Grant's Galena, Illinois
Is the Mississippi River Town at Risk?
By Sudip Bose | Online Only | November/December 2008
Category: Destinations Doing Well
Illinois may be the Land of Lincoln, but it's also the Land of Grant—Ulysses S. Grant, that is. In 1860, the West Point grad and future 18th president disembarked from a riverboat and landed in Galena, a thriving Mississippi River town in northern Illinois. Soon, he would be off to the battlegrounds of Shiloh and Vicksburg, and then on to the White House, but he never forgot the bustling port.
Tour this picturesque town of 3,600, which first boomed after the discovery of lead ore in the region, and you'll know that Galena hasn't forgotten its most famous resident either. You can visit, for example, the Ulysses S. Grant Home State Historic Site, a stately Italianate mansion that the people of Galena presented to Grant, in commemoration of his Civil War exploits. It's just one of the many grand residences that populate this historic town, which boasts more than 1,000 buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places. And what a variety of architectural styles it features—Greek Revival, Italianate, Gothic Revival, and Queen Anne classics, many of the buildings carefully restored in the 1960s, a time of rebirth in Galena.
More than a million visitors—hungry for authenticity, for a taste of 19th-century life in a well-preserved small town—descend upon Galena each year. They flock to such places as the 1822 Vinegar Hill Historic Leadmine and Museum, the 1857 J. Russell Jones mansion, and the DeSoto House Hotel, reportedly the oldest in Illinois, where the likes of Abraham Lincoln and Ralph Waldo Emerson once checked in. As the panelists at National Geographic Traveler found out, the historic downtown core, with its row of impressive commercial buildings, has handled these crowds quite well. The threat to Galena's historical integrity, they say, lies outside the city limits.
"The architectural heritage of Galena has remained largely and remarkably intact," writes one of the panelists, "and has become a primary source of tourism and heritage travel for the area, in conjunction with the proximity to relatively undeveloped rural areas. However, it is experiencing some development pressure both from neighboring communities, as well as from potential large-scale agricultural developments."
As another panelist put it, "Serious attention needs to be directed to land use planning surrounding Galena. Historic view corridors are threatened by new development. The charm of this small city's setting in the landscape is seriously at risk."
That assessment is certainly at odds with what many of Galena's residents think, however. According to Betsy Eaton, the executive director of the Galena/Jo Daviess County Convention and Visitors Bureau, big-box stores such as Wal-Mart exist two miles or so outside downtown and do not compete with the shops in the historic town center—its boutiques, for example, antiques shops, and gourmet food stores.
Furthermore, she says, the influx of tourists has only deepened the town's interest in preservation. "It helps that we've had city council members as well as mayors in Galena who are committed to historic preservation," Eaton says. "We have very strict zoning ordinances in terms of what can and cannot be built within the historic district, which includes 85 percent of the town's buildings. We have a pristine example of 19th-century architecture here, and we're committed to preserving it."
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