Galena, Getting the Lead Out

by Terry Hogan

My wife, Louise, and I recently spend a long weekend in Galena Illinois. We last visited it 35 years ago. Today’s Galena is much different than it was in 1968. Galena is vibrant and for all the good and the bad, is courting the tourist industry.

Galena got an early start in Illinois, thanks to the Mississippi River and the Galena River for transportation and for Galena’s abundance of lead. Lead not only gave Galena its name, but gave it an early economic boost. The town is nestled in a narrow river valley. Buildings have access on the ground floor on west side of the building and have ground level access on the third floor on the east side of the building. The hill is steep and space was at a premium so the buildings were often narrow but tall for their day.

For a variety of reasons, the town is a mix of architectural designs that is a delight to the eye. The old Illinois Central Railroad depot, next to the track the follows the Galena River valley is still there to be admired. The Galena River is now too silted and narrow to support the shallow steamboat "packets" that use to visit from the Mississippi River. One has a hard time believing it could have ever been, except for the photos showing Galena of another age.

Even Galesburg has its own minor role in Galena. As my wife and I walked up when felt line a near-vertical former street in Galena, I looked down at the brick surface. Actually, the street was so steep, that it was more like looking horizontal that looking done, but in any event, there they were. For all to see, Galena is paved, at least in part, but Galesburg’s pride and joy, Purington Pavers. I saw two different types of brick from the old Purington brick works. One was the common raised print "Purington Paver" and the other was a recessed print that said only "Purington".

From this point on, I was torn between two activities. As we walked the streets of Galena, Louise would read from a book describing the architecture and history of the homes. I didn’t know whether to look at the homes, or look for more and different designs of Purington bricks. Between Louise walking and reading and me walking and looking at bricks, we’re lucky to have made it back alive.

We walked into one antique store, and there was a Purington Brick, sitting there, holding the door open. It was relegated to the role of a doorstop. Louise saw me see it and saw my eyes brighten. She wasn’t sure if I was going to try to "make off" with the brick, or whether I was going to talk the clerk to death about the history of the brick. After 36 years of marriage, her skills are highly tuned and she kept me from doing either. I think I’ll miss that brick.

But in any event, Galena is a fantastic town for history buffs. It seems that about every fourth house is a bed and breakfast. They’ve been carefully restored, chucked full of antiques, and judging from our host and hostess, primed with the full history of the home and past owners. We stayed at the Steamboat House. It was delightful. The old three story Victorian home was more a museum, full of time-period antiques, old family photos, and antique clocks that ranged from a cuckoo clock to something that sounded like Big Ben. The cuckoo clock was about 30 seconds ahead of the other chimes. I’m guessing that this was deliberate so that it could be heard.

Restaurants were numerous, casual, but excellent. There are antique stores, old bookstores, and tourist stores of all types. The old railroad depot acts as a visitor’s center and as an excellent point to start as you can find information on lodging, restaurants, and the types of stores that are of greatest interest to you.

Galena went from boom to bust, with the loss of the mines, as lead deposits were depleted, and with the loss of river traffic. The buildings were about to fall down, and at least one did, but it has turned around. Some of these buildings look a little like only memories keep them up, but they are worth seeing. The history, architecture, and of course, the Purington Bricks, all work to make Galena a unique bit of Illinois history, well within striking distance for a weekend visit.

Like all small towns, Galena has its private stories. One concerns a building in downtown Galena that had one wall collapse and fall away, while the other walls remained in placed. This happened a number of years ago. This multi-floored building took on the look of a large dollhouse, by being able to view inside as you drove or walked by. Even though it was unoccupied at the time, some furniture was still present in the building. As the story goes, there was a bathroom exposed by the collapsed wall. Some locals, who had a sense of humor, placed a nude female manikin on the toilet so that passing motorists would see her. A photo records the event. As sometimes happens, according to the story we were told, at least one of the hooligans is now a significant leading figure in the town.

I did not see a nude on a toilet while in Galena. But I did see a horse watching me from an upstairs window. It may have been nude.

Galena is clearly a quirky town. Despite that or perhaps because of being quirky, it has been successful in turning itself around and capitalizing upon years of neglect. No urban renewal destroyed the historical old town. Galena got the lead out, and has made it pay.

Go pay Galena a visit. Maybe you’ll have better luck with the Purington brick doorstop than I did.* Keep your eyes open for the horse. I’m sure he’ll be watching for you.


If you have a spare Purington brick or two, drop it off with Norm at the Zephyr on Main Street and I’ll pick them up. I’m sure he won’t mind.