Once a bustling steamboat town situated on the Des Moines River in Van Buren County, Iowa, Bentonsport was important in the westward expansion of the country. Platted in 1839 (before Iowa became a state), the town grew because of the river's role in transportation of people and goods and its use as a power source for the mills that were built on its banks.
Bentonsport was the site of one of three completed lock-and-dam complexes of the Des Moines River Improvement Project, initiated in the 1800's. The first paper mill in Iowa was located here; there were also grist, saw, linseed oil, and woolen mills. Residents of the surrounding area relied on the mills to process their crops, on the river for shipping, and on the local stores to supply the goods they could not produce. The town was a major center of commerce in southeast Iowa; an estimated 1,000 people lived here. Bentonsport was also a terminus of the Des Moines Valley Railroad, and was the end of the line for several years. All of these factors contributed to the westward movement of settlers and pioneers in the 1800's.
Eventually, however, the lock and dam system was abandoned, and the river became unnavigable. Less river traffic, extension of the rail line, numerous floods and fires, and a general shift in the economic patterns of the area caused a slow and steady decline in Bentonsport in the 19th century. Now it is a quiet village, with fewer than 40 residents. Decades of inactivity and neglect have had a positive result; many original buildings remain, causing the town to retain a great deal of the character and ambience of its earlier days. In recognition of this unique situation and the importance of preserving the remnants of Iowa's heritage present here, the town of Bentonsport has been listed as a historic district in the National Register of Historic Places.
Today, Bentonsport is experiencing renewed growth. Many buildings have been or are in the process of being restored or renovated. A growing number of artists and craftspeople are making Bentonsport their place to live and work, and numerous specialty shops have been set up to display their work for sale. Festivals, workshops, and musical entertainment are held regularly, and guests are able to observe shopkeepers at work, demonstrating old-world crafts. The physical remains of the buildings, mill foundations, and the old river dam offer unique opportunities to the increasing number of visitors who are interested in touching the past, and a stroll across the century-old-iron bridge can become a trip through time.
A spirit of dedication to preservation is strongly evident here, and an atmosphere of peace and timelessness prevails. It is the feeling of having stepped back in time that appeals to visitors, and keeps them coming back.
We hope you will too!