The history of this small town in west central Illinois is completely intertwined with the railroads.
In the last decades of the 19th century Galesburg became a junction for the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad, and the Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe Railway.
This gave rise to one of the largest rail yard complexes in the United States, producing some of the nation’s most famous trains. You can still appreciate some of the industrial architecture from that time in the vicinity of today’s Amtrak station.
Galesburg is the appropriate home of the Railroad Hall of Fame, which will unveil a brand new visitor attraction in the coming years. The city also honors its railroading past with a colorful festival every June.
Galesburg has an inviting downtown area, and is also home to Knox College where Lincoln and Douglas conducted their fifth debate during the senatorial race in 1858.
1. Galesburg Railroad Museum
When we wrote this article, plans were in the pipeline to build a new museum for the National Railroad Hall of Fame in Galesburg.
Work began in 2019 and the attraction promises to be a national destination, bringing a financial boost to the city.
For now, the history of the railroads in Galesburg is presented at a depot building next to the Amtrak station.
On display inside are tons of artifacts and pieces of memorabilia, including but not limited to photographs, magazines, uniforms, lanterns, tools, china sets, tickets and letters.
Outside, you can view a Burlington Route 13501 Waycar (1930), the Pullman Meath car (1921) and a Railway Post Office Car from 1945.
2. Discovery Depot Children’s Museum
In a converted industrial building, his hands-on museum for children aged 1 to 12 is the sort of attraction you might come across in a much larger city.
Using interactivity and open-ended learning, the museum aims to promote critical thinking and literacy, introducing children to aspects of science, engineering, mathematics, the arts, mathematics and technology.
There 14,000 square feet of exhibits to discover, enough for an entire morning or afternoon. A mainstay is Ferris Village, which has six recreated shops where kids can roleplay everyday situations and professions.
The Art Studio meanwhile will nurture children’s creative skills but also engage them in discussions about art and famous artists.
3. Downtown Galesburg
Full of life, the center of Galesburg has top-notch shopping, live entertainment, dining and nightlife all in an historic setting.
Mostly along Main St, the parallel Simmons St and the intersecting streets, downtown Galesburg has enticing independent shops for antiques, jewelry, gifts, fashion accessories, vintage records, flowers and more.
There’s an excellent live music scene, as well as thriving performing arts venues like the venerable Orpheum Theatre.
You can download an itinerary for a walking tour of the big sights on Main Street, and choose from seven other self-guided tours exploring different facets of Galesburg’s past.
Food-wise there are some long-established local institutions that deserve your attention, like Packinghouse Dining Co. and Landmark Cafe & Creperie, and the neighbors, Cherry Street Restaurant & Bar and Coney Island.
4. Orpheum Theatre
One of downtown Galesburg’s most striking buildings is the Second Empire-style Orpheum Theatre (1916), still a hub for live entertainment in the city.
Designed by Chicago firm Rapp & Rapp, the theatre has French Second Empire facade, and an Italian Renaissance interior, with lavish plasterwork.
Despite the splendor, the venue was intended for people of all social stratas, and boasted all kinds of innovations in its acoustics, ventilation system and plumbing, with running water supplied to the dressing rooms.
Initially a vaudeville stage, the Orpheum converted into a cinema in the mid-1930s. After staying closed for much of the 1980s due to funding issues and renovations, this is now a treasured destination for plays, musicals, concerts, magic shows, comedy sets and classic movie screenings.
5. Lake Storey Park
Also originating with the railroads, Lake Storey is a reservoir in the north of Galesburg, constructed in the late 1920s to provide soft water for locomotives on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway.
The company deeded the lake to the city in 1952 and it remains a popular escape on the city’s northern margins, enclosed by a 411-acre park.
On the north shore the unguarded Lake Storey beach, backed by a stately pavilion, has golden sand and is open daily from Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day.
All through the summer you can rent canoes, kayaks, pedal boats and jon boats for a little voyage on the 132-acre lake. The water is also stocked with muskie, walleye and channel catfish, and also has plentiful largemouth bass and crappie.
6. Old Main, Knox College
A big reason to head onto the Knox College campus is to see this Tudor Revival building, completed in 1857 and inspired by Hampton Court Palace in England.
The following year, Old Main was the scene of the fifth Lincoln-Douglas debate in their United States Senatorial race, in which slavery was a key issue.
This took place on the grounds and was attended by a crowd of 15,000. Lincoln had been part of the institution that granted Knox College its charter in 1837, and the stoutly abolitionist college community put up a banner that read, “Knox College for Lincoln”.
Lincoln lost the senatorial race but was of course destined for bigger things, and there’s an interpretive, “Looking for Lincoln” heritage marker outside, as well as a plaque depicting the two men on the wall.
If you get the chance to go in, the chair Lincoln used in the debate remains in the building’s Alumni Room.
7. Carl Sandburg State Historic Site
A three-room clapboard cottage in the south of Galesburg is the birthplace of one of the most celebrated American writers of the 20th century.
The son of a blacksmith at the CB&Q railroad shops, Carl Sandburg (1878-1967) won three Pulitzer Prizes, two for his poetry and one for his biography of Lincoln.
