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Galena: ‘A town frozen in time’
White-columned antebellum mansions, President Ulysses S. Grant’s home, a historic hotel, unique shops and history lessons as well as plenty of outdoor activities along the river are popular in Galena, Ill.
The old red brick buildings that line both sides of Main Street are frozen in the mid-1800s in this former riverboat city and steamboat capital of the Upper Midwest.
Back then, great numbers of steamboats came up the Mississippi River and its tributary, the Galena River, with a variety of goods and returned with lead from the mines.
Wealthy steamboat captains built mansions on the hills overlooking the river. Many are now B&Bs. Visitors can take trolley or walking tours past many of these historic homes and churches.
Long before the riverboat days, American-Indians mined the hills for lead to make body paint. Then in 1816, the first shipment of lead ore was sent down the Mississippi River.
By 1845, the city of Galena was producing nearly 27,000 tons of lead ore and Jo Daviess County was producing 80 percent of the lead in the United States - lead that was eventually used for bullets for the Union army during the Civil War.
But the arrival of the railroad plus the silting of the Galena River from the smelting industry and farm runoff eventually made the river shallower and finally impassible for steamboats.
The town couldn’t afford to tear down its vacant buildings so they remained standing, frozen in time.
To recapture a bit of that era, I stayed at the family-owned Main Street Inn, which was built around 1850 as the Standard Cigar Company. It has six suites upstairs above an eclectic gift shop named Poopsie’s. My Victorian-era room was decorated with lace curtains on the tall windows and antique furniture. Although the inn evokes an earlier time, the parlor is equipped with Wi-Fi.
The next morning, I visited the DeSoto Hotel, which was built about the time the Illinois Central Railroad first arrived in Galena from Chicago in 1855. The hotel once was the largest in the West. Abe Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony, Teddy Roosevelt and Mark Twain stayed there, and it was Grant’s presidential campaign headquarters in 1868.
As many as 25 steamboats used to be moored behind the hotel at one time. But with the recession of the late 1880s and miners heading north for the Alaska gold rush, the hotel languished.
In a major reconstruction inside the red brick walls around 1978, the original curving staircase, sloping floors and reception desk were kept. Perhaps the ghosts are still there, too. Today the hotel is the anchor of Galena’s downtown district, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Galena is a four-season destination with many outdoor activities and festivals like the annual Wine Lovers’ Weekend, Octoberfest, historic homes tours, an arts festival, ghost tours, country fair, Christmas holiday events, a walking tour with a General Grant re-enactor, street performers, many interesting shops, canoeing on the Galena River, stunning fall colors and snow skiing in the winter.
In 2011, TripAdvisor listed the once-powerful antebellum and beautifully restored city of Galena among its top 10 “Charming Small Towns.”
For more information on restaurants, accommodations or activities and special events, go to visitgalena.org.
While you are there . . .
— Grammercy Park in nearby East Dubuque — has 26 Hopewell Indian burial mounds dating back over 2,000 years on the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River.
— Council Hill Station, an old railroad stop popular in the 1880s, offers lunch in the former general store and family musical events in the historic barn overlooking a stream.
— Rocky Waters Vineyards and Winery in nearby Hanover is on the Great River Wine Trail. Owner Jared Spahn offers tastings of wine made from his grapes.
— Chestnut Mountain Resort on a hill overlooking the Mississippi River outside Galena offers Mississippi River cruises, an alpine slide, mountain biking, and in the winter, downhill skiing.
— Goldmoor Inn — fine dining with a view of the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River.
— Eagle Ridge Resort overlooking Lake Galena offers golf and beautiful views.
Home of President Ulysses S. Grant
Galena was also the home of Civil War general and 18th president Ulysses S. Grant. Arriving there in 1860, Grant worked in his father’s leather shop. He had already graduated from West Point, low in his class, and had failed at a few other jobs, including farming and real estate, before settling in Galena.
Quad Cities straddle the Mississippi
From Galena, travel south about two hours along the Mississippi River to the Quad Cities of Davenport, and Bettendorf, Iowa, and Moline, East Moline and Rock Island, Ill., which straddle the river. Highlights include: