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Galena, Galena, Galena. At one time or another every other person in the Chicago area has visited Galena, Ill., or so it would seem. Not terribly far from Chicago and easy for a day trip or a long weekend, it has been a favorite destination for several decades. Prior to its rehabilitation in the 1980s and its subsequent rediscovery, Galena was almost a ghost town. Close to the Mississippi River and once very prosperous, it had fallen on hard times.
Along with Dubuque, Iowa, Mineral Point, Wis. and other now-forgotten nearby communities, Galena was ground zero for lead mining and processing for approximately 30 years, from the late 1820s to the early 1860s, a period of time when the Galena River was still navigable. The river silted up, Galena’s mines played out and shipping by rail (which bypassed Galena) brought an end to Galena’s economic reason for existing, though the town was left with residences and commercial buildings built during its heyday.
Topography played a large role in Galena’s development, its present appearance and its salvation. Occupying a narrow strip of land adjacent to the river and with very little space for further development, it spread up the steep bluffs overlooking the original settlement. When, after 100 years of decline somebody in the 1970s got the bright idea to tear down a large section of dilapidated Galena for parking and “new” development, its topography helped to make the idea economically unsound. So it continued to hibernate and wait for a better idea.
Neil and Alan had been to Galena before, and their impressions were not favorable. Parking along its narrow streets was almost impossible. Wall-to-wall tourists were a turn-off. And its commercial enterprises were devoted to a lot of dubious and predictable merchandise. But aware of its unique history and solely interested in its architecture, the Guys beat the crowds (arriving before they did and getting a parking place) to zero in on Galena’s numerous preserved and restored buildings of various period styles.
Of all the places they have explored, Galena is probably the only destination almost entirely on the National Register of Historic Places, leaving the Getaway Guys to wonder what is not. To explore this former lead-mining center, it is hard to say where to begin. Before crossing to the west side of the Galena River, where the main business district is located, Neil and Alan investigated the Ulysses S. Grant Home (1860), the Elihu B. Washburne Home (1845) and “Belvedere,” the J. Russell Jones mansion (1857) on the east side, each in a different 19th-century style. On the west side of the Galena, along Main Street, they took in a plethora of cheek-by-jowl, early 19th-century commercial structures now dedicated to enterprises selling everything from soap to chocolate. Approximately in the middle of this pleasant hodge-podge is the historic DeSoto House Hotel (1855), the oldest extant hotel in Illinois. Rubber-necking along Main Street is the easy part of the Galena experience, but less than half of its historic interest and fun is located on the main drag. The remainder requires a sturdy pair of legs and a capacity for climbing stairs.
Essentially, historic Galena consists of three parallel streets: Main, Bench (appropriately named because visitors need a rest) and Prospect (possibly because making it there is an iffy prospect). Step by step (ever upward) and breathless, the Getaway Guys discovered a large concentration of early limestone residences, several historic churches, an early firehouse and the Galena-Jo Daviess County Historical Society Museum on Bench Street. The former Daniel A. Barrows House (1859), the Society’s museum, is packed with artifacts, paintings and ephemera tracing Galena’s rise and fall (including Galena and U.S. Grant material related to the Civil War). Among its exhibits, one is unique and surprising. At the rear of the Barrows House a visitor will find an authentic lead mine shaft at least 100 feet deep and easily seen through a glass enclosure. One wonders if the Barrows family knew it was in their backyard when they built their house.
Climbing to Prospect Street, the Guys discovered other residences of more grandiose design. These later dwellings were probably built just before Galena’s descent into economic obscurity.
For visitors seeking an illusion of “better times” or a greeting-card version of Christmas past, Galena may be an ideal place to spend the holidays (especially if it snows). The day after Thanksgiving Santa Claus arrives, and the ceremonial lighting of the Christmas tree occurs. On Dec. 1 there is the annual Mistletoe Ball, and on Dec. 8 the Living Windows along Main Street commences. Dec. 15 marks the Night of the Luminaries, adding to Galena’s jolly atmosphere. But a traditional Christmas dinner eaten in a quintessential greeting-card setting may require a stretch of the imagination.
The historic DeSoto House Hotel restaurant is closed, but the Woodlands Restaurant at the Eagle River Resort is open. According to the Tourist Bureau, a Chinese restaurant is open for business, and along with an Asian meal it may offer a hilarious flashback to the film “A Christmas Story.”
Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.
Editor’s Note: The authors maintain a free website, www.getaway-chicago.com, which offers recommended outings to nearby destinations that are often overlooked, but of genuine interest and delight.