Saturday, August 29, 2009

With new eyes

There is no better way to view your home than to go away for a while. We did just that as we spent some time in Galena, the quaint picture postcard town, largest city and county seat of Jo Daviess County in northwest Illinois. "The town that time forgot" is not the official motto of Galena, but it just as well could be. Virtually every building in the heart of Galena dates back to the mid nineteenth century and history pervades every brick and pour of the place. Historic preservation is something taken for granted, unlike here in Chicago, but more on that later.

Galena is a bit of a curiosity if you come upon it without knowing a little of its history. As you take U.S. Highway 20 west out of Freeport, IL, you notice the landscape begin to change. The flat prairie gives way to gently rolling hills that eventually become less gentle. The region is part of a driftless area, that is, not flattened by glaciers that formed most of our Midwest landscape thousands of years ago. As you crest a particularly tall hill that hosts a now defunct lookout tower, you get your first glimpse of the church spires of Galena. It is a particularly lovely setting. From here you descend into the valley carved out in part by the little river which divides the town in two. Unlike the modest rural communities that you passed along the way, here you are met by glorious mansions of Italianate and Greek Revival style indicating that this was a thriving place. Homes like these are not unusual in the towns along the Mississippi River which experienced great prosperity during the heyday of the steamboat in the 1800s. But Galena is 20 miles from the great river. The stream that runs through town barely rates the term river, it is narrow enough for my eight year old son to easily throw a pebble across it.

It was once named the Fever River, its name changed to the Galena for obvious reasons. Once it was indeed a formidable stream, 200 to 300 feet across depending on which story you believe. The region sits upon land that was once rich in lead, its mines supplied eighty percent of the nation's supply of the metal. The term Galena is Latin for lead sulfide, the mineral found in lead ore. The town's advantageous position on the Fever River allowed steamboats to arrive in town to ship the lead extracted out of the ore out of town downstream toward the Big River and beyond. The lead and steamboat industries made Galena rich and its mansions are a testament to that era. It was believed that Galena would one day become the preeminent city in Illinois. It's not very difficult to understand why that did not happen. Lead was over-mined and eventually ran out. By-products from the mining ended up in the Galena along with the soil eroded from aggressive deforestation, silting the river up to the point where it became impassable for the steamboats. This however became a moot point as the railroad made the steamboats obsolete. What was significant were the floods that came due to the plugging up of the river which still was responsible for the draining of the region. By the late 1800s Galena became just another sleepy rural burg, albeit a very pretty one.

During its heyday, Galena was visited by several prominent characters on the American Scene. It seems that few of these visits went unnoticed and are not commemorated today by a plaque somewhere in town. Some of the visitors decided to stay. The most notable of course was General Ulysses S. Grant. Grant ended up in Galena in 1860 as a down and out former Army officer from Ohio who looked to improve his family's situation by working at his father's leather shop. At the outbreak of the Civil War, he reenlisted and quickly moved up the ranks. While it would be unfair to claim that Grant's success as a Civil War leader was dumb luck, it is not inaccurate to say that he proved to be the least incompetent officer among a group of overly cautious, indecisive, and ineffective Union generals. He quickly got the attention of President Lincoln as a determined commander who more often than not achieved results. After several unconventional and costly victories, most notably at Vicksburg and Chattanooga, the president named Grant general-in-chief of all the armies of the United States. From that position he would orchestrate the winning of the war. He returned to Galena to a glorious welcome and the leading citizens of the town pooled their money to purchase a house fit for a hero. The Grant family did not live long in the house as the General was elected president three years later in 1868. The home, modest by Galena standards, sits on a prominent hill overlooking town, and is one of Galena's prime attractions.

While he spent only a few years there, Grant's legacy looms large, his memory has become an industry of sorts which accounts for much of the town's success today. Over one million tourists visit Galena every year.

They visit as we did, to get away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. They come for the natural beauty, for the excellent recreational opportunities, the fine dining, and of course to experience a little bit of history. For our country, which has a serious case of historical amnesia, this is a good thing. But history in Galena is served up on a palatable platter. Apart from the buildings, Galena bears little resemblance to the town of Grant's time. The lead smelters and steamboats are long gone, replaced by fresh air and kayaks. There are no longer trains picking up and dropping off passengers at the lovely Illinois Central Depot which now is a tourist center. Main Street is filled with boutiques, art galleries, up-scale restaurants, candy and toy stores and the ubiquitous souvenir shops. Gone are the establishments that catered to the everyday needs of residents, grocery stores, apothecaries, dry goods stores. Plaques mark the storefronts they once occupied.

There are a few reminders to keep the visitor aware that this is a still real place. Enormous flood gates greet the visitor entering Main Street as well as a massive levy built along the river, protect the city from the river that once brought prosperity. And while the Grant memorabilia doesn't exactly evoke the tragedy of the Civil War, the enormous turkey vultures that patrol the skies above town area a constant reminder of the fragility of life.

Naturally much has changed here in Chicago as well over the last century. Most of the industries responsible for its development as a thriving metropolis are gone. But they have been replaced by other industries, and the ebb and tide of life that defines the city has not diminished. The urban experience is as much about living people as it is about buildings and ghosts.

Galena is a remarkable place filled with natural and man made beauty. You get there and the smell of the air is different, the birdsong is different, and on a clear night you can see the Milky Way. There is an understandable pride of place among the inhabitants. It is a wonderful place for a vacation.

But it's good to be home.

No comments: