By Ben Joravsky

Thirty or so years ago few people thought that U.S. 20, the road that ran through the small towns of western Illinois to Galena, had to be much more than what it was: a hilly little two-laner. There were always trucks on the road, it being the only direct route from Chicago to Dubuque, and plenty of tractors and combines and hay wagons. “You might fall behind a slow-moving tractor, but folks didn’t worry about that,” says Don Taufman, who’s farmed all his life in the area. “Things were slower then.”

But the pace has quickened in the last few years, as the little town by the Mississippi has become a less-expensive, less-glitzy midwestern Aspen. Now U.S. 20–which is four lanes until it’s 20 miles west of Freeport–also has to serve tourists and second-home owners, and on busy days traffic backs up for miles. To deal with the problem the state has proposed building a new 50-mile four-lane highway. But the land around Galena is some of the most beautiful in Illinois, and the project would change it forever.

The locals are divided on the issue. One side says a road that can carry traffic quickly and efficiently is needed to attract jobs and development. The other side says more development, particularly 50 miles of new concrete and flattened hills, is just what Galena most needs to avoid. At the heart of the debate is a struggle over fundamental questions about what Galena is and what it should be. “This is about much more than a freeway,” says Taufman. “It’s our way of deciding where we’re going and how we’re going to get there.”

Ironically, the drive for a new road began because of the very landscape the proposed freeway would destroy. For the last few years tourists have been pouring into the area to see the lovely rolling, verdant hills around the picturesque river-port town. It’s rare terrain in Illinois, where most of the land was flattened by glaciers.

By the mid-1980s most of the dark and dusty storefronts along Main Street had been swept clean and painted, then turned into card shops, boutiques, restaurants, and art galleries. The houses on the hills had doubled in value, farms in the hinterland were selling for more than $100,000, and the old Galena Territory, a huge undeveloped tract of land east of town, had become Eagle Ridge, a suburblike complex of town homes and condos. Retirees, weekenders, artists, ex-hippies, and yuppies–all looking to get away–poured into the area.

Galena swallowed hard, then welcomed them. “People might eye you when you first move here, but then they warm up,” says Tracy Roberts, who moved to Galena from Chicago to open the Eldorado Grill, a Main Street restaurant. “It’s not a class society. When I go to a play I’m sitting next to my plumber and my lawyer.”

As more people and more cars arrived, the call to upgrade U.S. 20 got louder. It was, critics complained, too winding, too hilly, too narrow for so much traffic, and it was particularly frightening at night, when the bright lights of semis beamed into oncoming cars. Drivers stalled in traffic got impatient and attempted dangerous maneuvers. Swerving as they tried to slip around a slow-moving trailer, plenty of people found themselves in the ditch. According to the Illinois Department of Transportation, the stretch of U.S. 20 that winds through Stockton, Elizabeth, and Galena has one of the highest accident rates in the state. “There are long stretches without shoulders,” says Ryan Hippen, an IDOT project engineer. “It’s remarkable that there aren’t more accidents.”

Local business leaders complained that the snarled traffic deterred development. What factory or warehouse, they asked, would want to have to depend on an old road clogged with slow-moving tractors? Without a new road, they said, young people would be able to find only low-paying jobs serving tourists; to find decent jobs they would have to move away or drive for miles.

Eventually a coalition of business and civic leaders who wanted to expand the local economy and straighten the curves turned to U.S. congressman John Cox, a first-term Democrat from Galena. “They came to me in early 1993 with not much more than a cumbersome name [the JD/S 4-Lane 20 Association] and 13,000 signatures to petitions in favor of a four-lane roadway,” says Cox. “They had gone to Springfield looking for money and were told that they needed money from Congress.”

Cox used his connections with the then-Democrat-controlled Congress to get the federal government to fund a $5 million IDOT study of alternatives to U.S. 20. After nearly a year of study IDOT’s engineers concluded that the only way to ease congestion was to build a separate four-lane highway parallel to U.S. 20 that would enable motorists to bypass the small towns at high speeds.

