In his memoirs, Ulysses S. Grant makes scant mention of the April 1860 afternoon that he moved with his family to the port town of Galena, Illinois, on a Mississippi tributary 144 miles northwest of Chicago. Perhaps that's understandable. The West Point graduate who would become the greatest Union general of the Civil War and a two-term president had seen his attempts at farming and real estate speculation fail; he had even pawned his watch to buy Christmas gifts for his children. Now he was moving to work as a clerk in his father's leather-goods store.
On that spring day, Grant followed his wife, Julia, and their four children, Frederick, Ulysses, Ellen and Jesse, down the riverboat Itaska's gangplank onto Galena's bustling wharf. Then, hoisting all that they owned, the family clambered up steep steps to South High Street, where a small, red brick rented house awaited them. Once settled in, Grant spent his days selling harnesses and saddles to fellow Galenans, many of whom worked in the lead mine on the outskirts of town. In the evening, the future president read newspapers and played with his children. "Although [Grant] was occupying a rather humble position," Julia later recalled, "we were happy."
Today, Grant's little house still overlooks the town cemetery, its brick walls, emerald-green shutters and white trim virtually unchanged from that April day so long ago. Indeed, most of Galena appears as it did in Grant's day.
A concentration of 19th-century architecture, from Federal-style storefronts to Italianate mansions, has earned the town the sobriquet "outdoor museum of the Victorian Midwest." It attracts more than a million visitors annually.
Fox and Sauk Indians first mined the area's rich lead deposits (processing the soft, grayish metal into body paint). White settlers, who arrived as early as 1690, named the town after the Latin word for lead ore, galena. As miners flocked there in the 1820s, the rural outpost grew into a busy river port; steamboats the size of football fields hauled its ore down the Mississippi. By the 1830s, Galena's population (1,000) had surpassed Chicago's (100). Civic elders believed their thriving port would soon become the Midwest's leading city.
In the closing decades of the 19th century, however, Galena spiraled into decay as lead, used in everything from ammunition to industrial pipes, gave way to steel, and steamboats yielded to trains. By the 1950s, its downtown was filled with dilapidated taverns, diners and boarded-up buildings.
Then, in the 1970s, Chicago-area artists began seeing potential in the fine lines and handcrafted detail of Main Street's storefronts; soon they were transforming the Federal-style buildings into art galleries and studios. Today, with more than 1,000 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places, 85 percent of Galena has been declared a national historic district. "This is the real thing," says local historian Steve Repp. "There have been only cosmetic changes, nothing more, since the 1860s."
The National Register list includes the two-story, brick structure that once housed the Grants' leather-goods store, in which the future general also failed to distinguish himself as a salesman: "He would rather talk about the Mexican War than wait upon the best customer in the world," local jeweler John Smith would later recall of his friend.
The town's major architectural landmarks, however, lie beyond Main Street. On steep bluffs overlooking the Galena River, steamboat captains and mine owners built imposing mansions. The houses sit on wide, grassy lawns, surrounded by towering oaks and maples, affording panoramic views. Built between 1840 and 1890, many combine elements of various styles—pointed arches paired with ornate turrets, for instance. Others offer unadulterated examples of a distinct style: some of the nation's finest Greek Revival architecture is here.
But Galena is not merely a 19th-century set piece. On sunny days, a walkway skirting the river is crowded with bikers, hikers and bird-watchers. Fishermen and kayakers share the river with otter and muskrat; bald eagles plummet into it to seize bass, carp and catfish. The town boasts more than a dozen art galleries and live-music venues. The narrow streets are lined too with restaurants and watering holes. "You never know who's going to show up," says Grape Escape wine-bar proprietor Catherine Kouzmanoff (a.k.a. Miss Kitty). "Could be anybody from a portrait painter to an aspiring bluesman."