Visiting the house you’ll get a sense of Sandburg’s modest origins, and can peruse a handful of family possessions.
The State Historic Site’s visitor center is in a neighboring two-story Greek Revival house from 1858, containing a museum gallery, video theater and shop.
Behind the cottage is a little wooded park where you can follow the Quotation Walk and visit the large stone, Remembrance Rock, under which the ashes of Sandburg and his wife Lilian were placed.
8. Galesburg Civic Art Center
When we wrote this list, the Galesburg Civic Art Center was preparing to relocate to an historic building downtown.
This non-profit gallery hosts up to 40 exhibitions a year, all of which are free to the community. You can enjoy the work of local and national artists, and purchase locally produced art and crafts at the center’s gift shop.
The center is highly engaged in the community, presenting events like the Standish Arts & Crafts Market in June, and GALEX, one of the country’s longest running competitions and exhibitions.
9. Iron Spike Brewing Company
This brewpub in downtown Galesburg has an impressive home inside the old Central Fire Station (1909), built in the Romanesque Revival style.
Iron Spike Brewing Company’s beer is made at a 10-barrel brewhouse in Wisconsin, and brought to the taproom in Galesburg.
There are up to 15 beers on tap at any one time, and to name a few of the regulars there’s Light Rail Cream Ale, Hand Car Hefe Hefeweizen, Galesburg Golden Ale, Flatback IPA, Pea-Nutbuster Porter, Amarillo American Pale Ale, Irish Red Ale, Hogger IPA and Day Late & Dollar Short Stout.
Iron Spike’s kitchen has a big menu, preparing burgers, flatbreads, sandwiches, steaks, tacos, fish & chips and apps from wings to artichoke dip.
10. Knox-Galesburg Symphony (KGS)
Representing both Knox College and the City of Galesburg, this high-quality orchestra serves the local community and surrounding areas.
The ensemble is based at the Ford Center for the Fine Arts on the college campus, and the musicians generally come from within a 100-mile radius of Galesburg.
Despite its small-town location, the Knox-Galesburg Symphony brings metropolitan level performance standards and innovative programming, and works with world-class artists.
The KGS has been awarded Illinois Orchestra of the Year three times, and its performances are regularly broadcast on public radio, helping it reach an even larger audience. You can consult the symphony’s website for details of the current season.
11. Prairie Players Civic Theatre (PPCT)
Also boosting Galesburg’s dynamic arts scene is this theatre group, which has a long history that can be traced back as far as 1915.
The group puts on plays and musicals, with recent performances including Cabaret, Tommy and Calendar Girls. In 2015 the PPCT found a permanent home in downtown Galesburg at 160 South Seminary Street, close to the station and Railroad Museum.
This fine venue also stages some big events in Galesburg’s calendar, like the annual Chocolate Festival in February.
12. The Galesburg Antiques Mall Co.
Open for more than 25 years, this large antiques emporium is in an elegant Italianate building at 349 E Main Street.
This is a real treasure trove of antiques and collectibles, with a large range of furniture, decorative arts, musical instruments, tableware, paintings, vintage toys, glassware, light fittings, ceramics, vintage signs and much more.
The staff are very knowledgeable about this extensive inventory. Allow some time as the store is on three floors, and also presents displays from the Galesburg Historical Society at the top. Beyond that, you can also browse and purchase work by the store’s resident artist.
13. Kiwanis Park
On the southeast side of Galesburg is a spacious community park bounded to the east by I-74.
In a rolling landscape, Kiwanis Park has 50 acres of lawns shaded by tall mature trees. It’s the ideal setting for an 18-hole disc golf course, officially one of the longest in Illinois, and with well maintained tees and baskets.
Also here is a skate park that has recently been given a splash of color thanks to some street art, and there’s also a horse show arena, a lighted softball court, a multipurpose trail, a basketball court and two modular playground stations for kids.
14. Railroad Days Festival
Galesburg’s rich railroad heritage is the subject of this popular four-day festival at the end of June.
Transforming downtown, the Railroad Days Festival is a dream for families and anyone with an interest in railroads. During the event there will be a carnival, arts and crafts market and all kinds of live entertainment.
Train enthusiasts can admire a wonderful model train and railroadiana showcase at Knox College, while a shuttle will whisk you from downtown to Peck Park to view locomotives rattling past, and to take tours of the rail yards.
The Galesburg Railroad Museum is at the heart of the action, opening for guided tours, and the Galesburg Antiques Mall showcases its collections of railroad memorabilia.
15. Knox County Fair
The longest running county fair in Illinois has a history going back to 1851. This event takes place across five days in mid-July, and in all the time it’s been going, the fairground gates have only been closed twice, during the Civil War and then WWII.
The fairgrounds are to the southeast of Galesburg, off I-74, and are made up of 60 acres of beautifully landscaped grounds, accompanied by a grandstand.
At the Knox County Fair you can expect a program bursting with free entertainment, with live music, a carnival, food and craft vendors, 4-H competitions and displays, figure 8 racing, a demolition derby and much more.