In the winter of 1993-’94 IDOT unveiled sketches of three proposed routes. “These are merely proposals,” says Hippen. “We don’t favor any one of them. We aren’t even saying we favor the freeway–maybe the best alternative is to expand the current U.S. 20. We have to start a planning process in which everyone–farmers, business leaders, residents–gets a chance to participate. Then we can determine what’s the best course.”

The first reaction to the proposals was outrage. All three proposed routes would cost at least $350 million. And each one would require the state to buy around 2,500 acres of land, including 45 farmsteads, and then blast through some spectacular natural spots, such as Irish Hollow or Devil’s Ladder.

By January 1994 opponents had formed an organization called the Freeway Watch Committee and elected Warwick Stevenson–a high school special-ed teacher and son of Adlai, the former U.S. senator–as president. From the outset the members agreed that a freeway wasn’t worth the noise, dirt, and pollution it would bring. They didn’t believe it would generate jobs, arguing that a town needed much more than a road to do that. They insisted it would only force farmers from their land and spur more development, with hills and valleys giving way to townhouses and condos. The longtime residents thought the freeway meant the end of the life they loved; the newcomers thought the world they’d escaped to was becoming too much like the one they’d left.

“If you’re saying the problem is that we have too many trucks and cars on the roads, the solution is not to build a freeway–that will only encourage more cars,” says Nancy Stoneburner, who in the 80s moved to the area with her husband Larry from suburban Chicago. “I’ve seen it happen in the suburbs. Developers follow the road to the undeveloped land and build subdivisions and malls. Taxes go up to pay for the new schools and public services. Before you know it, the roads are congested again. So what do they do? They build another road.”

Many Freeway Watchers agreed with her, and hoped to stifle future development by keeping things as they were. Other Freeway Watchers argued that railroad lines should be rebuilt, with several daily runs to and from Chicago. Few, if any, trusted IDOT’s professed neutrality. As they saw it, IDOT’s study was little more than a ruse–designed to arrive at a foregone conclusion. A freeway–with all its contracts for lawyers, engineers, construction companies, and architects–was just too lucrative for the state to resist.

Yet over time the vast majority of Freeway Watchers agreed that at a minimum U.S. 20 had to be expanded–if only to get them in and out of town more quickly and safely. “You can improve U.S. 20 without building a freeway–it doesn’t have to be all or nothing,” says Stevenson. “A freeway is a major, major road that’s much different than a normal four-lane road, which allows stoplights and many kinds of exits. A freeway has only a few cloverleaf entrances. It’s like building a new house instead of renovating the old one. And we decided that renovating the old road was the route to take.”

So Freeway Watch’s members threw themselves into the process. They had people on all five of IDOT’s planning subcommittees–agricultural, economic development, environment, government, and tourism. They also hired Tom Nelson, an engineering professor, to draw up an alternative plan.

In April 1995 Nelson unveiled his plan to add two lanes to the existing road at a Freeway Watchers meeting. “We had a stormy debate,” says Stevenson. “There were those who felt we should make no concessions unless we got something in return. There were those who thought we should expand railroad service. But most people figured that was too unrealistic, and we decided to endorse Tom’s plan.”

The members of the 4-Lane group thought there was something self-serving and condescending about the Freeway Watchers and their rhetoric. So many of them were newcomers–who were they to oppose new development? How would they have felt if the door had been closed on them? Did they understand that if they killed a freeway, U.S. 20 might never be improved, because IDOT might not endorse any other project?

Not knowing what else to do, 4-Lane returned to Cox, who’d been voted out of office in November 1994. “I felt sorry for them, because they were decent people who cared about the area’s future and they were frustrated,” says Cox. “They weren’t being heard, and they were being unfairly portrayed as IDOT lackeys. I said, ‘Look, you’re losing a political campaign. You’re up against a well-organized bunch, and it appears to be headed by people who don’t want this road in their backyard.’ The next thing I know I agreed to be president of the organization.”

Under Cox, 4-Lane raised money to hire a publicist, who in the spring of ’95 initiated a sophisticated counterattack that subtly portrayed the Freeway Watchers as irresponsible naysayers who were waging a not-in-my-backyard campaign. “We have nothing against the Freeway Watch Committee,” says Cox. “In fact, we encourage people to get involved. But we’re disappointed that some people have reached conclusions without facts regarding a freeway. If you don’t have [IDOT’s] engineering and environmental information, how can you make an informed decision? Are you only against a freeway because you don’t want it to go through your backyard? That’s not a very analytical way to plan our future. There’s some feeling that you can’t trust IDOT. But I have seen IDOT go the extra mile to be careful in its evaluations. Officially we’re neutral, in that we don’t endorse a freeway or an expressway. I think the best way to approach this is to have an open mind.”

