Norman Knight: Minerals and Memories


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

It was one of the stones in my box of rocks that I bought from the Aristotle bookstore along with a geology textbook. One of our tests would be to identify different rocks and minerals stacked in the center of the table. I thought my personal galena – a dark gray, somewhat shiny metallic cube – was one of the most interesting pieces in my stone box. Also, I liked to pronounce the word “galena”.

My box of stones has been the victim of numerous movements in and out of various living spaces over the years. Somehow, however, this piece of geology class galena survived and ended up in my collection of random little 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 most northwestern corner of Illinois, but it wasn’t that far that we couldn’t do it in a few hours. We were excited. It would be a little adventure, a chance to visit a new place, and a chance for regular travelers like us to maybe start putting aside COVID times of staying home.

As you can guess, the town of Galena, located on the Mississippi River, owes its name to the mineral. For over a thousand years, native tribes mined lead from galena and traded it with tribes along the river. Later, when the Europeans arrived, they searched for the ore for the same reason. At its peak, Galena was a prosperous and prosperous city of 10,000 people. But, as history teaches us, things are changing.

After the arrival of the railroad in the 1850s, the river was no longer the most efficient means of transporting goods. At the same time, prospectors and speculators realized that further west were discoveries of gold and silver, new ores to be mined.

Today, Galena, with a population of around 3,500, is a pleasant town with picturesque 19th-century architecture set in long streets that climb up the steep slopes of the Galena River. On our November visit we felt calm and relaxed, but this time of year is off season for tourists. March, July and October are its busiest months. This is when shops and restaurants undermine the people who come to visit them.

Galena also boasts of being home to 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 celebration. In addition, a group of local citizens donated a home to the Grants. As his wife Julia Grant recalled, “We were shown to a lovely villa tastefully furnished with everything good taste could desire.”

It was a cool, sunny day when Becky and I visited the house. It sits on a hill overlooking the city and was to be a peaceful place for the Grants. The stately Italian-style house itself is spacious and comfortable and is, indeed, furnished with everything a 19th century family of means could desire.

We also took a cool early morning tour to the two Native American mounds in the area. First, we drove up the steep hill to the top of the Horseshoe Mound Reserve. The site offers a panoramic overview of three states, Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin. After that, we headed a short distance to the Casper Bluff Land and Water Preserve. This 150-acre site contains dozens of burial mounds and a 1,000-year-old Thunderbird Effigy Mound. It was serenely calm and with a little imagination we thought we could make out the shape of the giant bird’s 112-foot wingspan. We didn’t schedule time to hike most of the trails. “Next time”, we agreed.

When it was time to leave, we drove home on the Illinois and Iowa sides of Mississippi. Our Galena road trip was a short but full of activities getaway. We are both set to take another little 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.


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