There's Something About Galena

by Scott Berman

A city frozen in time and steeped in history…

This city of 3,435—it seems bigger—is located in northwestern Illinois’ Jo Daviess County, on the Galena River about three miles from the Mississippi. Once a rival of Chicago that time passed by, the town today is a tourist spot with interesting restaurants and cafes, nightlife, art, specialty shops, crafts, fashion, bed and breakfasts, a farmer’s market, and nearby… vineyards, kayaking and balloon rides—the works. Two adjectives that apply here would be charming and romantic. There’s a local art scene with a rich history, and a creative, colorful New Age vibe floats through many of the downtown shops.

There’s something else about Galena: the town is associated with the general, president and face on the $50 bill, Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885), who lived there with his family when the Civil War broke out. Grant went from obscurity in Galena to become the victorious commander of the Union armies, and then the 18th president of the United States. He was President Abraham Lincoln’s most successful general, and his political successor after the war.

In his day and for decades afterward, Grant, a world traveler, was probably the most famous American who ever lived, with renown that encircled the globe. Today, he is part of a bygone era, but every so often there’s a popular reminder of him, as in Ken Burns’ 1990 Civil War documentary or last year’s Spielberg film, Lincoln. Such reminders point to a broader trend: Grant’s reputation has been on the upswing for some time.

The Grant Boom
Grant has always had his detractors; the issues—all of which have their counterarguments—are beyond the scope of this article. Yet, a piece in Slate magazine, albeit a decade ago, said it well when it detailed how “the nation is in the midst of an astonishing Grant boom,” as evidenced by his presidency’s improving ranking among historians, a public television program about his life, and renovations to Grant’s Tomb in New York City. The piece also mentions a rush of positive biographies and studies over the past 15 years or so, a trend that has continued until today. Being a Grant fan for years, I have been encouraged by such developments.

Grant’s standing has indeed improved, agrees Galena historian Steve Repp. And for Repp, who first visited the city as a tourist in 1979, liked it and stayed, the trend makes sense, because “Grant was a great American.” It’s a sentiment that extends far from Galena.

The sites related to Grant include his birthplace in Point Pleasant, Ohio; a boyhood home in Georgetown, both not far from Cincinnati; various public sculptures and markers in parks and cityscapes from San Francisco to Chicago to Washington, DC to Philadelphia to New York City and elsewhere, as far away as Tokyo, Japan, where he once visited.

There is West Point, where Grant was a cadet from 1839 to 1843, the Grant National Historic Site near St. Louis, where the childhood home of Grant’s wife, Julia Dent Grant, is preserved. Nearby, at Anheuser Busch’s Grant Farm, is Hardscrabble, a cabin that Grant built himself. There is also a lesser-known Grant family home in Burlington City, New Jersey. There’s Grant’s Tomb, as mentioned, in New York City. In upstate New York, near Saratoga Springs, is Grant’s Cottage, where he died, just after winning a race with death to finish his acclaimed Personal Memoirs, published by Grant’s friend, Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain.

A Stroll Through Time
Then there’s Galena, Grant’s home at a crucial time in his life—and that of the nation. The town has a rich, diverse history aside from its most famous citizen. For starters, Native Americans—the tribes included the Fox and Sac—were here centuries ago; the region eventually became filled with white settlers, and was a bustling lead and zinc mining town. There’s a tangible reminder of the mines: an original, 30-foot-deep shaft that you can peer into from within the Galena & U.S. Grant Museum, and it’s quite striking.

The city faded out in the 19th century for various reasons, and Repp notes that there was a silver lining: the lack of development preserved the city’s historic streetscape. That old-time look started drawing tours in the 1950s, he explains. Today, most of Galena is on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, and the architecture is fascinating.

One example: the Grant home, a state historic site on Bouthillier Street, and with about 80,000 visitors a year, the city’s most visited place. The attractive brick house, built in 1860, was presented, fully furnished, to Grant and his family in 1865. Taking the informative tour of the carefully preserved house and seeing the many artifacts and period furnishings is a real step back in time. It seems as if the Grant family may have just stepped out momentarily.

Other Galena sites connected to Grant and his time: the Old Market House, the DeSoto House Hotel, and the (Elihu) Washburne House, where the local congressman and Grant ally lived during the city’s heyday. At Grant Park, on the east side of the Galena River, there’s a fine statue of “Grant Our Citizen,” sculpted by a Danish immigrant in 1890, which depicts a modest, thoughtful man.

There’s another spot, on High Street, near the St. Matthew Lutheran Church. It’s an unmarked seven-room brick house with a white picket fence and a flagpole. Built in 1853-54, the house is easy to miss on the quietly attractive residential street. This was Grant’s pre-Civil War home, where he and his family lived from 1860 until the war took them elsewhere. It’s a private residence today, and has had just six owners in its entire history, says current owner and occupant, James Wirth.

Wirth tells of coming to Galena from Southern California decades ago to handle some family matters when the Grant house came on the market. “It was providential,” he says, and being a lifelong history buff, he jumped at the chance to buy it. He is proud of the house and its history, and reports that he has talked with the National Park Service about having it designated as a national landmark. His primary goal is to have the pre-Civil War home open to the public. Wirth feels this home, and Galena itself, are deeply important, because “it’s here that Grant makes his decision to volunteer and serve his country… It’s a turning point for the United States.”

Further, it’s a decision that’s of immediate relevance today, Wirth believes. Grant gave up his family life, home and his role in the family business, to join the cause for the Union. “He made up his mind to be of service,” says Wirth, and that is at the core of Grant’s continuing relevance.

Back to the Future
Galena, so steeped in history, is also looking ahead. One long-term goal is to construct an interpretative center near the Grant Home, and there’s a local initiative called Galena Vision 2020, which is gathering ideas about how to “move Galena forward.” Among the ideas: develop the city’s waterfront and river; expand trails for hiking and bicycles; build a center for the cultural and performing arts; and incidentally, “purchase Grant’s home on High Street.”

Yet another surveyed suggestion: improve local sidewalks. In that, some things remain constant: Grant himself supposedly quipped that his chief goal politically was to get the Galena City Council to lay a sidewalk on his street. When the victorious general returned to Galena for a visit in August 1865, a banner was hung in town that read: “General! The sidewalk is built.”

Another photograph of the period shows a larger sign that appeared over Main Street for a welcoming ceremony during that 1865 visit. It read “Hail to the chief who in triumph advances,” along with a list of key battles won by Grant’s forces. Thousands are gathered around the platform, with onlookers leaning out of the windows of the DeSoto House Hotel to catch a glimpse of the general.

I had seen that photograph in books since I was a kid, yet something about it was different now. Having strolled down that street, I had a sense of where the photographer stood, the streetscape, a church spire in the distance, the hillside beyond.

For me, the dramatic scene from 148 years ago now seems closer somehow. And the thought occurs that there really is, indeed, something about Galena. a&s

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