Grant's Galena, Illinois

Is the Mississippi River Town at Risk?


Medium-sized image unavailable for this photo.
Mesker buildings have ornate sheet-metal facades
like the one on this Main Street store in Galena, Ill.

Credit: Illinois State Historic Preservation Agency

Galena, Ill.

Score: 69

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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Submitted by Buckeyebb at: January 20, 2009
I don't understand, if Grant were born in a suburb of Cincinnati and didn't come to Illinois until after he graduated from West Point, how is he considered being FROM Illinois?

Submitted by Claire at: November 18, 2008
One thing that this and the National Geographic Traveler article missed is the fact that some of these towns actually still have humans living in the old homes, in the old district. I've lived in Galena for 7+ years, lived in Old Town Alexandria, and visited or lived in many other US old towns. I have to say that it can be difficult to walk the fine line between purist preservation and maintaining a livable, vibrant community. We need to be able to buy groceries at a reasonable price, get our children to school. Unless you're a super DIY kind of person, most work, even the most minimal costs considerably more than it would if you lived out in the suburbs. One problem that seems to be coming up among my friends lately is that they want to stay in Galena, but they can no longer live out in the country, where getting to the hospital or grocery store is a huge problem in the winter, or they can no longer do the stairs required when living in an old home on the side of a hill. So, do we allow development outside of town? How can we not? I'm personally of two minds, my husband works on the problem. But it isn't easy to make an 1800s house work in the future without compromising the historic integrity. We, and that includes many other communities I've visited or lived in, struggle with this question. I agree with everyone from Galena have mentioned. There are many who simply put up structures or vinyl siding or other verbotten "improvements", figuring that no one will make them tear it down, under the "easier to apologize than ask permission" theory of life. But most of us try. Tourists need to understand that they aren't visiting Disneyland.

Submitted by Observer at: October 29, 2008
I have to dissagree with "I live there's" comments. I live there too. I've been to many Historic Review Board meetings and City Council meetings. The Board absolutely discourages vinyl and aluminum siding in most cases even if the building isn't significant but is in a streetscape that would make it inappropriate. And they recently fought valantly to keep a home owner from removing an original feature on his home. The City Council overturned their decision, as they did two other significant decisions that I can think of. Further, the whole purpose of the Highway 20 Corridor Overlay District that was put in place several years ago was to protect the view sheds and the context of Galena. That ordinance greatly tightened the restictions on building heights, materials and signage along Highway 20. That's because they do see things in context and that each part of the city is a part of the puzzle. Over $100,000 was spent writing that ordinance and the comprehensive plan and putting them in place. That's a lot of money to commit for a city of only 3,600 that supposedly doesn't care. As in any community, local politics and local residents can get in the way of the best of intentions. It's unfair to say the Review Board, City Council or Zoning Board just doesn't care. They do the best they can with the circumstance before them.

Submitted by I live there at: October 25, 2008
Galena is at much more risk than you realize. First, there's the county board which has at best a mild interest in preservation. Then you have the local city adminstration, whose notion is that if it's not downtown, it's anything goes. And they see no relation to the setting of Galena at all.There is currently in place zoning to protect the route 20 view corridor that the zoning board constantly ignores. The historic review board does not understand the concept of a historic district, that all the small pieces of the puzzle contribute to a much larger whole, so what they consider insignificant properties are allowed to be covered in vinyl or aluminum siding. This same board never questions the retention of original material, if you want to rip out 150 year old windows on Main Street and replace them with simulated divided lites, go ahead. The National Trust needs to put this town on probation!