Sulfide Of Lead

This month's Smithsonian magazine is devoted to "Destination America". There are a raft of interesting articles about a number of places in the US. I've been to a couple of these. Cajun country down in Louisiana (Lafayette and points West. Mud bugs and amazing music.) and Galena, Illinois. If you haven't been to either, I recommend both. But Galena was a particular favorite (even though there was a very memorable jam session in Lafayette involving carbon composite guitars and a woman vocalist who could turn Little Feat's Sailing Shoes into  even more than it already is – that's another story.) But I have had a very special place in my heart for the study of the American Civil War and Ulysses S. Grant for many years. My visit to Galena was a personal high point, even though the town represented a low point for Grant himself. I use a coffee mug I got there depicting Grant's home (presented to him by the town after the war) quite frequently. The article in the magazine is worth a read.

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.

Worth the read and worth the visit if you can manage it. It is a very nice town with a lot of surprises. Galena (according to my coffee mug) means sulfide of lead in Latin. And they mined a lot of lead there before the mines finally closed.

UPDATE: Lars Walker, proprietor of Brandywine Books, point out that Grant's memoirs are a classic. So they are.

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One Response to Sulfide Of Lead

  1. Lars Walker says:

    I visited Galena and the Grant house once myself. Enjoyed it very much. Lovely town.

    Grant’s a fascinating character. Failed at everything he ever did, until he found one thing he was born to do–fight a brutal war. Once he’d accomplished that, he went back to being a failure at everything.

    Except writing. His autobiography is a classic.

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