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All aboard: Galena seeks passenger rail service 150 years after first attempt

Hezekiah Gear failed to hide his heartbreak.

The emotional Galena, Ill., businessman stood before his detractors and delivered a damning prophecy.
"Gentlemen, you have sounded your death knell," he said. "Grass will grow in your streets. You have ruined your town."

More than 150 years later, the outspoken railroad advocate's community is working to bring his dream into a new era.

In 1853, Galena stood at an economic edge.

The town could attract the railroad industry and hope it breathed life into Galena the same way it had for countless communities across the developing country.

Or, the town could instead eschew the train and bet all its prosperity chips on the barging business, as this strategy had paid huge dividends in preceding decades.

Citizens stood firmly on both sides, said Galena History Museum Executive Director Nancy Breed.

"(Gear) did want very much for the train to come to Galena, to have the community be the hub, and many citizens saw it as an opportunity for better business, more exposure and a connection to the rest of the world," she said. "But there were other equally strong voices who said the town needed to preserve its steamboat trade. They saw the railroad as a competition rather than a complement."

Eventually, the decision came. The train would come to Dunleith, Ill. (now East Dubuque).

The disappointment devastated Gear, as his daughter, Clarissa Emely Gear Hobbs, wrote later in her autobiography:

"Galena went down because the Illinois Central Railroad crossed the Mississippi River at Dubuque. Father, with all the power he possessed, argued the matter in public meetings, month after month, contending if they would make concessions as a city, the (railroad tracks) would cross the Mississippi, two miles away from the town at 'Gear's Ferry,' owned by him, the only place in the river that had a fine rock bottom where a bridge could be built for the road. But a lawyer, Charles Hempstead, outargued (Father)... It broke his heart, and though the (railroad) paid him $10,000 for right of way through some of his property, it did not heal the hurt, for his heart was broken for the town to which he had given his money and influence."


In the days of old, a railroad's decision of where to lay tracks could literally make or break a town, Breed said. She compares its significance to that of a four-lane highway today.

"You don't want to be bypassed now, just like many wouldn't have wanted to be bypassed then," she said.

A railroad's presence in town in the 1800s typically meant a station, an overnight lodging place, a restaurant and more -- all facilities that might not have sprung into being without a steady stream of visitors.

The train, too, meant better transportation for goods -- farm equipment, fabric for dresses, seeds for crops, building materials, etc. A town with ready availability to these resources could better build itself.

But perhaps the best benefit of the railroad was one that cities today crave -- jobs.


In 2009, government officials announced that passenger train service would finally stop in Galena. (The city has freight trains running through town now.)

The passenger rail service would go from Chicago to Dubuque, with a stop in the now-tourist town.

"This will have a huge impact on the area," said Chandra Ravada, director of the Transportation Department for the East Central Intergovernmental Association in Dubuque.

Statistics say the same thing.

The project is expected to result in about 1,363 jobs. Some 86,000 passengers will spend an estimated $2 million on tickets annually. Project workers are anticipated to spend about $322 million in the area.

"Just like the olden days, the trains will have an impact, but not in the same way," Ravada said.

First, the methods of attracting a train differ. During the 1800s, a railroad company determined where a train would be most needed, then laid tracks. Now, Ravada said, the companies determine where the groundwork is in place and build upon it.

"A town wanting passenger rail has to already have the infrastructure. You have to be ready for them," he said.


Dubuque knows how to attract businesses.

Recently, the town wooed and won over the computer giant IBM, which promised to bring some 1,300 jobs to the region.

The comparison is quite similar, Ravada and Breed said. The excitement over IBM coming to the area today would be much like the anticipation East Dubuque residents experienced when they learned the train would stop in their town rather than Galena.

At the time, the Galena Daily Advertiser proclaimed the novelty of the railroad with headlines declaring in all capitals "A NEW EXPEDITIOUS AND CONTINUOUS RAIL ROAD ROUTE." In smaller lettering, reporters proclaimed rail travel more safe, saying that it "avoids the dangerous and uncertain navigation of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers."

Perhaps Hezekiah Gear would celebrate his community's achievement.

According to the Illinois Department of Transportation, work on the railroad should begin this summer, with the trains to start running two years after starting construction.

Or maybe Gear would be grateful that his dream was delayed. Yes, the railroad made East Dubuque prosper. And yes, grass did grow on Galena's dirt streets after the river silted in and the steamboats stopped chugging into town.

However, that temporary slip into obscurity served Galena well in the long run.

According to Breed, Galena reached its peak around 1900, then slipped into what she calls its Rip Van Winkle sleep. Instead of updating buildings, the now-historic buildings sat decaying until a group of Chicago artists started renovation and revitalization projects in the 1960s.

Now those buildings -- which would have likely been demolished to make way for new construction, Breed said -- serve as the center for the town's thriving tourism industry.

"What would have happened if the trains had come?" Breed asked. "Would there have been no downturn in Galena? Would we have gone through the urban renewal area that meant vinyl siding and plate glass windows? Would have we torn down all these beautiful buildings? Would we be completely different now?"

Maybe, she says, Gear was wrong -- at the time. Maybe, she says, his dream is needed now instead.

(Photo Credit: Galena CVB)