An old lead mining town mines tourists instead
Looking for Illinois
Unpublished, from 2002
An excerpt from a never-published guide to Illinois history and culture. Note that this account of Galena is now twenty years old. That doesn't necessarily make it out of date, but readers should keep in mind before planning a trip.
Inventing a past has never been a problem for Galena. It sometimes seems to suffer from too much history the way suburban towns suffer from too much traffic.
Galena’s musical name owes to the lead ore that once made the town rich, and has since made it famous. The settlement was known as LaPointe before it was changed by grateful city fathers to Galena—the equivalent of renaming Decatur “Soybean, Illinois” or Chicago “Payoff.” Lead in the early 1800s was an essential mineral used to make everything from pipe to printers type. Lead was of immense strategic as well as commercial importance, an essential raw material when wars were waged with lead musket balls. Much of the metal had to be imported to the U.S. until 1822 for lack of indigenous supplies.
Wildcatting had been going on in the Galena area for years. For example, Indians mined it as early as the 1600s when they learned they could trade it for corn that took more work to produce. Congress in 1807 took the mines under government protection and made mining legal only under lease; lead mining became one of the fledgling nation’s first defense industries. Galena boomed as the shipping and supply point for the resulting Federal Landmine District which reached into Wisconsin and which at its peak may have contained as many as 10,000 men digging ore who supplied nine-tenths of America’s lead needs.
Like most basic resource industries, lead mining was prone to slumps, and so, too, was Galena. The town’s fortunes were usually revived by war (a lot of Confederate soldiers, it is said, were buried with Galena lead in their bodies). At its peak the place probably was home to 14,000 to 16,000 residents. The town also was a major river port thanks to the Galena River that linked the town to the Mississippi a few miles to the west; significantly, Galena reached its apex as a commercial center in the 1850s, a decade after lead production peaked. The commodious warehouses and other commercial structures which still line Galena’s riverbank are reminders of the volume of goods that once moved through the town in the pre-railroad days. Lead and trade made Galena the richest, busiest, and naughtiest burg in Illinois for the first 40 years of statehood. The De Soto House, a five-story, 240-room hotel built in 1855, was not equaled in either elegance or scale in Illinois for decades.
It could never last, and it didn’t. Other towns more convenient to the Mississippi or to the railroads took away shipping. The Galena River silted up until, as Richard Bissell put it, the river was “not wide enough for a water bug to get his proper exercise.” Mining never came back—not lead mining anyway. When the easy-to-mine deposits of galena gave out, Galena devoted itself to the extraction of sphalerite, a chief ore of the metal zinc. That kept mining going in Jo Daviess County, but only until the 1970s, when Jo Daviess County’s last commercial mining operations such as the Eagle Pitcher and the Blackjack mine closed down for good.
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Other Illinois towns have fallen from prominence, but none was as rich or important for as many years as Galena. The fact that its decline was so comprehensive turned out to be the town’s salvation. There was little reason to tear down an old building because there was little reason to build anything new. And because they’d been built so well—fire codes demanded that many be built of stone or brick rather than wood—the town’s original stock of structures had survived their retirement fairly well.
Northern Illinois boasts few buildings of national note, but while it is short of trophy buildings, the region nonetheless is a trove of American architecture. Much of it is found in Galena. The Guide notes accurately that the visitor to Galena finds “a résumé of the nation’s architectural experience.” New buildings went up there with each successive economic boom, and each era built in the fashion of its day—Greek Revival, Federal styles Italianate, Queen Anne, Second Empire, Gothic Revival, Romanesque Revival, and a few done in styles all their own. Galena’s largest mansion, the 1857 Belvedere, has been likened to a Tuscan villa and a wedding cake but probably most deserves the label “Steamboat Gothic;” as built for a local steamboat magnate, it looks like a landlocked river palace.
The commercial resurrection of Galena since the 1960s happened, as did the first boom, because of mining—in this case mining of the rich treasure of architecture and anecdote inherited from the mid-1800s. Galena’s stock of buildings made it an almost stage-set version of a 19th century town. Nearly 85 percent of the town is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, including all of Main Street. Many are architectural jewels, and nature gave them a setting that shows them off.
The result is a second boom for Galena, this time based on tourism and recreation. The 1960s were when Galena began its renaissance, or its ruination, depending on one’s point of view. Just as happened to Chicago Old Town, and later its South Loop, artists discovered the place. Galena offered cheap rents, solitude, and the cachet of the not-yet-popular. Artists and craftsmen began purchasing historic buildings and restoring them, which attracted tourists who came to look at the buildings and the artists, who attracted merchants eager to cater to the tourists. It was the 1820s all over again.
