By car, Gateway Park bursts into view just east of Galena where Highway 20 takes a long arc around the base of Horseshoe Mound. Passengers are treated to a sweeping view of the landscape while their drivers hug the curve. “The view presents the Gateway to Galena,” says Christie Trifone Millhouse, Associate Director of the Jo Daviess Conservation Foundation (JDCF), a nonprofit land and cultural heritage preservation organization whose inception dates back to the Gateway preservation efforts. “Coming around that bend, the whole world opens up.”
The land offering the view—today’s Gateway Park—was prime real estate for development in the 1990s. Proposals for the 180-acre site included a resort hotel, golf course, and condo. Local citizens rose up in opposition, and the Zoning Board denied its approval. But that was only a partial victory for preservationists. The next step was to protect the land indefinitely.
It wasn’t just that that the property offers breathtaking views. The acreage harbors a wide range of natural habitat and at least 1500 years of human history.
Today’s ADA crushed-limestone upland trail passes along 80 acres of restored native Illinois prairie. A late summer stroll offers a sea swell of brown-eyed susans and compass plants amid big bluestem grasses and Canada wild rye, among others.
Beyond the ADA trail and the upland prairie meadows, grass paths dip away into steep ravines. Valley trails wind among restored oak savannas, a Driftless Area land feature of hillside prairies dotted by ancient burr oaks spreading their lateral branches wide and long as if blessing the land. Occasional splashes of white birch flash in the soggy bottomlands.
An isolated copse of Kentucky Coffee trees, used medicinally by Native Americans, as well as some time-worn burial mounds “tell us that this land was inhabited in some form by prehistoric native people for at least 1,500 years, likely longer,” says JDCF Director Steve Barg.
History is heaped on the landscape. A freed slave by the name of Moses Prophet Lester, who came to Galena after the Civil War, is known to have prospected for lead on property. The Galena Tribune noted his death in a 1906 obituary. A rusted windmill along a long hillside trail is all that remains of a 20th century farm.
It took three attempts before the JDCF succeeded in securing the property to protect its natural and historic features. Despite significant fundraising and successful grant applications, initial efforts to secure the land came to a standstill in the late 1990s. A second effort in 2007-08 was stymied when a crucial matching grant fell through.
A third, and successful, attempt took root on the heels of the second when Friends of the Galena Gateway Park teamed with JDCF to secure enough pledges and approved grants to purchase 100 acres in 2011. An additional purchase of 80 acres was added to the park in 2016.
Gateway Park was officially opened to the public in 2014. In 2015 and 2017 JDCF donated the respective purchases to the City of Galena, with a conservation easement being held by the JDCF. The City of Galena agreed to maintain the trails and parking lot, while care for natural and culture resources remains the responsibility of JDCF. A crew of about 15 volunteers called the Galena Area Land Enthusiasts (GALE) work alongside JDCF personnel to maintain and preserve the grounds.
Gateway Park is just one of eleven sites covering 1800 acres owned or maintained by JDCF in northwest Illinois. But its significance to the natural and cultural preservation of the Galena area is immense, as it provides the connecting link between two other JDCF properties on the outskirts of town. Gateway Park lies nestled between the Buehler Preserve to the north along the Galena River and Horseshoe Mound Preserve to the south with its sweeping tri-state views of the Driftless Region.
The three properties together total 400 acres of preserved lands, but their continuity is disrupted by a railroad crossing and highway, respectively. “We consider the entire 400-acre complex to be ‘The Gateway’ to Galena. Our vision is to connect all three properties by tunnel under route 20 and a bridge or grade crossing over the Canadian National rails someday,” says Barg. When completed, the hike from the Buehler Preserve to the top of Horseshoe Mound will offer 600 feet of climb, the most of any public trail in Illinois.
Such plans will take time. But ancient mounds and ancient prairies, oak savannas and Kentucky Coffee trees, and sweeping views across the Driftless, all could have been lost to bulldozers. Preserved by the Jo Daviess Conservation Foundation and the City of Galena, what Gateway Park now has, and holds, is “time.”
-- October 2020