As spring began to declare itself in March after we had righteously passed a winter of quarantining and masking, Noel and I decided it was time to make a short, circumscribed COVID era journey somewhere close by, similar to what we had done in the fall to Springfield, Illinois. Our son Moran suggested Galena. We had been there for a half day maybe 25 years ago. Galena seemed to fit the bill, but we were looking for “grown-up” activities. The town hosts scads of elementary students on school trips, but I wasn’t so sure it would appeal to the frustrated adult world travelers in us. Happily, I was wrong.
It turns out that Galena hosts a million visitors a year and is the second most visited city in Illinois, Chicago being the first. It’s about a three-hour drive northwest of Chicago in a corner of Illinois that borders Wisconsin to the north and Iowa to the west. Although officially located on the Galena River, the city is only three miles from the Mississippi, if you’re a crow, with Dubuque, Iowa, on the other side.
By the early half of the 19th century European-American settlers had succeeded in pushing out the indigenous Native American population and stealing its lead mines. Galena became the American lead capital, accounting for 80% of the lead mined in the U.S., and one of the most important steamboat hubs on the Mississippi River. The Galena River actually flowed into “The Father of Waters,” but that section has since silted up because of soil erosion caused by the mines and deforestation. The name “Galena” is the name of the lead sulfide ore that is the source of pure lead.
By 1848 lead mining was starting to decline in Galena because the ore was being depleted and many of the miners were lured away by the California Gold Rush. In 1855 the railroad arrived in the town and that arrival marked the end of the steamboat era.
In 1860 Galena became the home of Ulysses S. Grant and his family. At that time Grant was a decommissioned captain from the U.S. Army who was trying to make a living as a civilian without much success. He rented a small house on High Street and went to work with his two brothers who were running a leather shop in Galena that their father had started. When the Civil War broke out in April of 1861, Grant volunteered for the Union army and was given the rank of colonel of an Illinois infantry unit.
By September 1861 Grant had been promoted to the rank of brigadier general. He attacked the Confederacy from the west and with the help of General William Tecumseh Sherman succeeded in cutting the Confederacy in half. In 1864 he was appointed General-in-Chief by Abraham Lincoln. In April 1865 Grant accepted Robert E. Lee’s surrender at the Appomattox Court House.
Galena welcomed Grant back with a huge celebration and a new home on Bouthillier Street, a house that is now one of the main tourist attractions in the city. Altogether, Grant lived a little over a year in Galena, but he listed it as his official residence throughout his presidency. By the end of the 19th century Galena had become a sleepy agricultural town frozen in time.
Galena Comes Back
Slowly, as the 20th-century wore on, Galena started to grow as a tourist destination. In the 1980s Mayor Frank Einsweiler launched a major campaign to expand tourism promoting not only Grant’s home, but the historic downtown business district with its 19th-century brick buildings still largely intact. Tourism has now become the city’s major industry.
Noel and I like to stay in places where we can walk to dinner and enjoy cocktails and wine. We’re religious about not drinking alcohol and driving. We also like really fine overnight accommodations. Upon researching upscale places to stay, Noel came upon the Jail Hill Inn. Although classified as a B&B, the Jail Hill Inn is way better than the average B&B. We’re not fond of B&Bs, generally too homespun and intimate, but the Jail Hill Inn soars above most fine hotels.
It opened five years ago in what was Galena’s jail on a hill overlooking Main Street. In our suite we could still see remnants from its time as a jail with the names of some of the inmates inscribed into the concrete window openings. The accommodations consist of six luxurious suites, each uniquely different. In 2019 Trip Advisor named the Jail Hill Inn the best B&B in the United States and the second-best B&B in the world. The proprietor\innkeeper is Galena native Matthew Carroll and he is a superb host. He worked for a number of years in hotel management throughout the Midwest.
On Sunday after we checked in at 4 pm, Matthew brought us a welcoming tray of treats and a bottle of fine wine. There was already a nice bottle of champagne chilling in the refrigerator. The treats that included Brussels sprout sliders (yum!) were more than enough to make a fine supper. We had dinner reservations at Fritz and Frites, a truly fine Alsatian eatery about five minutes downhill from the inn, so we ate the sliders and saved the rest for another time. A warning, be prepared to climb a lot of stairs. Our suite was on the third floor and there are no elevators, but Matthew, much younger than us, generously helped with our luggage.
At Fritz and Frites we ordered the wiener schnitzel with spaetzle and red cabbage. It was accompanied by a “jager sauce” or what the French call a sauce chasseur or hunter’s sauce, a mushroom based brown sauce. We were prepared for the usual heavy, albeit delicious, breaded veal we have come to expect in German restaurants, but this time we were delightfully surprised at the lightness of this schnitzel. This was German food with a French touch from Alsace-Lorraine, a territory that has gone back and forth between Germany and France. The portions were quite large and one order would have been more than enough to share. We ended up taking half back to the inn and later ate it when we returned home two days later. I noticed a lot of folks in the restaurant starting with a shared order of pommes frites or French-fried potatoes. Maybe the next time.