It would be hard to improve on the description in the 1939 FWP guide to Illinois—and unnecessary too, as the town has changed little in its outward aspect in the past 65 years:
Its streets climb tortuously from level to level of the ancient river bed, and the houses cling to the hills like chalets in an Alpine village. Deserted warehouses and granaries line the old course of the river. On the middle slopes the church spires rise above masses of trees along winding cobbled roads; many steep flights of steps climb the bluffs; on the heights is the high school, the clock of which marks the time for the countryside.
That guide’s description of Galena’s mood in the 1930s, in contrast, could not be less up-to-date. “The old air of opulent luxury has mellowed with time to a gentle and decorous decay,” its authors wrote. “The great houses seldom blaze with the festive lights of other years, the once teeming streets are placid now.” Today, on many weekends, those streets are placid because no one can move because of the traffic jams. Instead of riverboat captains and merchants and their women, Main Street today is lined with what one guide calls high-quality art galleries, boutiques, and craft shops [puhala] and what a visiting Tribune correspondent derided as “knickknackeries.” Galena is a veritable open-air demonstration of adaptive use techniques, but the most telling sign of Galena’s revival is the return of one building to its original use; the 1853 DeSoto House hotel on Main Street is now a hotel again after years of hosting such varied tenants as the Illinois Geological Survey field office.
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In few regions of Illinois is beauty as much an aspect of the local sense of place as in Sinnissippi. Locals insist that the northwest corner of the state around Galena does not offer the best scenery of the northern Illinois interior, it offers the only scenery. The area is part of 15,000-20,000 square miles of Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin that are thought to have been bypassed altogether by successive glaciations. No ice means no “drift”—the jumble of boulders, pebbles, clays, and sands scooped up by flowing ice as it spread across the Midwest and left behind as the ice melted. Thus Jo Daviess and parts of Carroll counties are known to geologists as the Driftless Area.
The ice that scoured and then buried older landscapes into a numbing flatness in most other places in Illinois here left the bedrock exposed. The result is scenery that by the standards of the rest of Illinois can only be described as flagrant. The gorge cut by the Apple River through much of Jo Daviess County, for example is the closest thing to canyons in northern Illinois outside Chicago’s Loop.
Another of the Driftless Area’s distinctive topographic features is its “mounds,” steeply sloped protrusions perhaps a quarter-mile square with flattish tops. The tops of these mounds are patches of surface rock that once stood at that level, all that left after the surrounding countryside was worn away. They have names (among them Horseshoe, Dygerts, Scales, Hudson, and Mount Summer mounds) and the tallest of them—Scales Mound and Charles Mound—are the highest spots in Illinois. Not the tallest; the mounds protrude only 200 feet or so above the surrounding plain, but that plain itself is elevated; Stockton, for example, sits 1,000 feet above sea level, which makes it the highest town in Illinois, even if Chicago can claim the highest buildings. Erosion has reduced many of the mounds to cones known as knobs; one of them, called "Pilot Knob," has long been a mark for pilots on the Mississippi River, from which it can be seen.
The nearby Mississippi also offers hunting, fishing, and boating in all seasons; its forested hillsides offer hiking, cross-country skiing, and camping. Galena has become a regional economic center again, this time serving not outlying mines and farms but the marinas, ski lodges, riding stables, campsites, and golf courses which dot the countryside. More than 40 bed and breakfasts, country inns, and historic hotels operate here, and its hinterland is littered with resorts and time-share condos that cater to the (mainly) Chicago-area crowd for whom Michigan and Wisconsin have become too familiar or too crowded and Minnesota too distant.
The fun is organized on an industrial scale. The 6,800-acre Eagle Ridge Inn & Resort, which includes four golf courses, the 80-room Eagle Ridge Inn, 375 resort homes and a world-class equestrian center. In 2000, readers of Golf Magazine rated Eagle Ridge one of their top ten golf resort destinations, based on the quality of its flagship course, The General. Galena Territory, a golf and condo development, employs 556, and Chestnut Mountain, a ski resort—yes, in Illinois—employs 250.
Writer Richard Bissell, who knew all the Upper Mississippi River towns, liked Galena best. “It is a quaint town but it is not cute.” That was in 1968, and a lack of cuteness is not what a curmudgeon like Bissell would say about today’s Galena. U. S. Grant was an occasional resident of Galena between 1860 and 1881. Most Presidents end up on plaques, but Grant ended up on a menu; a local restaurant serves hungry tourists a “Grant Burger” (“The General’s favorite”) delivered by wait staff dressed in Civil War uniforms. The main course at Eagle Ridge golf club is named The General. And groups can book a one-hour tour of Grant’s house and neighborhood with a Grant impersonator.