Topping out at 252 steps, the Washington Street Steps is Galena’s tallest stairway. It is also the same stairway that Ulysses S. Grant climbed (in its prior wooden form) to get from his family’s leather business in the heart of Galena up to his home at the top of the bluff high above downtown Galena.
During the 1840s and 1850s, Galena in the far northwest corner of Illinois was a prosperous lead mining center and the commercial hub for the upper Midwest. When the mines played out and its river port silted up, Galena declined in importance and became a much smaller community. With its smaller role, there was no pressure to tear down buildings and replace them with larger and more modern structures. As a result, Galena has the finest collection of 1840s and 1850s architecture in the country. And it is because of its unique architecture and gorgeous setting that Galena has become a popular visitor destination.
West Point graduate and Mexican War veteran, Ulysses S. Grant, moved to Galena in April 1860 because he was out of options. He was forced out of the army in 1854 because the separation from his family and general boredom drove him into a deep depression which he tried to cure through drink. In the period between leaving the army and coming to Galena, everything he tried failed. With no options left, he turned to his father who had a successful leather business for help. His father offered him a job as a clerk working for his younger brothers in the family’s leather store in Galena.
Although the leather business was not Grant’s passion, he did meet people in Galena who enabled him to get a new start in life when the Civil War broke out one year later. Had he not moved to Galena it is extremely unlikely that Ulysses S. Grant would have become the general who won the Civil War and then went on to become the 18th President of the United States.
With all that said, we should begin our wandering tour at Grant’s pre-Civil War home at 121 S. High Street just around the corner from the top of the Washington Street steps.
Before descending down the steps, we’ll make a brief detour to Hill Street (around the corner going the other way from the Washington Street steps) to check out the homes of his close friends William Rowley and John Rawlins. Both Rowley and Rawlins served with Grant and became generals during the Civil War. Rawlins was Grant’s closest confidant and chief-of-staff. Rawlins played a more important role in what we would today call Grant’s sober companion. Rawlins efforts made sure that Grant did not succumb to the temptation to drink and that he kept his eye on the ball. And it was by keeping his eye on the ball that Grant produced the victories and developed the strategy that led to Union victory in the Civil War.
From the Rowley and Rawlins homes, we’ll now head to the top of the Washington Street steps. Along the way we’ll pass many wonderful homes to check out. At the top of the steps, we’ll have wonderful views of all of Galena. And as we walk down the steps we will cross Prospect Street and Bench Street before reaching Main Street where the Grant leather store was located.
Right where the steps land at Bench Street we’ll have an 1851 firehouse on our right and the church (First United Methodist Church) that Grant attended on our left. You can even go inside the church to sit in the Grant family pew. If you look under the steps, you’ll see a quiet sitting area built by the church where you can meditate. If you turn to the right and go a couple of doors down, you can learn more about Galena and the life of Grant at the “Galena and U.S. Grant Museum.”
From Bench Street we’ll continue down the steps to Main Street. Once we reach Main, there will be a small pocket park on our left and across the street and a bit to the left will be the building that housed the Grant leather store.
From here you can go in any direction to find more stairways to climb and places to check out in Galena. If you want to continue with the Grant theme, Grant’s post-Civil War home is on the other side of the Galena River. There are footpaths the entire way and another stairway to climb before reaching his house.
While on the other side of the river, you might want to check out the Elihu Washburne house. Elihu Washburne was Galena’s congressman during the time of the Civil War. He was also a close political associate of Abraham Lincoln. And when Lincoln was looking for generals to fill out the rapidly expanding Union Army, it was Elihu Washburne who jump-started Grant’s career by recommending him to Lincoln for generalship in the Union Army!
Climbing or descending the Washington Street steps is only the tip of the iceberg of what you can discover in Galena. More information on Grant’s Galena, the public stairways, and hidden corners to explore in both Galena and Dubuque can be found in Exploring Galena and Dubuque on Foot: By Sidewalk, Stairway, and Path. The book is available on this website, River Lights bookstore in Dubuque, at the office of the Galena Gazette, and on Amazon. Please feel free to contact me with any questions.