Galena in the modern age

  • Article by: CATHERINE WATSON , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 13, 2013 - 4:54 PM

Behind all its Victorian beauty, Galena, Ill., is embracing 21st-century tools that will help preserve this river town.

Settled in a velvet armchair in the formal parlor of a mansion-turned-museum, I stared into the darkened dining room beyond and waited for Galena’s past to collide with its future.

Then Galena’s favorite couple ­— Ulysses S. Grant and his wife, Julia — materialized from the dining-room shadows and proudly welcomed me to their historic town, he in uniform, holding his trademark cigar, she in a long, bell-skirted gown.

They’re holograms ­— life-size, 3-D holograms ­— projections more suited to “Star Wars” than the Civil War. Brainchildren of the Galena and U.S. Grant Historical Museum, they’re symbolic of other 21st-century changes underway in this nearly 200-year-old community in Illinois’ northwest corner.

Galena is going green, as green as the green shutters that grace so many of its handsome 19th-century homes. And it’s doing it without fanfare.

Visitors invariably hear a lot about Grant, who left for the Civil War from here. But no tourist trolling the Main Street shops is likely to hear about ­— let alone visit ­— the gleaming 1,440-panel solar array that powers the town’s new sewage plant.

I’ve always been fond of the Grants, but I am way beyond fond of Galena itself. When it comes to this little town, I’m flat-out biased, so watching it embrace modern technology — without losing its Victorian charm — has been a treat.

I fell in love with Galena 40 years ago, on an assignment to cover a Civil War re-enactment for the Star Tribune. It was dusk when I drove into town, and the redbrick canyon that is Galena’s Main Street was wall-to-wall with off-duty blue and gray.

I felt as if I’d stepped into history. After more visits than I can count, I still feel that way.

Still Galena, only better

Once bigger than Chicago and the busiest steamboat hub between St. Louis and St. Paul, Galena was the focus of America’s first mining rush. Long before California and the Klondike, miners rushed here for high-grade lead ore, known locally as “gray gold” and technically called galena sulfide, which is what gave the town its name.

But before the 19th century was over, the lead mines played out, railroads put an end to steamboating, Galena’s once-wide river silted in and the town gradually fell asleep. Its population has shrunk steadily from a high of 15,000 in the 1840s to about 3,400 now.

Over the years I’ve known it, plenty of other small towns have changed beyond recognition. But not this one.

Galena’s Main Street looks just like it used to ­— only better. The whole town, in fact, looks just the way it did ­— only better. Abe Lincoln would still recognize it, and so would Grant.

Most of Galena has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1969, and its preserved architecture is still a big attraction. But now people come for good restaurants, local wines, rental canoes and kayaks, hot-air balloon rides, concerts and plays, art gallery crawls, tours by foot and trolley, and more than two dozen bed-and-breakfast inns.

Accommodating visitors while keeping Galena, well, Galena for the people who live there is a big job for its small city government.

“In the last decade, we’ve been trying to create the best quality of life we can,” said Mark Moran, the city administrator, this past spring. “We’re trying to do the right thing.”

Visitors as well as citizens benefit from such improvements as the modern boat dock on the Galena River, the walking path atop the levee and the well-groomed bike trail that follows the river down to the Mississippi, 4 miles away.

And when it officially opens this fall, everyone will enjoy the new Gateway Park ­— 100 acres of pastureland on the heights east of town. It was saved from development by local efforts and $1.2 million in grants and donations, because people didn’t want to lose Galena’s most beautiful view: Galena itself, spread out like a redbrick, white-steepled banner against its wooded hills.

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  • A graceful footbridge over the Galena River connects Grant Park, on the city’s residential east side, to the west side, with its Main Street and dense collection of pre-Civil War buildings.

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