The focus of the debate soon shifted from roads to personalities, with the Freeway Watchers attempting to portray themselves as a diverse bunch of new and longtime residents looking out for the region’s best interests. “This isn’t about slamming the door on anyone who wants to come here,” says Tracy Roberts, the owner of the Eldorado Grill. “Nothing stays still–life is change. But it can be changed in constructive ways.”

Privately the Freeway Watchers wondered why Cox had taken charge of the other side. “I think he wants to justify his initial decision as a congressman to fund the IDOT report,” said one member. “But these are opinions we keep to ourselves. Most of us like John. A lot of us worked in his campaign, some of us are his clients. And even if we didn’t like him we see him all the time. We don’t want a situation where we pass him without saying hello. This town’s too small for that.”

Sometime that spring a “Treatise on the Anti-Four Lane Extremists” was mailed about town. This single-spaced manifesto, signed by an anonymous character, “The Fox,” likened the Freeway Watch Committee to the Communist Party and accused its members of being “elitists who see our county as a playground and whose vision of our county ‘environment’ only as fields and streams for their personal use.”

Without a freeway, the Fox concluded, the sons and daughters of farmers and factory workers would be consigned to a future of serving tourists and weekenders. “The youth, the workers, the shopkeepers, the schools, the professionals of these small towns remain in danger of further losses,” the Fox wrote. “Wake up, folks. These extremists can screw this opportunity up. They have proved that already. Be prepared to stand up for your county and its total environment.

The unsigned manifesto embittered the Freeway Watchers, who said it was demeaning and inaccurate, particularly since they’d gone out of their way to appear dispassionate by softening their earlier harsh anti-IDOT rhetoric. They insisted that they weren’t antiexpansion–having, after all, spent their own money to design an alternative expansion plan–and they resented being stereotyped as a bunch of dilettantes or Luddites. “This is a hard-working town of motivated entrepreneurs,” says Tracy Roberts. “It’s never been about playing. People have a dream, and they work hard to make it happen–that’s what Galena’s about.”

The Fox’s identity remains a mystery, but his words became a rallying cry for the freeway boosters as both sides settled in for a protracted campaign. At this point IDOT says it won’t decide if there will be a freeway, much less where it will go, until after they go through the public planning process sometime next year.

For the moment, no one knows how it will end. Cox and his allies have more clout and more cash, but the days when power brokers can steamroll the local opposition–the way Mayor Richard J. Daley bulldozed Little Italy to build the Circle campus–are almost over. For one thing, there just isn’t enough money to go around, so governor Edgar–or any other politician–will be reluctant to shower precious state money on a project that will gain him anything less than adulation.

“Regardless of how this concludes, Galena won’t be the same,” says Cox. “People like to think that the past is wonderful, but the reality is that when I grew up many of the stores on Main Street were empty. Did we sacrifice some of what Galena was to get where we are today? Of course. On the balance was that change good? You betcha. Those shops aren’t empty any more. Should we be afraid to make changes that will make it even better? I don’t think so. If there was any way to preserve 20 as a scenic route I’d want to do it. But if it can’t be done, so be it.”

Last summer I drove around the Galena area with a photographer named Billy Kelly, who lives in Chicago but was raised in Galena–his parents still live there. He promised to give me an insider’s look at the great freeway debate. He himself didn’t want the beauty of his hometown wiped out by a freeway, but he wasn’t a member of any antifreeway group.

That day I saw persuasive evidence for both sides of the debate as Kelly drove along back roads past gorgeous farms, meadows, and streams the freeway might level. At Nancy Stoneburner’s house we heard the whooshing wings of little birds that fed from her feeders: one of the proposed freeways would be visible and audible from her porch. At Devil’s Ladder, a gravelly incline west of town, we watched a woman ride by on a horse. “One of the proposed routes would go through here,” Kelly said. “Anywhere they put it, the freeway’s going to destroy beautiful land. I think IDOT just wants to put it where they’ll get the least resistance.”

