Outdoors in Galena

In an Illinois shopping town, tourists discover life beyond Main Street.

Paddlers in canoe see Galena from river.
A canoe glides past downtown Galena, through parkland that once was part of the river.

So you've done Galena — the shopping, the wine-tasting, the trolley tours, the historic houses.

What now?

This mining town in northwest Illinois boomed, went bust and came back as a boutique town for urban weekenders. Now, it's returning to nature.

Canoes and kayaks glide down a river once clogged with barges full of galena, or lead ore. Bicyclists follow on an old railroad spur. Birders prowl hillsides that once bristled with smelting chimneys.

Those hillsides, their trees shorn to feed the furnaces, gradually slid into the river, which had shrunk so much by 1910 that trade boats no longer could make the 4-mile trip from the Mississippi.

"Everything was done at the expense of the river," says Bill Norton of the Galena Historical Society. "The slag and dross from the smelters went into the river, and noxious fumes killed all the vegetation."

But today, all is green and peaceful. Herons glide over paddlers, and muskrats swim along the shore. On the Galena River Trail, hikers and bicyclists pass a wetland and patches of wildflowers along limestone cliffs.

One Memorial Day weekend, I paddled down the river with Norton and Merrilee Lee, the society's assistant director.

Galena's boom started in 1827, six years before Chicago was founded, but all its goods had to come up the river. By the 1850s, Chicago also was booming, and the newly rich merchant class went there to vacation and shop.

"Galenians often were criticized in Chicago's City Council for the amount of land-buying they were doing," Norton said. "They invested very heavily in Chicago, which turned out to be brilliant."

Once, 85 percent of the nation's lead came out of Galena, but demand waned after the Civil War, and after World War I, the town fell into a deep sleep.

"It was a slum; it was a working museum," Norton said. "It had vacancy rates of 70 percent and broken windows on Main Street."

Canoeists on the Galena River.
Canoes wind down the Galena River.

In the 1960s, Chicagoans came to Galena with money, investing heavily in the town. They renovated its untouched brick storefronts, and antiques dealers moved in. Mansions were made into B&Bs. Now it's a perfect little tourist town, filled with milling crowds every weekend in summer and fall.

As we rounded a corner lush with white and purple dame's rocket, ducklings paddled madly to get out of our path, and church bells rang from one of three white steeples. It was a pastoral scene, yet Lee wished she could see what Galena looked like during its first heyday.

"If I could go back for five minutes, that's what I would want to see, that view of all the steamboats and all the activity," she said.

In 1854, Galena was the most prosperous town on the Upper Mississippi. So it was the first stop on the Grand Excursion, a flotilla of Eastern railroad promoters, including former president Millard Fillmore.

For the sesquicentennial of the Grand Excursion, Galena spruced up its riverfront, putting in a levee walkway that now is one of the town's most popular attractions, Norton says.

Then the crushed-limestone Galena River Trail opened, following the river 3½ miles along cliffs and meadows.

Near the U.S. 20 bridge, an outfitters opened and began offering kayak and canoe tours of the river and bicycle and scooter tours of the countryside. A local dentist leads Saturday birding tours, and a conservation group hosts nature walks and events.

After our canoe excursion, we hiked two miles down the trail, stopping to watch a turtle. When we returned to the levee walkway, a backwards canoe race was under way. Jean Muchow and Lydia Zaya were there, too, laughing and cheering for two zigzagging young women.

By then, motorcycles were pouring into town, creating a din, and we could see bumper-to-bumper cars on Main Street.

"We usually don't come down on weekends," said Muchow, a lifelong Galena resident who says she prefers the town when it's quieter.

So does Zaya, who belongs to Friends of the Galena River Trail and comes into town on Tuesdays to walk with the group. But the retired Chicago transplant saw what Galena looked like before tourists came, so she doesn't mind the crowds.

"The Chicago people discovered Galena, and then the Chicago people saved it," she said. "Without tourists, we wouldn't have anything."

A boy on the Galena River banks.
The old river bed through Galena now is parkland.

Trip Trips: Outdoors in Galena, Illinois

How to get there: It's half an hour east of Dubuque, Iowa, and 3½ hours from downtown Chicago. For traditional visits, see Galena getaway.

Paddling: Nuts Outdoors rents kayaks and paddleboards and provides shuttles on weekends.

Hiking: The 4½-mile Galena River Trail follows the river south of town from the U.S. 20 bridge.

Skiing: In winter, there's alpine skiing at Chestnut Mountain Resort. For summer, the resort has an Alpine Slide, river cruises, disc golf, mini-golf, bike rentals and Segway tours.

Nature: The Jo Daviess Conservation Foundation offers tours of the 18-acre Buehler Preserve just north of town and nature events, such as guided wildflower and tree walks.

Birding: Birder Gregg Painter leads 2½-hour Saturday-morning field trips from the Galena Visitors Center. 815-777-0621.

Linmar Gardens: The private 3½-acre hillside garden at 504 S. Prospect St. includes a 20-foot waterfall and two gazebos and offers tours. 815-777-1177.

Accommodations, dining, tours and festivals: For more, see Galena getaway.

Information: Galena/Jo Daviess tourism, 877-464-2536.

Last updated on February 2, 2022

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