December 7, 2023 in Illinois

How Galena, Illinois Earned the Nickname “Little Chicago”

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Early History

The history of Galena begins long before the first European settlers arrived. Native American tribes, including the Sauk, Fox and Potawatomi, inhabited the area for thousands of years. They came to the region to mine and trade lead, which was abundant in the local geology.

In the 1820s, European settlers began arriving to the area that would become Galena. They discovered the lead deposits and established a mining camp. This sparked a lead mining boom that caused Galena’s population to grow rapidly in the 1830s and 1840s. Miners came from across the country and around the world seeking fortune. At one point Galena had the busiest Mississippi River port between St. Louis and St. Paul. It was the largest city in Illinois for several years.

The early growth of Galena was fueled by these rich lead deposits. Mining operations drove the city’s development during the first half of the 19th century. This frontier mining boomtown became an important economic hub on the Mississippi River.

Prominent Visitors

The town of Galena attracted prominent figures throughout the 1800s and early 1900s, likely due to its location along the Mississippi River and burgeoning lead mining industry.

The most famous visitor was Ulysses S. Grant, who moved to Galena in 1860. Grant worked in his brothers’ leather goods shop before leaving to fight in the Civil War. Visitors can still see Grant’s home and the leather shop today as part of Galena’s history.

Abraham Lincoln also visited Galena while campaigning for president in 1856. Lincoln gave a speech endorsing the Republican party’s values at a large rally in Galena’s Wheaton Park.

Author Mark Twain first visited Galena in 1855. Twain worked as a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River and often passed through Galena. He later wrote about Galena in his memoir Life on the Mississippi, published in 1883. The town left an impression on the famous author.

The visits from these legendary figures speak to Galena’s unique place in American history during the mid-1800s. The town was an important stop along the Mississippi River and a hub for commerce and politics, attracting the nation’s future leaders. Galena provides a window into pivotal moments in America’s past.

The Civil War Era

The Civil War had a significant impact on Galena, which was part of a Union state. While the city did not see any battles, it served as a major hub for organizing and supplying Union troops. By 1863, nearly all of Galena’s able-bodied men had joined the war effort.

The most famous of Galena’s recruits was Ulysses S. Grant, who worked in his father’s tannery before leaving to fight in the war in 1861. By the end of the Civil War in 1865, Grant had become Commanding General of the Union Army and received an honorary promotion to General of the Army in 1866. He was later elected the 18th president of the United States in 1869.

Grant returned to Galena as a war hero and was greeted with a grand reception and banquet. The citynamed him the honorary Chair of the Soldiers Aid Society to provide support for soldiers. The DeSoto House hotel has a room dedicated to Grant’s time in Galena, with memorabilia from his military service and presidency on display.

Though Grant is its most famous veteran, Galena had over 1,000 residents serve in the Union Army during the war. Those who were injured or disabled received support from the state and federal soldiers aid societies. A Soldiers Orphans Home was also established in 1865 to care for children whose fathers did not return from the war.

The Civil War left a lasting legacy on Galena and shaped its identity as the historic hometown of Ulysses S. Grant. The city remembers its veterans through memorials like the eternal flame at Grant Park and the statue of a Civil War soldier standing guard atop Dowling Hill.

Industry and Economy

Galena was built on lead mining, which drove its early growth in the 1820s-1840s. The first major lead ore vein was discovered by early settlers in 1821, sparking a lead mining boom. For several decades, Galena was the busiest Mississippi River port between St. Louis and St. Paul because of all the lead being shipped out. By the 1840s, Galena was producing nearly 85% of the nation’s lead.

However, by the 1870s, the lead started playing out. With no new major lead ore discoveries, Galena’s mining economy declined over the next few decades. This forced the city to shift its economic focus. The lumber industry rose to partly fill this void starting in the 1880s. Lumber mills harnessed the area’s ample natural resources of wood and the Galena River’s power to drive the mills. For several decades, lumber was a major part of Galena’s economy and shaped the city’s development.

Other new industries also developed like boat building and furniture crafting. Though Galena’s economy modernized and diversified over the late 1800s into the next century, it never regained the nationwide prominence it held during the peak mining years earlier in the century. Still, Galena proved resilient by successfully transitioning away from reliance on a single industry.

Immigrant Influences

Galena saw a large influx of German immigrants during the mid-1800s. This was driven by crop failures and political unrest in Germany at the time, leading many Germans to seek better opportunities in America.

The German immigrants had a significant impact on Galena’s culture and identity. They brought with them strong traditions of music, arts, and brewing. Turner halls were established in Galena as community centers where Germans could gather to sing, dance, and perform theater. The influx of German immigrants also led to the opening of many breweries and beer gardens in Galena during the mid to late 1800s. This established a strong brewing tradition in the town that continues today.

German architecture and building techniques also influenced Galena’s look and feel. Brick and stone buildings constructed by German masons and contractors can be seen throughout downtown Galena. The German immigrants helped establish Galena as a regional hub of commerce in the Midwest, drawing on their skills in business and industry. Overall, the large German population shaped Galena into a thriving town with a unique culture during the mid to late 1800s. The German heritage can still be felt strongly in Galena today.

