If ever there’s a place where you can truly step back in time, Galena (pop. 3,255) is it: Pass through the floodgates that protect the town from the namesake river (and the US-20 highway), and it’s like entering Brigadoon. Spawned by Wisconsin’s mid-19th-century lead-mining rush, Galena became the social and cultural capital of the Upper Mississippi basin. In the 1840s, while Chicago was still a mean collection of tents in a swamp around Fort Dearborn, and the Twin Cities were but a trading post in the woods around Fort Snelling, Galena was producing upward of 75 percent of the world’s lead, and the town was filled with bankers, merchants, and speculators who built mansions, hotels, and emporiums stuffed with fine goods and furnishings from around the world. This part of the Driftless Region saw some of the greatest wealth and commerce of the upper Mississippi, with Galena alone higher in population—some 15,000 lived here during the Civil War—than the entire Minnesota Territory.
But the California gold rush, played-out lead mines, a river silting up from miner-induced erosion, and a national economic panic all drove Galena to become a handsome ghost town that nobody bothered to tear down. For 100 years it slumbered, but beginning in the 1980s Galena was resurrected as a quaint tourist town. The brick warehouses were converted into shops and galleries, and anything but the most subtle, hand-carved signage was banned: In Galena, preserving the historical complexion of the streetscape isn’t just a good idea, it’s the law. The outskirts, especially along the US-20 frontage, are fairly typical roadside sprawl, and there are still a few everyday businesses in the historic core (including a funeral parlor and a large and busy metal foundry), but the overall feel is of a long-ago era. Even the innumerable galleries and shops selling T-shirts and “collectibles” can’t spoil the remarkable effect of the place. One essential: Park the car and stroll.
Besides the integrity of its mid-19th century buildings, Galena is famous as the town that saw a local store clerk win both the Civil War and the presidency. The modest Ulysses S. Grant Home (815/777-3310, 9am-4:45pm Wed.-Sun. except major holidays, $5) sits up Bouthillier Street in a quiet residential neighborhood across the river from downtown. Given to the general by a grateful group of local Republicans, the house is now a state historic site restored to the period immediately preceding Grant’s move to the White House. A small museum behind the house traces Grant’s life, from the Civil War to the presidency to his burial in Grant’s Tomb.
Even if you’re somehow blind to Galena’s manifold aesthetic and historical delights, you’ll probably enjoy its wide variety of food and lodging options. Unless you’re fortunate enough to be staying at one of Galena’s many B&Bs, the best choice for a good breakfast comes down to the Victory Café (200 N. Main St., 815/777-4407). Downtown also has at least one place for a reliably good and always cheerful dinner: the Log Cabin (201 N. Main St., 815/777-0393). Galena’s oldest restaurant, with a great big green-and-red sign that predates the town’s anti-neon ordinance, the Log Cabin is also known as “The House of Plenty” and has been serving up great steaks and a mix of industrial-strength Greco-Italian food since 1937. Galena also has a pair of great pizza places: Cannova’s (247 N. Main St., 815/777-3735) and Procento’s (105 Franklin St., 815/777-1640).
There are some 60-odd hotels, guest homes, and historic inns here in “the B&B capital of the Midwest.” The central DeSoto House (230 S. Main St., 815/777-0090 or 800/343-6562, $140 and up) was Ulysses S. Grant’s headquarters during his 1868 presidential campaign; the entire place was tastefully modernized during an $7.8 million renovation back in 1986. Smaller and perhaps more relaxing, the friendly Farmers Guest House (334 Spring St., 815/777-3456, $165 and up) is also right downtown. If you’re just passing through, the cheapest decent sleep is at the friendly and affordable Grant Hills Motel (9372 E. US-20, 815/777-2116 or 877/421-0924, $69 and up) east of town.
The Galena-Jo Daviess County Convention and Visitors Bureau operates an excellent visitors center (815/777-3557 or 800/747-9377), across the river via a pedestrian-only bridge, in the old Illinois Central Railroad depot at the base of Bouthillier Street. Stacks of brochures cover everything from accommodations to bike tours. This is also the best place to park the car, as spaces are at a premium in the often-crowded downtown area.