Cited as the example of a city that “found a new way to earn a living” by The Economist, Galena thrives. Once an industrial, mining, and river port powerhouse that was bigger than Chicago, Galena went into decline shortly after the Civil War. Ruth & I hadn’t been there for several years when I read this, and Galena went immediately on to my list of destinations to repeat. We went there quite recently and already plan to go back to the miracle in the rust-belt American Midwest.
Today, beautifully restored, Galena attracts about one million visitors each year. One of its main distinguishing features that surprises people is that it’s in Illinois hill country. Most don’t know that you can ski in this state. The picture with the red farm buildings was taken near Galena but not at Chestnut Mountain, which calls itself “The Midwest’s Premier Ski Resort”. Its 19 runs range from novice to black diamond.
When Galena in Illinois’ northwest corner went into decline, its 19th century stock of mansions and more modest dwellings remained. Because of its mining and port success, there were many wealthy citizens there. The Belvedere Mansion is considered the main one to see. Often referred to as the “Downton Abbey of Galena”, it was closed when Ruth & I were there. A Monday in early March is not the best time to go to Galena. Most of the homes and businesses that have put 85% of this town on the National Register of Historic Places were closed either for the day or because of the time of year. The best time to see them in 2016 was late-September when the annual home tour occurred. Held over a fall weekend, 2017’s Tour of Historic Galena Homes will be its 50th.
Unfortunately, the Ulysses S. Grant Home was closed that day too. Fortunately, I had seen it one previous visits. Grant was Galena’s most illustrious resident. Struggling to support a young family, he moved there in 1860 to work in his father’s leather goods store with his brothers. The Civil War broke out the next year and Grant went on to military glory. After 2 terms as President and a smashing world tour, he and his wife Julia returned to their residence in Galena. Its DeSoto House Hotel, which has been thrillingly restored, was Grant’s campaign headquarters when he ran for President in 1868. U.S. and Julia didn’t stay long in retirement in Galena after their world-circling, 2½ year excursion because he was rumored to be considering a run for a 3rd term as President.
Ruth and I found plenty to do on that cold, windy Monday. We watched 2 films about Galena in the DeSoto, took a walking tour of town that included many of the excellent shops on Main Street, spent far too much time in Galena’s fantastic visitor center, and had a memorable dinner at the Log Cabin Steakhouse. The Rigopoulos family has run the Log Cabin for more than 40 years, but they treated us as if we were dining there on their 1st day in business.
Galena thrives because it offers so much to the traveler. Every month except January has special events. I’d like to return in December for the 2nd annual Living Windows & Night of the Luminaria. In 2016 a lucky couple got an all-expense-paid wedding when they agree to marry in a Main Street shop window. This public merger gained international attention and was a hit on YouTube.