Location: Galena, Illinois
General Description: Today, Galena is a tourist destination known for its history, architecture, and resorts. However, in its heyday Galena was the center of commerce for the upper Mississippi River when Chicago was only a swamp town of a few hundred residents. Galena lies in the heart of the Driftless Region, that was bypassed both to the east and west by the last glaciers 10,000 years ago. Without the glacial grinding of the hills, the area was left hilly and without the glacial till. This left vast limestone deposits from an ancient ocean that over the ages had become pockmarked with lead sulfide that had been mined by native Americans for thousands of years. The French knew of these deposits in the late 1600s through trade with the local Indians. In the 1690s, there were a few attempts by the French to mine the lead themselves, the most notable by Julien Dubuque in 1788. The first official lease of the mines was to James Johnson in 1822 and thus Galena was founded. From 1825 to 1828, 21 million tons of lead ore was mined in Galena and the town exploded from 200 to 10,000 and the first US mining rush was on. At first the local native tribes, today primarily the Winnebago, permitted the mining at Galena, which was primarily during the summer with residents heading south to Peoria for the winter. However, settlers began encroaching on Indian lands seeking new mines, eventually leading to the short Winnebago War and annexing of the area through the Treaty of Prairie du Chen in 1829. Galena continued to grow as a port city on the Mississippi River as lead mines continued to expand in the surrounding region. As evidenced by maps of the times Galena was literally an “oasis” of civilization in the Northwest wilderness until the late 1800s. The lead mining also led to the establishment of a shipping center that dominated trade on the upper Mississippi River between St. Louis and St. Paul in the 1840s. However, Galena is itself 3 miles up the Galena River from the Mississippi and the deforestation and lead mining soon silted up the Galena River. By the mid-1800s the demand for lead dropped, the financial panic of 1857, the opening up of railroads from Chicago that mostly bypassed Galena, the disruption of trade on the Mississippi River during the Civil War, and the depletion of the work force during the Civil War all contributed to the decline in the economic powerhouse of Galena. Galena’s population declined from a peak of 14,000 to less than 2500 by the mid 20th century. Galena never recovered and became almost a ghost town. However, artists from Chicago saw the many boarded up shops and homes in Galena as an opportunity to create and artist community and so began the slow recovery of Galena as an artist and tourist attraction. Since it did not continue to evolve as a town since the mid-1800s, the surviving buildings and mansions date from the this time and provide a unique snapshot of life in the 1800s. All of this history, as well as, the history of Ulysses S. Grant who lived in Galena just prior to and after the Civil War, re highlighted in the museum with two floors of exhibits.
1) There is a LOT to see and explore in the Galena and U.S. Grant Museum. The first floor of the museum is devoted to the history of Galena beginning with the geological and early native American story. I finally learned why this was called the Driftless Region and why there were the lead and zinc deposits in the area.
2) They have a number of artifacts from the lead mining days in the city and do a good job of explaining why lead mining was so important. While it is debatable whether the lead mining here or the copper mining on the Keewenah Peninsula was the first “mining boom”, it certainly drove the history of this area. They even have one of the original mine shafts uncovered when they added on the building that you can look down 30 feet to the where they did the mining.
3) The success of the lead mining led to the rapid increase in the size and splendor of the city, which was reinforced by the steamboat industry. During the mid 1800s, nearly all trade was done up by the Mississippi River and Galena grew to be the major port between St. Louis and St. Paul. They have a real nice model of the port at that time with highlighted buildings in town that still exist today. They even have a model of a steamboat that visitors can attempt to steer up the river to one of the docks.
4) There are also a number of early artifacts from the time that have been “discovered” during archeological research in town that are quite interesting.
5) The second floor of the museum is mostly devoted to Ulysses S. Grant and the Civil War. However, there are a couple of exhibits that are noteworthy besides these. First they have a room with maps of Illinois, both as a territory and a state, that illustrate how isolated Galena was for a long time. While lead mining and shipping on the Mississippi River were the life blood of Galena, settlement of the rest of the state was much slower and agriculture continued to improve to open up the prairie to farming.
6) The exhibit devoted to Ulysses S. Grant is also impressive with particular note of the exhibit about his father’s leathergoods store that initial brought Grant to Galena in 1960. He only worked there for one winter traveling to customers in the region before the Civil War started in 1861. I especially liked the exhibit about the other 8 Civil War Generals that came from Galena, more than any other city in the Union. Of course, some of these were promoted to General after their death in the war, but still it was an impressive accomplishment.