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."
Sculptor John Martinson, who moved to Galena from Wisconsin in 1979, works in a studio not far from downtown. To display his outsize pieces (including a 22-foot-high replica of a Tinkertoy construction, its steel beams painted violet, yellow and green), Martinson turned two acres of land just off West Street into a sculpture park. His soaring installations are sited amid tall trees, footpaths and a gurgling stream. "Galena is a real pretty area, with bluffs and hills and old 19th-century architecture," he says.
"That adds to your creative process."
Galena's past seems to lurk just below the surface. When the Galena Historical Society wanted to enlarge its lead-mine exhibition a few years ago, curators there made a surprising discovery—a lead-mine shaft dating back to the 1830s lay just a few feet from the society's 1858 Italianate mansion. "It was a happy coincidence," says director Nancy Breed. To take advantage of the find, society officials built a footbridge from the mansion to the shaft. Now sheathed in plexiglass, it's the centerpiece of the new lead-mine installation. Among the society's collection of Grant memorabilia are amusing trifles—a cigar butt discarded by Grant and picked up on the street by a Galena boy—as well as a large cache of Grant's letters documenting his war campaigns.
Grant, commissioned a colonel of the 21st Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment in 1861, left Galena a year after he arrived. He quickly rose up the ranks, rewarded for his leadership and skill as a tactician, qualities that would earn him the admiration of President Lincoln, who in 1862 declared: "I cannot spare this man—he fights." After the war ended in 1865, Grant returned to Galena as general in chief to be greeted by 20,000 cheering citizens and a towering arch over Main Street, emblazoned with the message, "Hail to the Chief Who in Triumph Advances."
The town elders presented the returning hero with a fully furnished mansion. It too has changed little over the years. A portico fronts the red brick, Italianate building; a white picket fence demarcates the half-acre property. Inside, more than 90 percent of the furnishings date back to Grant's tenure, from a massive 15-pound family Bible to delicate Haviland china. Even the general's favorite chair, a green velvet wing back, still stands next to his cigar caddy. (Grant's nicotine addiction was severe; he is said to have begun smoking cigars, perhaps 20 a day, to mask the stench of corpses on the battlefield.)
Grant lived in the house only briefly—he decamped to Washington in September 1865 to help oversee the rebuilding of the South; he would become secretary of war in 1867. But Galena served as his 1868 Republican presidential campaign base. Grant set up headquarters in the DeSoto House Hotel on Main Street; on November 3, 1868, he awaited ballot results at the home of his friend, Illinois congressman Elihu Washburne. Election night was chilly and wet. The men sat by a fire in the library as early returns were reported by Western Union. Shortly before 1 a.m., the final votes were tallied: Grant had won by a hair, besting Democrat Horatio Seymour by 306,000 votes.
Grant and Washburne celebrated with several aides—the group, reported the Galena Evening Gazette, was "merry as a marriage bell." The president-elect then stepped outside, where scores of supporters and the town's Lead Mine Band greeted him with cheers and patriotic anthems. "I leave here tomorrow," he told the crowd. "But it would give me great pleasure to make an annual pilgrimage to a place I have enjoyed myself so much." Grant kept his promise: he continued to visit Galena until his death at age 63 from throat cancer in 1885.
Writer Ulrich Boser lives in Washington, D.C. Photographer Layne Kennedy works from Minneapolis, Minnesota.