Main Street: Galena, Illinois


Its alignment shaped by steep hills rising up from the banks of the Galena River, Main Street presents a nearly unbroken line of 140 buildings from the 19th century that help Galena live up to its reputation as "the town time forgot." Long a haven for Chicago residents and a destination for more than a million visitors each year, only cosmetic changes have affected the architecturally consistent and unified three- to four-story buildings that were reconstructed along Main Street following fires in the 1850s. Occupying these buildings today are a wide variety of businesses including antique stores, art galleries, restaurants, wineries, and a microbrewery.

Designated Area

Six blocks between Franklin Street to the north and Water Street to the south.

Main Street, third from left, winds with the topography of the bluffs overlooking the Galena River. Floodgates and levees protect Main Street and the town's historic and commercial district. Photo courtesy of George Bookless Studio.

Planning Excellence

Before tourists and artists put Galena on the map, Ulysses S. Grant launched his 1868 presidential campaign from the DeSoto House Hotel at 230 South Main St. Other famous guests of the hotel were Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas.

The historic architecture and character of Main Street haven't kept Galena and its downtown problem-free, however. A proposal in 1970 to raze 22 downtown buildings spurred residents to resoundingly defeat the idea and begin rehabilitation efforts that eventually included the burial of overhead cables, replacement of sidewalks, and construction of pedestrian walkways to off-street parking that serves downtown.

The result is a unique street where one can cross over and back between the 19th and 21st centuries.

A variety of shops and restaurants line both sides of Main Street, while mansions perch on the hillsides above. Following fires in the 1850s, most of Main Street's structures rebuilt of red brick in the Federal style. This unique architectural consistency is protected by one of Illinois's first historic preservation ordinances. Photo courtesy of George Bookless Studio.

Defining Characteristics, Features

Hero's welcome, historic status

  • Towering arch over Main Street emblazoned with "Hail to the Chief Who in Triumph Advances" and 25,000 cheering citizens greet General Ulysses S. Grant upon his return at end of Civil War
  • Grant subsequently based his 1868 presidential campaign out of DeSoto House Hotel at 230 South Main St., one of the oldest operating hotels in Illinois (since 1855)
  • Galena's historic district, including Main Street, added to National Register in 1969; historic district includes more than 90 percent of city and contains approximately one thousand pre-1900 buildings
  • Most buildings along Main Street built of red brick in Federal style popular during 1840s

Planning and preservation

  • A historic preservation ordinance — in 1965, one of Illinois's first — requires architectural review of proposed exterior building changes, ensuring that the unique consistency of Main Street remains
  • 2003 comprehensive plan led to replacement of downtown infrastructure, including the burying of overhead cables on side and parallel streets to downtown (lines previously buried along Main Street); also replacing sidewalks and signs, adding pedestrian walkways to remote parking
  • City worked with Ball State University in 2010 to complete photographic and architectural survey of all historic district buildings; Preservation Commission using data to apply for National Landmark status
  • Galena Downtown Business Association sponsors events and contributes funds for street beautification, installation of hanging flower baskets
  • Strong tradition of volunteerism in Galena; approximately 60 different organizations focus on historic preservation, gardening, special events

Topography, floods and fires 

  • Main Street bends with the topography, providing rare spatial character and interesting views of gently rising hills
  • Downtown Galena's streets laid out on three parallel tiers against the hillside; Main Street connected to parallels via pedestrian walkways and side streets
  • To reduce street flooding from Galena River flood gates added in 1951; levees protect street but block view of water
  • Fires in the 1850s led to prohibition of wood construction; most buildings in downtown constructed from brick and stone

Wide sidewalks and benches invite visitors to stroll or spend the afternoon. Buried power lines and street beautification projects, such as hanging flower baskets sponsored by the Galena Downtown Business Association, complement the streetscape. Photo courtesy of George Bookless Studio

Tourism-based economy

  • Tourist campaign endorsed in 1980s by then-mayor Frank Einsweiler leads to changes including turnover of many long-standing businesses as new commercial stores open
  • Galena and Main Street receive over a million visitors each year, second only to Chicago in the state of Illinois
  • Galena popular as second home location for Chicagoans; beginning in the 1970s Chicago artists transformed many Main Street storefronts into galleries and studios
  • Trolley tours depart from Main Street daily, including tours of historic district, historic homes, haunted sites, area wine country
  • From intersection of Main Street and Water Street, bikers, hikers, and bird-watchers take advantage of a walkway along the river
  • Seasonal events on Main Street draw residents and tourists: 8,000 people attend Halloween Parade; Christmas events include Luminaria Weekend featuring 5,000 candle-lit luminaries and horse-drawn carriage rides; costumed performers portray live holiday activities in storefront window displays