The next day was Monday and we began our day with a gourmet, three-course breakfast starting with homemade granola with yogurt and fresh fruit, followed by a sweet roll and finishing up with a turkey sausage, egg, and basil strata topped with pesto. It was out-of-this-world delicious, especially the strata, but I just couldn’t finish it all. I made a decision to skip the sweet roll in the future. Another morning we had rolled bacon dusted with brown sugar as an accompaniment to the eggs benedict. The breakfasts at the Jail Hill Inn were actually better than our evening dinners at the restaurants.
After our power breakfast a long walk seemed like a good idea. We opted to hike the Galena River Trail to the Buehler Preserve and then double back through downtown, roughly five miles, but a flat five miles. Galena is a city built on many levels thanks to the meandering of the Mississippi and its tributaries like the Galena River. A lot of the streets are connected by stairs, so we were confronted not only by the stairs to our third-floor suite but by steps and ramps taking us from one street to another.
It was pretty early in the season, so the preserve was just waking up, but we were fascinated by what we assumed were the mating croaks of the frogs. Apparently, there are four or more species of frogs with different croaks and they sing their songs at different times as the season advances. It was a lovely couple of hours.
It was a Monday evening in March, so we didn’t have the full range of restaurants available for dinner. But we did find The Market House Restaurant open near our inn. It’s a very interesting establishment run by a very committed Christian woman named Laura Hefel.
The first thing I noticed when we entered was a sign that read, “Masks are optional here if you find this offensive please dine elsewhere.” We had had our jabs of the Moderna vaccine, so we looked at each other, shrugged our shoulders, took off our masks, and went in.
The restaurant is only open Monday through Friday. According to their brochure, “Saturday’s for family time & Sunday’s for the Lord.”
I noticed a lot of crocheted blankets, sweaters, hats, and more as we came in, so I asked our server Peggy (who is also Laura Hefel’s sister) what that was all about. She told us that they were for sale and were all made by Laura who can apparently crochet the most delicate designs with her eyes shut. All of the proceeds go to a right-to-life advocacy group in town.
The Market House Restaurant focuses on “homemade food like mom & grandma used to make.” The specialty seems to be Crab Louis, Midwest style, but the kitchen also serves homemade goulash and homemade meat loaf. I foolishly ordered the lemon peppered scallops, a generous portion but a bit bland. I like breading on my scallops. The homemade creamy cucumbers were outstanding and Noel thought the Crab Louis was quite good.
Most of all, we enjoyed listening to the conversations around us. We don’t hear conversations like that in progressive Oak Park, the Chicago suburb where we live. Most of the customers seemed to be regulars. Overall, the food was very good and the atmosphere was very welcoming. The owner Laura is also the bartender. She makes a very good cosmo.
On Tuesday, our last full day in Galena, we walked over to the Galena & U.S. Grant Museum located on Bench Street close to our inn and overlooking Main Street where most of the shops are. We had spent a little time when we arrived on Sunday visiting the shops before our check-in time at 4 pm. The museum is small but with several very informative exhibits ranging from the history of the Native Americans in the area to the history of the crockery industry which explains all the pottery in the antique shops and coincidentally in the Jail Hill Inn. The museum also has a real lead mine in it.
There were actually five Civil War generals including Grant that came from Galena. Grant’s sojourn as a clerk in his father’s leather shop allowed him to make several good local political and social connections enabling him to rejoin the army and receive a rapid promotion to the rank of general. It’s likely that he would not have become the general he did had he not moved to Galena.
From the museum we followed the staircases down to the river and crossed over to Grant Park and up the hill to the house gifted to him by the city. It was closed that day, but we had visited it 25 years ago. I was struck by the bronze statue of Julia Dent Grant in front of the house. The sculpture was installed in 2006 and immediately became the subject of criticism by local art critics who claimed that it resembles Mrs. Butterworth, the pancake syrup bottle. I rather like its eccentric charm myself. It inspired me to stop by the Grant museum gift shop on our way back and buy Julia’s memoirs. For the record, Julia Dent Grant was a strong proponent of women’s rights.
That evening we had dinner at Fried Green Tomatoes, an Italian steak joint. We ordered fried green tomatoes as a starter but were really disappointed. They were more like pizza for gluten-free folks, with mozzarella cheese and ragu sauce on top each tomato slice. They had no relationship to the fried green tomatoes Noel’s relatives in Alabama used to make for us. However, the martinis and sparkling wine were good. We had the cedar-planked walleye for our main course, but it was very bland. We won’t be coming back.
But we will definitely be coming back to Galena and the Jail Hill Inn. We made reservations at the inn for three days at the end of July as we checked out the next morning. There are many places nearby for walkers like us to explore like Wapello, a land and water reserve in Hanover, Illinois, with an historic Native American village site; the Galena Blacksmith Shop; the West Street Sculpture Park and metal studio of artist John Martinson; and Dubuque, Iowa’s oldest city, just a 20-minute drive away.
As we were heading out of town, I spotted Peggy, our server from Monday night’s dinner at the Market House Restaurant, on her way to work. We exchanged hellos. It was nice to see her again.