That night I drove home in a light rain, blinded by the headlights of oncoming traffic. I kept the car at 50, indifferent to the impatient drivers lining up behind me as I strained to follow the road’s curves and tried to keep as far as I could from the big trucks that roared by on the other side of the center lane. By the time we finally reached Freeport and the two lanes became four, I didn’t give a damn about the landscape. I was ready to build the freeway myself.

In October Kelly and I returned, arriving just in time to see the Galena High Pirates pound the Aquin Bulldogs, their rivals from Freeport. It was a cold, dreary night, but the football stadium was packed with fans and little kids scampering behind the north goalpost. John Cox was there, as well as several high-profile freeway opponents, though they didn’t seem to talk about anything but the game. Cox’s son Michael played halfback, and he was sensational racing down the lines for four or five touchdowns. His father flushed with pride as people, including at least one freeway opponent, rushed over to shake his hand.

Afterward the Man in the Moon Pub, a small, smoky bar on Main Street, was jammed to the walls with locals. Terry, a husky truck driver who’d been born and raised in Galena, explained that the pub was being sold to an out-of-towner who planned to turn it into a Forrest Gump-theme bar. “We’re gonna drink out the stock this weekend,” he said. “I guess he [the old owner] could make more money selling it than running it.”

“It’s gonna be a tourist bar,” Kelly said.

“I won’t be here–not in a tourist bar,” Terry said. He raised his glass. “To the good old days.”

They made a few jokes about dumb tourists, and I realized that Galena had its own social hierarchy, with native-born on top and tourists on the bottom. They reminded me of old-timers in Lincoln Park mocking the latest yuppie arrivals.

“So what’s your take on the freeway?” I asked Terry.

“I’m for it,” he said. “The traffic’s too slow–there’s too many accidents. The trucks can’t get where we’re going in time. It’s bad for business the way it is.”

“But what about the trees?”

He snickered. “Look, I love trees. But those trees will go with or without a freeway. People are too greedy. They come in from Chicago and say, oh, I gotta have my house. So they buy a farmer’s land and cut down his trees and build their house and think, oh, my little house is not hurting anyone. But a little house here and a little house there and you’ve killed as many trees as a freeway.

“Well, I think it’s crazy,” said Rory, the bartender. “They’re doing it for the tourists who’re in such a big rush to get here. I don’t understand that. You come to the country to relax–why do you have to hurry up to do it?”

I suggested that they ban truck traffic on U.S. 20, restore railroad service, and slap a bigger tax on gasoline so people wouldn’t drive so much.

They all laughed and called me unrealistic. They said that people would never give up their cars and would rather live in a wall of concrete than pay more in taxes. “And you can forget that idea about banning trucks,” Terry said. “There’d be a truckers’ revolution if you did that. And I’d be leading.” He patted me on the back and ordered another beer. “There are no easy answers,” he said. “And in the end, guess what? You die.”

The next morning Main Street was choked with tour buses and pedestrians. Kelly and I drove to the banks of the Mississippi and took a small motorboat west through Deadman’s Slough to a string of tiny unincorporated islands owned by the U. S. Government. A friend of Kelly’s has a cabin on one of the islands.

The sky was clear and the air chilly. Larry and his wife, Sally, greeted us at the dock and tied our boat to the mooring post. They explained that because the winters have been getting warmer flooding has been getting worse in the spring, so they were tearing down their little one-room cabin and building a new one on 15-foot stilts.

Terry was right. New houses were coming, no matter where you went–even at this lovely outpost.

Ironically, Larry was opposed to a new freeway. “It’ll destroy everything worth preserving. U.S. 20 needs improving–so improve it. But why build a freeway? I fail to see the logic behind that.”

He picked up his hammer and nails, and Kelly and I headed back toward the mainland. As we chugged out into the Mississippi, Kelly pointed to the sweep of yellow-green trees along the western bank. Iowa is as beautiful as Galena, he said, but less crowded and touristy. That’s where he’d go if he felt he had to go somewhere just to get away.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell.