This past weekend my wife and I took a short vacation to Galena, IL to practice our snowboarding in advance an upcoming trip to Colorado. We were encouraged by friends who recommended Chestnut Mountain, a reasonable 3.5 hour drive from downtown Chicago. Apparently, we were among the last Chicagoans to learn about this favorite getaway.
Chestnut Mountain offered 22 groomed trails down a riverside bluff to the mighty Mississippi. Though the trails could only be described as a light warmup to the Rockies, the vista was every bit a reflection of nature’s awesomeness. The lifts had short lines, and the price was right. The resort offered more than we expected.
Downtown Galena was also a pleasant surprise. The town offers a rare glance into the past. Much of historic downtown Galena remains unchanged from the mid-1800s, save the major conversion to automobile traffic. The history of the city’s preservation began in the 1840s and 50s when a series of significant fires devastated the ramshackle wooded structures of the mining town’s business district. Ordinances followed which required robust wood and masonry construction. Galena boasts the oldest residence in the State. The Dowling House was constructed on 1826 with limestone block and served as a trading post for many years.
For many decades the city flourished because of nearby lead mining operations and their ability to ship their product down the Galena River to the Mississippi. Galena reached a population of 14,000 and even attracted Ulysses S. Grant and his family to reside there before and after the Civil War. Upon his triumphant return from war, Grant was presented with a new Italianate brick home in 1865 by enthusiastic local supporters. Perched on a hill opposite the Galena River from the downtown business district, Grant had one of the best views in town. The home has been open to the public since 1904.
Shortly after the Civil War, Galena and the Nation faced an economic depression. Over time the lead trade slowed as well. Galena was hit worse by economic events than most cities and never recovered. Fortunately for the preservation of the old downtown, few investors had the means to tear down or otherwise modernize the old structures. As early as the 1930s, Galena was well positioned as a tourist destination for the newly mobile middle class of Chicago looking for a place to drive their new automobiles.
Inundation of the Galena River remained a risk through the years. Fortunately, no major flooding occurred during the city’s golden age of development. In 1937 a series flood swept through the city. Fortunately, preservation of the city was now an important concern of local and national interests. The Corps of Engineers constructed a flood wall with flood gates on the banks of the Galena River. With assurances that no more floods would damage the first floor retail, downtown proprietors could invest more in upgrading the streetscape.
The town fortunately survived ill-conceived an plans for “urban renewal” in the form of a department store and supermarket. Instead the town managed to pass a preservation ordinance to encourage accurate restoration of buildings. Much of Galena was included in the National Register of Historic Places. Galena is pleasant surprise – a city that has beaten the odds to preserve it’s historic architecture and character.