Norman Knight: Minerals and memories

I learned the word “galena” in Geology 101 my freshman year of college.

It was one of the stones in my Box of Rocks which I purchased at Aristotle’s Bookstore along with a Geology textbook. One of our tests would be to identify different rocks and minerals piled in the center of the table. I thought my personal galena — a dark gray, somewhat shiny metallic cube — was one of the more interesting pieces in my rock box. Also, I liked pronouncing the word “galena.”

My box of rocks was a casualty of many moves in and out of various living spaces over the years. Somehow, though, that one piece of Geology class galena survived and wound up in my collection of random small things. So when Becky and I had the opportunity to visit Galena, Illinois, recently, I located my personal piece of galena. Just because.

It’s not a short drive to the northwestern most corner of Illinois, but it wasn’t so far that we couldn’t do it in a few hours. We were excited. It would be a small adventure, a chance to visit somewhere new, and a chance for habitual travelers like us to maybe start putting the stay-at-home COVID times behind.

As one might guess, the city of Galena, located on the Mississippi River, is named for the mineral. For more than a thousand years, native tribes extracted lead from the galena and traded it with tribes along the River. Later, when the Europeans arrived, they sought the mineral for the same reason. At its height, Galena was a successful and thriving city of 10,000 people. But, as history teaches us, things change.

After the railroad came in the 1850s, the river was no longer the most efficient way to transport goods. At the same time, prospectors and speculators realized that further out west were discoveries of gold and silver — new ores to exploit.

Today, Galena, population about 3,500, is a pleasant town of picturesque 19th century architecture located on long streets that stair-step up the steep slopes of the Galena River. During our November visit, it felt quiet and easy-going, but this time of year is off-season for tourists. March, July and October are its busiest months. That’s when shops and eateries mine the folks who come to visit.

Galena also boasts itself as the home of nine Civil War generals including Ulysses S. Grant. In August 1865, just months after the war, Galena honored the Commander of the Union Army with a lavish welcome-home celebration. In addition, a group of local citizens presented the Grants with a house. As wife Julia Grant recalled, “We were conducted to a lovely villa exquisitely furnished with everything good taste could desire.”

It was a cool, sunny day when Becky and I visited the home. It sits on a hill overlooking the city and must have been a peaceful spot for the Grants. The stately Italianate house itself is spacious and comfortable and is, indeed, furnished with everything a 19th century family of means could desire.

We also made an early morning chilly visit to both of the Native American mounds in the area. First, we drove the steep hill to the top of the Horseshoe Mound Preserve. The site offers a panoramic glimpse of three states, Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin. After that, we headed a short distance to Casper Bluff Land and Water Reserve. This 150 acre site contains dozens of burial mounds and a 1,000-year-old Thunderbird Effigy mound. It was serenely quiet and with a little imagination, we thought we could just make out the shape of the giant bird’s 112-foot wingspan. We hadn’t budgeted the time to trek many of the trails. “Next time,” we agreed.

When it was time to leave, we drove toward home down both the Illinois and the Iowa sides of the Mississippi. Our Galena road trip was a short but activity-filled getaway. We are both primed to make another small adventure trip in the near future. And now, when I look at my personal piece of galena, I will have even more memories to associate with it.