A Brief History Of Galena, Illinois

Galena is the largest city in Jo Daviess County, Illinois. It is also the county seat, with a population of just under 3,500. Although it is a relatively small place, Galena is steeped in history, with many buildings of historical architectural interest. The city lies in the extreme northwest corner of the state of Illinois on the Galena River, a tributary of the mighty Mississippi River. It is a very popular tourist town, and TripAdvisor quite rightly included it in its top 10 list of “Charming Small Towns” in 2011.

First Settlers
The first people known to inhabit the Galena area were Native Americans of the Sac and Fox tribes. They discovered the mineral known today as galena, a form of lead sulphate and an important lead ore, that gave the town its name. The Native Americans mined the mineral and used it in body painting. When the first Americans arrived in the area in the early part of the 19th century, they too mined the lead ore and had it shipped down the Mississippi River.

By the mid 19th century, Jo Daviess County was producing some 80% of all the lead in the USA, and Galena was right at the heart of it. The city, chartered in 1841, shipped close to a record 55 million pounds of lead in 1845, and had a blossoming population of 14,000. This was its heyday. As the demand for lead ore declined, and as the California Gold Rush got under way in earnest, Galena’s fortunes waned and its population dropped steadily to where it stands today.

Civil War
Galena contributed considerably to the Civil War effort. Nine war generals on the Union side, including Ulysses S. Grant, all came from Galena, making it the city with more generals per capita than any other in the nation. There have also been notable entertainers and politicians who lived in the city. Abraham Lincoln once gave a speech from the DeSoto House Hotel balcony, as did Stephen A. Douglas, an Illinois Senator, nominated for President in the 1960 election, but who lost to Lincoln.

Ulysses S. Grant was Galena’s most famous inhabitant. His father once owned a tanning store in the city, and the young Ulysses lived and worked with him at one time. His father, Jesse, had English ancestry, and his mother, Hannah, had Scottish ancestry. Grant returned to Galena as a war hero in 1865. The city bought an Italianate building, built by Alexander J. Jackson, and presented it to their famous son. Grant lived there with his family for a while, and during his presidency he often visited. The last time he was in Galena was in 1880.

Historic District
The Galena Historic District covers around 85% of the city. The number of fine buildings in the district owe their existence to a city prohibition on wooden structures, following a spate of dangerous fires in the area. This has resulted in a large number of historic brick and stone buildings, still in very good condition today. Among the best known historic architecture in Galena, are, The DeSoto House Hotel on Main Street, the Flatiron Building on Main Street, the St. Rose Academy on bench Street, and the Dowling House.

One other notable building is the Ryan Mansion, now a bed and breakfast. This is a beautiful Victorian mansion that stands in its own grounds. It features Czechoslovakian ruby glass windows, nine marble fireplaces (there were 12 originally), and two windows aligned exactly to the summer and fall equinoxes. The light of sunrise shines through one window on the summer equinox, and the afternoon light shines through another window at the fall equinox.

Galena has many attractions and tours for visitors to enjoy, including one walking tour by the ghost of Annie Wiggins, but it’s all in good fun. The city is small and it’s population small too, but it packs a big punch when it comes to history. It doesn’t have the sprawling size of Chicago, Illinois, but it is an extremely popular tourist destination that is thriving. No wonder that TripAdvisor named Galena as one of the top “Charming Small Towns” in America.

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Burt Webbs is a freelance writer based in Galena, Illinois who enjoys studying historical landmarks.  Mr. Webbs has a passion for writing about Galena lodging, especially Galena IL Bed and Breakfast locations.