I doubt that Frederick Rothstein thought much about bridges when he was living at Allen’s Grove, Iowa. They were probably one of the furthest things from his mind.
A miller by trade, Rothstein had a lucrative business. He had a combination saw and grist mill, powered by steam. Rothstein had an abundance of fuel and he was making money. Life was good.
But when the American Civil War broke out in 1861, the fuel that powered his mill was also needed for the war effort, and he was beginning to run short.
Rothstein was a persevering man, and had faced hardships before. He wasn’t going to let this one get him down. By the following year, he had come up with a solution. He would move his operations to Buena Vista.
Buena Vista was a busy ferry town, with a small store and a few houses. It definitely had promise, and would stand to benefit from having a mill.
In 1862, Rothstein moved his mill to Buena Vista, and then bought the ferry and the store. The three businesses played well off one another, with the steady ferry traffic bringing customers to the the mill and store. The profits may not have made Rothstein a multi-millionaire, but they did make him very comfortable.
Rothstein, like many businessman, always had an eye toward improving his operations and making them both more efficient and profitable. It was probably around this time that he started giving serious consideration to building a bridge.
The ferry was profitable, and brought a lot of traffic through Buena Vista. But no matter how good it was, he felt that a bridge would be better. There would be no waiting while the raft crossed. If people could get through Buena Vista faster, it might even generate more traffic.
And, while the ferry generated some cash flow, it was really the store and the mill that was making Rothstein most of his money. The more he thought about it, the more the old miller started thinking that a bridge would be the way to go.
At his own expense, Rothstein had a bridge built over the Wapsipinicon. The ferry that had been in use for so long was finally shut down.
But, Rothstein was right. The traffic kept moving and things stayed profitable for him. A few years later, however, something happened that he could have never foreseen: the Wapsi changed course, leaving his new bridge spanning dry ground.
Buena Vista existed because of the river crossing. If there were no crossing, than there would be no town. This was a drastic outcome, and drastic measures were required to deal with it.
He brokered a deal with nearby Scott County for a new bridge. Rothstein told them that if they paid for half, he would pick up the rest of the expense. The county agreed, and a new bridge was built across the new river channel a short distance to the east.
While the mill was more or less fine where it was at, the store was the heart of the town. It was there that all of the goods were sold and people came to get their mail. The store had to stay with the town, otherwise there was no point in building a bridge. Realizing this, Rothstein had the building brought to the new location.
Developments in milling technology, combined with new attitudes in the industry, had put the old mills that utilized grindstones, like the one at Buena Vista, on the road to ruin. In 1868, Rothstein closed his mill for good. It had run it’s race, and it had been a good one.
In 1870, Rothstein hired a young man named John Langseth to work for him at Buena Vista. Within the next year, Langseth had fallen in love with Rothstein’s daughter, Ellen, married her, and bought the store in town, along with all of the goods in it.
The bridge traffic at Buena Vista increased steadily over the next several years. In a time when travel was hard and very much subject to the whims of the weather, the bridge allowed people in the more rural sections of Scott and Clinton Counties a place to take their farm goods to sell that was closer than the river towns of Davenport or Clinton.
In the middle of it all was John Langseth’s store, ready to buy and sell goods to anyone and everyone that passed through, and there were a lot of people passing through.
By 1877, there was so much traffic that Langseth needed to increase his stock to keep up with the demand. To accommodate this, he built a 20′ x 30′ addition. In 1881, he expanded again, this time building another two-story building that was 24′ x 50′ right next to the original store.
For the next several years, the Buena Vista store prospered. The town grew a little, but never really got all that big. There was a church, and the store, a few houses. But it was enough.
Shortly after the turn of the century, Langseth sold the store to a man named Charles Kuehl and retired to Dixon, Iowa. It was around this time that the town started its slow decline.
It wasn’t any one reason that Buena Vista began to fade, and it certainly wasn’t the new store owners. They were all successful in their own right, and did their best to maintain and run the business. The problem was with the rest of the world.
Like the roller mills had done to the saw and grist mill in the late 1860’s, technology and new attitudes were changing things in both Scott and Clinton Counties. Both Dixon and Calamus had started to grow, and with growth came increased business development in those areas. The people that had gone to the Buena Vista store to pick up their necessities now found that it was an even shorter trip to go into their local towns.
Roads began to improve immensely after 1910. Blacktop and concrete roads began to show up more and more, and the automobile, the early models of which did not handle the rough rural roads as well, did very well on these improved surfaces.
Cars also travelled faster, so people found it easier to go further afield to Davenport or DeWitt because it didn’t take them as long. Gradually, the traffic on the Buena Vista bridge started to dwindle.
The bridge was still a popular place to drive across for people in the area, and the store was a good place to shop for locals, and they stayed open for several years.
But gradually, over time, fewer and fewer people came to Buena Vista. The church closed its doors, and the houses were abandoned. The store was there, but its glory days were far behind it.
The bridge was still there, but had fallen into disrepair. By the mid-1960’s, it was declared unsafe to drive, saying the metal frame was brittle and the wooden planking was rotten and loose. Some locals in the Buena Vista and Dixon area argued that it was perfectly fine, and continued to use it.
The argument raged on for a few years, but the county finally won.
While several county workers were preparing the structure to be taken apart when the entire bridge shifted, sending it into the cold water below. Thankfully, no one was hurt, but the bridge was no more.
Shortly after Christmas Day in 1970, the store caught fire and burnt to the ground. Fire Departments from Grand Mound, Eldridge, Dixon, and Calamus all came out to fight the blaze, almost like one last gathering between neighbors to see one of their number off on their final voyage.
When the store went, so did the last remnants of Buena Vista. Like the Kwik Stars, Casey’s, and Kum and Go’s of our modern day, the Buena Vista store gave a place for travelers to stop and pick up or sell a few things, and locals a convenient place to shop and socialize without travelling all day.
Today, it’s a quiet place along the river, probably not unlike it must have been when the first people were ferried across it all those years ago. But the stories of the now lost town of Buena Vista still remain, drifting through time like leaves on the meandering waters of the Wapsi.
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