City Hall 319-592-3400
616 FIRST STREET P.O. BOX 156 BONAPARTE IA 52620 US
Bonaparte Historic Riverfront District
The Bonaparte Historic Riverfront District . . . located on the Des Moines River in Van Buren County Iowa . . was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1989. Within this southeast Iowa village there has been a resurgence of historic restoration which will give you the feeling of stepping back in time.
Bonaparte's National Historic Riverfront District offers a unique blend of yesterday's ambience, today's progress, and tomorrow's success, with a pinch of home grown ownership and a dash of community enthusiasm giving downtown a new flavor of potential for those with discriminating tastes.
A feast for the eye is the sometimes contrary Des Moines River, garnished with a butterfly garden, historic lock walls, refurbished bandshell, and restored mills. Appetizing teasers are offered with historic street lights downtown, gracious Victorian homes, and charming 1800's cottages. One can't help but enjoy the architecture and shoppes in the beautiful National Historic Riverfront District. Bonaparte has been named the smallest Main Street Community in the United States and has the honor of having been named a winner of the "Great American Main Street Award". We invite you to visit us this year and join in on the fun!
The Bonaparte Story
Bonaparte, originally named Meeks Mills, Wisconsin Territory, was founded in 1837 on the banks of the Des Moines River. The river was integral to the development of Bonaparte in its early years. The river mill complex owned by the Meek brothers drew businesses and residents to the area and the woolen mill was eventually internationally known for the quality of the wool it produced.
William Meek PhotoThe first wing dam was constructed across the Des Moines River for use by the mills. Later, in 1846, a massive stone masonry lock and dam was built at Bonaparte as part of the Des Moines River Project, which was to enable navigation up and down the river. Part of the locks can still be seen in historic Riverfront Park.
When the river project fell through because of floods, the money and supplies were transferred to the railroad companies to enable the construction of railroads connecting Iowa towns. This construction had a positive impact on Bonaparte's industry and manufacturing, and unlike many river towns, Bonaparte continued to thrive. At its peak, Bonaparte had a population of almost 1,000 people.
In 1903, a major flood destroyed the dam and shortly afterward the Meek Mills were sold to pay debts. A major fire also occurred in the downtown area that year, destroying fourteen buildings on Main Street. Within a five-year period, the population dropped from 969 to 643 people. From this point on, Bonaparte stopped growing. The manufacturing and agricultural industries were no longer a powerful economic boost to the area.
In 1986, Bonaparte's downtown businesses were disappearing and the town was on the verge of dying. Several concerned individuals came together and developed Township Stores. They were able to restore many of the downtown buildings in keeping with the historic architecture, and enable several businesses to stay open. With the help of government grants, the city park, downtown and residential housing have seen much improvement in the past several years.
During this time, Bonaparte Main Street was incorporated as a non-profit organization, dedicated to the support of downtown businesses and to develop new businesses in Bonaparte. The biggest accomplishment was to successfully nominate the Bonaparte Historic Riverfront District to the National Register of Historic Places. As an official Main Street Community, Bonaparte is the smallest such community in the nation with a population of 468.
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