rich history, enjoy its small-town charm, visit its popular wineries, stroll through its many boutiques, galleries, and antique shops, and explore the hilly terrain along the nearby Mississippi.
The most popular attraction is Galena’s well-preserved nineteenth-century architecture. Most of the town – including all of Main Street – is on the National Register of Historic Places. Towards the end of the 1800s, lead, once used in everything from ammunition to industrial pipes, was no longer used as frequently, and Galena declined. In many cases, buildings were simply left behind since locals didn’t have the money, or incentive, to demolish them. But in the 1960s, residents, along with an influx of Chicago artists, fueled a movement to preserve and revive the town.
Visitors today can explore architectural and historical highlights via trolley tours, walking tours, or through popping into any of several historic buildings that now serve as stores, inns, and museums.
Chief among them is the Ulysses S. Grant Home State Historic Site. Grant arrived in Galena in 1860 to clerk in his father's leather-goods store. He lived here full-time for two brief years before leaving to fight in the Civil War. But when he returned a war hero and decorated general, the town elders presented him with a fully furnished Italianate house. Although he would soon leave for Washington, DC and serve two terms as president, his home has since been lovingly preserved.
The Galena & U. S. Grant Historical Museum is housed in another historic mansion, this one built in 1858. It contains several impressive exhibits on the history of the region and its people – including an authentic 1830s lead mine shaft discovered during construction of an addition to the museum.
During the most recent ice age, the area around Galena was spared by the same glaciers that flattened most of the Midwest. Geologists have dubbed it the “Driftless Area;” it is marked by deep river valleys, clear streams, and forested hillsides. It can be explored by hiking at the nearby Casper Bluff Land and Water Reserve, which is also home to several effigy mounds, or at the Mississippi Palisades State Park further south. Bird lovers will enjoy searching for bald eagles, white pelicans, white trumpeter swans, and more than 200 other bird species that call the region home.
Vacationers can also explore the great outdoors by jogging or biking along the Galena River Trail, by golfing at the Eagle Ridge Resort and Spa, or in the winter, by skiing or snowboarding at Chestnut Mountain. And although there may be taller mountains further afield, this Midwest destination has one thing they all lack: a bird’s-eye view of the mighty Mississippi.