History Buffs in Galena and Jo Daviess County

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If you love history, you’re in for a treat in Jo Daviess County. Walk down any street and you’ll literally feel the history surround you. Beautifully preserved 19th century buildings. Balconies that Grant and Lincoln spoke from. Homes built by wealthy steamboat captains that speak of Galena’s rich past. Little miner cottages that dot the hillsides. Tales that were passed down from generation to generation (and documented in the town’s library). Grant, Lincoln, the railroad, whiskey, lead mining and even a couple movies — Field of Dreams and American Fable — all have stories here.

Ice glaciers and the Driftless Area

You can easily see that the terrain is vastly different from other parts of Illinois the minute you cross into the area. The depth of the rolling hills and valley is rather hard to describe though. To get the true impact of it, you simply have to experience it. The Galena and U.S. Grant Museum on Bench Street is a great place to learn about how this area came to be. You’ll hear about the Driftless Area and how Jo Daviess County was passed not once but four times by ice glaciers.

Lead mining, steamboats and Galena’s Golden Years

While you’re at the Museum learning about the Driftless Area, check out the stories of Galena’s prime when it was actually bigger than Chicago. During the mid-1800s, the rich lead in the area prompted the first major mineral rush in the U.S. This prompted farmers from the South, England, Wales and various other countries to rush the area to mine lead. At the same time, Galena’s location on the Mississippi and Galena Rivers made it the largest steamboat hub on the Mississippi River north of St. Louis. Steamboat captains built beautiful, grand homes. Entrepreneurs moved in. And downtown Galena took form. Galena was so prosperous during this era that many civic leaders thought it would be the hub of the Midwest for years to come. Many of these buildings and homes are still here. Look for plaques on the side of Main Street storefronts for interesting tidbits about these 19th century buildings.

Grant and Lincoln’s ties to the area

Grant’s tie to Galena Country started during its prime when his father moved to the area to set up a leather store. Grant himself even worked in his father’s shop before the Civil War. During the Civil War, Grant recruited friends and entrepreneurs he knew from Galena to help lead. This resulted in nine decorated generals coming from Galena alone. Thomas Nast’s “Peace in Union” painting at the Galena and U.S. Grant Museum shows the nine generals when Robert E. Lee surrendered to Grant. It’s massive and worth going over to see. Grant and Lincoln also had political ties to the area. In 1856, Lincoln gave a speech from the second floor balcony of the DeSoto House. Grant also ran his presidential campaign from the hotel. Two other great historic sites to check out include the Grant Home on Bouthillier Street which was gifted to him by the city after the war and Elihu Washburne’s home where Grant learned of his presidential win. Both homes are open to visitors and have original furnishings.

Galena and the Railroad

Railroads play an important role in Galena’s history, especially as they started replacing steamboats to be the primary mode of transportation. There’s a great museum in Elizabeth you can check out that has full-size caboose, both G-scale and HO-scale operating model railroads, and numerous artifacts of northwestern Illinois railroads. The museum also has over 1,000 railroad books that cover nearly every American railroad from past to present, as well as an award-winning interactive video exhibit.Video footage follows the railroad across the full breadth of the county and includes images from the construction to the abandonment of the Winston Tunnel. So be sure to put the Chicago Great Western Railway Depot Museum on your list of must-sees.