Mills County, Iowa

Ghost Towns of Mills County, Iowa
by Allen Wortman

(used with permission)

. . . . from Bethlehem to East Plattsmouth

“For the first time in history any Tom, Dick or Harry could build a town
and name it for his own or his wife’s name." Eric Hoffer, in "First Things, Last Things"

Chapter 3, pages 17-21

The Missouri river was a major barrier for emigrants headed west and alert entrepreneurs recognized the financial possibilities in providing ferry service. First of these in this area was between Kanesville (later Council Bluffs) and Omaha. Col. Peter Sarpy, the famed trader, had established one at Bellevue with Trader’s Point as its Iowa terminus, around 1836. In 1852 Samuel Martin petitioned the county court at Coonville for a license to establish a ferry at Plattsville (near the mouth of the Platte river). The ingenious Col. Sarpy, noting that a flatboat propelled only by poles or oars would sometime drift a mile or more from the proper landing place before it could be brought in, petitioned in 1852 for a license to establish a steam ferry at Trader’s Point, still giving himself some leeway in that he asked for it to have a license to land a mile above or below the main designated point.

In 1854 Col. Joseph L. Sharpe applied for a license to “keep a ferry” at Bethlehem, running to Plattsmouth, Nebraska, supplying the Mills County court, to which he applied, with his proposed schedule of tolls. This was granted by County Judge Hiram P. Bennett May 1st of that year. His rates may seem high for that time when wages and prices were so much lower than now. But they were in line with those charged by the Sarpy ferry, and the History of 1881 listed them as follows:

  • For wagon and two horses ..........$1.00
  • For wagon and four horses ...........1.50
  • For footman .....................................00
  • For horseman ...................................50
  • For sheep per head ...........................05
  • For cattle per head ...........................00
Bethlehem was “an old and small village, founded in the early days of the county’s history. The Mormon’s made a stop there . . It was called by them Bethlehem,” says the 1881 History. It had some stores and a blacksmith shop when Col. Sharp proposed to keep his ferry there.

Wayne D. Choate, who wrote a brief history of the county for the 1940 IPA Who’s Who in Iowa, recounted that Col. Sharp (he spelled the name without the “e”) was an early resident of Coonville and was influential in its development. After J.W. Coolidge, who had built the first mill in the county on Keg Creek, later moved to Coonville where he started the community’s first store and was its first postmaster, Col. Sharp persuaded him to purchase the town site and make an effort to have it named the county seat of the county which would soon be established. Mr. Coolidge followed this advice and the colonel proved to be particularly helpful. He was elected as the “roving representative” of some thirty southwest Iowa counties in the Iowa General Assembly. There he introduced a bill that declared “Glenwood” (which was the former Coonville) to be the seat of the government of Mills County and persuaded his fellow legislators to adopt the bill and it was passed January 12, 1853. Glenwood built up rapidly and the following year a half dozen enterprises were in operation there.

Col. Sharp, a man of versatile talents for he was editor of Glenwood’s second newspaper, The Thought, had other ambitions also. After the Burlington & Missouri River railroad completed its line to the river, at first using a ferry to cross the stream but later putting up the first steel bridge in the nation (the one still in use), he attempted to found a town, Sharpsburg, on the site of Bethlehem, surveyed the land and had it platted. A dozen or more blocks were laid out with the railroad cutting diagonally across the center of the town. The site was rather low for the railway bridge started in the east edge of the town in order to climb to the height needed so that the bridge would not impede river traffic.

In addition to Main, the north-south streets included Woodland, Water and West; with Second, Third and Fourth as the east-west streets. Ample room was reserved for future expansion. As the plat of the town, taken from the 1891 Atlas, indicates,, some seven structures were built there but there is no record of other development. That Sharpsburg may have been largely a promoter’s dream is suggested by Jason Benscoter of Oakland, Iowa, who recalls that his grandmother came to Bethlehem in 1862, living there many years. He was born there shortly before the turn of the century and later attended both school and church in the community. Bethlehem had several business houses, he states, including a saw mill and blacksmith shop, the mill producing a huge pile of sawdust which provided a haven above the high water when the Missouri river was in minor flood stage.

Junction City, evidently another name for this same community, provided the post office which was established there March 2, 1870, with Leander Cooley as postmaster. It was discontinued November 25, 1872. Still later the Bethlehem-Sharpsburg-Junction City site was called East Plattsmouth and a post office was re-established there February 5, 1877, by William R. Eledge who served as postmaster until it was discontinued again May 16, 1884. The school that Mr. Benscoter attended was called Bethlehem and was located about a mile east of the town site. The church was a Society of Friends organization whose building was just south of the Village. Although Col. Sharp did not continue to operate his ferry after a few years, others undertook to maintain such service and this continued until Highway 34 toll bridge was put up in the early 1930’s by a private corporation. The ferry used a long cable stretched across the river just below the railroad bridge to which a flatboat was attached with pulleys, so that the prow could be headed into the current of the river which thus pushing against the side of the boat would propel it across the flood to the distant shore. To go back, the stern would be inclined so that the current would move the craft in the opposite direction.

East Plattsmouth was never a vigorous, lively town and its commercial enterprises faded away after the turn of the century.

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Page originally transcribed by Deb Smith, updated on June 12, 2014 by Karyn Techau
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