Galena’s Tourism Industry: It’s Older Than You Think

By Daryl Watson

If you think Galena’s tourism industry developed over the past 15 or 20 years, guess again. In point of fact, Galena has been a noted travel and tour destination for over 150 years! There have been ups and downs, to be sure, but the record is clear: as a long standing travel destination, Galena remains one of the top three in Illinois (along with Springfield and Chicago).

Galena started out as a frontier mining town. It was platted in 1826 and given a name that means lead sulfide in Latin. Galena quickly became the hub and mercantile center of the first major mineral rush in U.S. history.

In fact, no one had seen anything quite like it. Northern Illinois was largely uninhabited at the time, but the Mississippi River and the steamboat permitted migrants to leap frog into the area to seek their fortunes.

They came from southern Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia. New England sent many, as did Ireland, England and Germany. Reports of the mining boom-town on the frontier quickly spread.

By the 1840s Galena was the largest river port north of St. Louis and was the chief beneficiary of a region producing over 80% of the nation’s lead. Galena boats gained a near monopoly on the Upper River trade as the city sought to enhance its position in trade, commerce and transportation.

Steamboat captains vied with each other to provide the fastest and most commodious service to the traveler. While immigrant miners, farmers and tradesmen were most numerous, the boat owners increasingly catered to a growing group of tourists, or “excursionists”. Demand for excursions on Daniel Smith Harris’ new boat, The War Eagle, was such that the respected captain established one of the first regular tourist packages in 1845:

“The War Eagle is a new and Splendid Boat, and will be two weeks making the trip. Capt. Harris intends to make a pleasure excursion a reality, and will stop at all places of curiosity or amusement as long as the passengers may desire. A Band of Music will be on Board. Strangers and Travelers will have a fine opportunity of visiting one of the most beautiful and romantic countries in the world.”

In 1854 there was a Grand Excursion, sponsored by the Rock Island Railroad, celebrating the first rail link to the Mississippi River. Hundreds of VIPs from the east were treated to the sites and sounds of the Upper Mississippi River. Galena boats proudly carried the curiosity seekers up the river. The first stop, not surprisingly, was Galena, complete with the obligatory lead mine tour.

Perhaps few things did more to put Galena on the “must see” map than Ulysses S. Grant. Hardly anyone knew him in the spring of 1860 when he arrived on the Itasca to help his two brothers in a family leather goods store. But when he returned a victorious general after the Civil War, over 25,000 came to cheer him on. More than a few sought out the store where he had worked, and everyone wanted to see his new house, a gift from well-heeled supporters in the community. While Grant and his family rarely stayed at the home, the string of visitors was never-ending. Such was the public’s interest that the family deeded the property to the City of Galena in 1904 following Mrs. Grant’s death.

The Grant Home had become a significant tourist attraction by this time, but not until the hard-surfacing of U.S. Highway 20 (originally called the U.S. Grant Highway) in the mid 1920s did visitorship reach “mega” levels. The Galena Gazette on October 24, 1927 reported the town’s first automobile traffic jam:

1,300 Visitors at Grant Memorial Home
…the Grant Memorial Home…is increasing the pilgrimages from all parts of the United States to this historic and picturesque city. It was thought the week and holidays such as Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day drew the largest possible crowd, but Sunday had those days shaded. There were 1300 visitors registered at the Grant Memorial Home…Autos blocked Bouthillier Street for an hour at a time…with cars parked all over the street…the bulk of the cars seemed to be from Freeport, Rockford, Elgin, Rochelle, Dixon, DeKalb, Sterling, Savanna, Mt. Carroll, Fulton and Kankakee.

Such numbers were beginning to impact the local economy. The Gazette noted that restaurants and hotels “were taxed to the capacity over the week-end”. It was also noted that the Grant Home custodian, assuming an average tip of 10 cents, was “well repaid for the work”. It is little wonder that the city of Galena, overwhelmed by Grant Home activity, deeded the property to the State of Illinois in 1931.

A few short years later, in 1938, the Galena History Museum was established and efforts began to save the Old Market House. Artists had already “discovered” the town and collectively the seeds of modern-day preservation and tourism were being sown. WWII intervened, but by the late 1950s Galena was widely recognized as an architectural and historical gem in the making. The rest is history.

Materials relating to this story are available in the files of the Galena History Museum and the Historical Collections Room of the Galena Public Library.