20th Century Changes

In the early 20th century, Galena’s economy shifted as the demand for lead declined. The city’s picturesque downtown and preserved 19th century architecture drew interest from tourists. Galena increasingly focused on tourism, with main street buildings converted into antique stores, restaurants, and inns.

Preservation efforts accelerated in the 1970s when a large portion of the city was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Non-profit groups such as Main Street Galena work to preserve the city’s historic charm. Tourism continues to be the driving force of Galena’s economy today. Historic preservation ensures Galena maintains its 19th century character amidst the tourists, gift shops, and bed and breakfasts of the present day.


Galena is renowned for its preserved 19th century buildings and homes built in a variety of architectural styles. The city has over 4,500 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places.

One of the most prominent architectural styles seen throughout Galena is Greek Revival. This style was popular in the United States during the 1830s-1850s. Greek Revival buildings have a formal, geometric style often with a gabled or hipped roof, front porch with columns, decorative moldings, and rectangular transoms and sidelights around doorways. The roof cornice is emphasized with a wide band of trim and the entryway has an elaborate crown supported by pilasters. Some excellent examples of Greek Revival buildings in Galena include the Italianate home of Ulysses S. Grant, the Belvedere Mansion, the DeSoto House Hotel, and Turner Hall.

In addition to Greek Revival, Galena’s downtown also features Italianate, Gothic Revival, Queen Anne, and other Victorian architectural designs on brick and stone buildings from its boom era. The Galena Historic District contains over 85 percent of its original buildings. Much effort has gone into restoration and preservation of these historic structures. Buildings damaged by fires or in poor condition have been repaired and rehabilitated. This has helped maintain the authentic nineteenth century look and feel of downtown Galena. Historic building preservation continues to be an important priority for the city today.

Steamboating Era

For much of the 19th century, Galena was an important steamboating hub on the Mississippi River. Steamboats transported passengers, goods and supplies on the river, connecting Galena to other cities and expanding commerce.

By the 1850s, Galena was one of the busiest ports on the upper Mississippi. During this time, Main Street was often lined with steamboats loading and unloading. The Jenny Lind, Spread Eagle and andere boats were frequent visitors.

Steamboats enabled Galena’s access to broader markets. Goods like lead, wheat and pork could be shipped downstream. Finished products and manufactured items arrived from eastern cities. This river trade catalyzed Galena’s growth in the 1800s.

The arrival of railroads proved a challenge to steamboats. As rail lines expanded, they provided faster and more reliable freight transport. By the 1870s, railroads had begun to eclipse steamboats for shipping. While steamboats remained in use, railroads now connected Galena more directly to major hubs like Chicago.

The days of Galena as a steamboat boomtown dwindled. But the steamboating era had fueled the city’s development and left a lasting impact. Steamboats remain an iconic symbol of Galena’s heritage.

Galena Today

Galena has evolved from its origins as a lead mining town to a vibrant tourism destination that draws visitors from around the region and country. While the days of active lead mining ended in the mid-1900s, Galena has preserved its historic downtown and architecture to showcase its rich history.

Today, Galena’s economy is fueled by heritage tourism. Historic downtown Galena boasts boutique shops, restaurants, galleries, and museums that allow visitors to step back in time. Main Street has been recognized as a National Historic Landmark District. Tourists can explore sites like the Ulysses S. Grant Home, Old Market House, and Dowling House. Area wineries, breweries, distilleries, orchards, and local eateries also cater to visitors.

Outdoor recreation like boating, fishing, camping, and hiking along the Galena River are popular warm weather activities. The area offers beautiful foliage in the fall and opportunities for cross country skiing in winter. Events like the Halloween Parade, Dickens on Main, Old Fashioned Christmas, and hot air balloon races give tourists more reasons to visit Galena year-round.

Thanks to preservation and promotion of its historic assets, Galena has successfully transformed into a quaint Midwest tourism destination. The town embraces its past while offering modern amenities to visitors looking to shop, dine, explore, and relax amidst the iconic architecture and rolling hills.

Notable People

Galena has been home to many notable people throughout its history. The most famous of these is Ulysses S. Grant, the 18th President of the United States.

Grant moved to Galena in 1860 and worked in his brothers’ leather goods business. In April 1861, after the beginning of the Civil War, Grant volunteered and was appointed colonel of the 21st Illinois Infantry. His military leadership and battlefield successes led Abraham Lincoln to appoint him as lieutenant general in command of all Union armies in 1864. After the war, Grant was elected president in 1868 and served two terms. The home Grant lived in during his time in Galena still stands today and is a popular tourist attraction.

Other notable past Galena residents include:

  • William Burt – surveyor and inventor who patented the first solar compass and solar surveyor’s table
  • Elihu B. Washburne – US Congressman and diplomat, private secretary to Grant during the Civil War
  • John Rawlins – Lawyer, helped Grant with his drinking problems and later appointed Secretary of War
  • Corydon Beckwith – Brigadier General during the Civil War
  • Augustus C. Dodge – US Senator from Iowa, Minister to Spain
  • John Dement – Veteran of the Blackhawk War, early settler, state legislator

The beautiful architecture and small town charm of Galena has attracted many artists, writers, and creative people over the years. Notable figures include poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox, novelist Edna Ferber, and sculptor Alexander Phimister Proctor. Galena continues to be an inspiring place that has produced many notable residents who have made important contributions on both local and national levels.

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