Every state has at least one ghost town.
Just as towns emerge for a variety of reasons, they also die for just as many. But, like people, it’s often what happened in a town when it was still around that really matters. That’s especially true for the town of Buena Vista.
To be perfectly honest, I had never heard of the place.
I was somewhere a few years ago when an associate of mine and I got talking about Clinton County. He had moved there a short time before and was telling me about his new home. As it turned out, it was very near the former town, and he mentioned it by name.
Me, being me, asked something appropriate, like, ‘What the hell is a Buena Vista?’ Please, allow me to elaborate.
According to some sources, the name Buena Vista translates to ‘beautiful place.’
Situated along the Wapsipinicon River south of Calamus, Buena Vista – or what’s left of it – was probably just that. Surrounded by tall trees and greenery, the Wapsi flows lazily through the area as it meanders across the state. Like so many places along that river, it’s a good place to fish, relax, or even sleep while sitting amongst nature.
Or get eaten alive by mosquitos in the spring. But, that’s life on the Wapsi.
The man responsible for establishing the site, Captain Benjamin Clark, had a real thing for scenic river spots.
One of the earliest settlers in Scott County, Clark established what would be the first ferry across the Mississippi River in this region. Located in the area of the city of Buffalo, he chose the site because, for him, it was the most beautiful place on the river.
After his ferry business started to become more successful, Clark decided to send one of his hired men, John Shook, to put another ferry across the Wapsi. At that time, a road ran roughly between Clark’s settlement in Scott County all the way to Dubuque. It saw regular traffic from cattlemen driving their livestock north, and Clark saw an opportunity to make a little extra money.
Who named the site Buena Vista is lost to history. Maybe it was Clark, or Shook, or someone else entirely. Regardless, the name stuck.
Shook built a cabin on the Clinton County side of the Wapsi in 1834 and began taking people across the river in a small canoe. An excellent hunter and trapper, John was reliable and dedicated, and helped to make his employers tiny ferry a success.
As the county itself became more settled, more people moved into the area around the settlement. Shook’s cabin, like so many pioneer buildings, began to wear several different hats.
It became the first post office, and later, the first school in that area of Clinton County. The cabin, stocked with supplies from Buffalo, also became Buena Vista’s first store.
By the 1840’s, the traffic across the Wapsi had grown. To accommodate it all, Shook built a small log ferry that was pulled across the river with a rope that had been stretched between the banks.
In 1849, Shook sold the ferry, and moved on to other things. Over the next several years, it would exchange hands several times, but would remain one of the most profitable crossings on the Wapsi, with over 150 wagons crossing daily at one point.
The store continued to thrive, and during the 1850’s took on a new function. The Underground Railroad, a clandestine network of abolitionists transporting African-Americans escaping slavery, had a strong branch through Clinton County. During these tumultuous years in America’s history, the store in Buena Vista was used as a hiding place for runaway slaves.
In 1862, a businessman named Frederick Rothstein decided to move his saw and grist mill from nearby Allen’s Grove to Buena Vista. It was Rothstein that would take Buena Vista into the next chapter of its history.
For now, we’re going to leave Mr. Rothstein and his kin to the mists of time. Like that long ago conversation with my work mate, the time has come to end our story at the table and move on to other things.
Rest assured, we’ll return to Buena Vista. There’s still more to the story, and more to share with you. But for now, it’s just too damn hot in my house to tell a story. I’m told that the heat index got up to 112 degrees in my corner of the world today, and the Kitchen Table Historian is not a fan of hot.
Be sure to grab yourself something cold from the fridge on your way out this week, and try to stay comfortable in this heat wave. I’m going to go and bask in the hum of my air conditioner with the fan on high, and think happy thoughts.
You have been reading John Brassard Jr., the Kitchen Table Historian. Please check in every week or so for brand new true stories of triumph, tragedy, and everything in-between. If you want to make it easier on yourself, you can subscribe to John’s blog and have new entries sent directly to your inbox, or you can ‘Like’ the Kitchen Table Historian Facebook page, and receive them in your news feed.
Thank you for stopping by, and we look forward to seeing you at the table!
Downer, Harry E. ‘History of Davenport and Scott County, Iowa, Volumes 1 and 2.’ Chicago; The S.J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1910.
‘The History of Clinton County, Iowa.’ Chicago; Western Historical Company, 1879
Spies, Edna. ‘Buena Vista History is Colorful.’ DeWitt Observer, 2/27/1967
Central Community Historical Society and Museum