Galena has a rich history that is visible in the city’s architecture. Originally inhabited by Sac and Fox Native Americans, by the late 17th century, the French began to settle in the area. In the early 19th century, American settlers began to arrive. Following a sharp decline in the demand for lead, Galena’s population dropped from 14,000 in the mid-19th century, to 3,396 in the early 21st century.
Once one of the most important cities in the state, Galena was the hub on the Mississippi River between St. Louis and St. Paul. Due to erosion, the Galena River is inaccessible to steamboats like it once was. Also Galena received national attention in the 1860s as home of General Ulysses S. Grant.
The city is named for the mineral “galena“, the natural form of lead sulfide and the most important lead ore mineral. Native Americans, including the Sac and Fox tribes, mined the ore in Galena for use in body painting. In the 1690s French trappers discovered the area and began mining the lead.
In a little over 100 years, American settlers arrived in the area. George Davenport, a retired colonel in the United States Army, successfully shipped Galena’s first boatload of lead ore down the Mississippi River in 1816. Three years later a trading post was built in Galena that led to the first steamboat arrival in 1824. By 1845 Galena was producing nearly 27,000 tons of lead ore and Jo Daviess County was producing 80 percent of the lead in the United States.
Until the late 1980s, Galena remained a small rural farming community. In 1990, local industries included a Kraft Foods cheese plant; Lefco Foundry; John Westwick’s foundry; and Microswitch, Inc.
In the 1980s, a tourist campaign was strongly endorsed by then-mayor Frank Einsweiler. Since that time the face of Galena has changed a great deal. Long-standing businesses in the downtown area including Stair’s Grocery, Sullivan’s Grocery, Clingman’s Pharmacy, the oldest continuously operating pharmacy in Illinois, and Hartig’s Drugs have closed their downtown locations. Clingman’s and Hartig’s have relocated to the outskirts of Galena, while Stair’s and Sullivan’s closed their doors permanently. In late 2010, Clingman’s joined the Hartig’s family and moved their pharmacy to Hartig’s Drugs location along Highway 20.
The Country Fair in Grant Park has helped guide the change to a tourist town. The Country Fair is a craft show that attracts thousands of visitors to the area. The once boarded up buildings of Main Street have also been given a rejuvenation in the past two decades.
In 2010, Galena started a campaign called Vision2020, that is modeled after neighbor Dubuque, Iowa‘s Vision 2010, a committee which gives the community five ideas out of hundreds brought forth in the community that they want Galena to do in the next decade.
The 32nd annual Halloween Parade was held in 2010, the crowd was estimated at 15,000.
Galena was rated as one of the top ten “Charming Small Towns” by TripAdvisor in 2011.