Boom, bust and natural disaster
by Chelsea Gilman
Just seven miles from the historic college town of Lexington, Va., Buena Vista has a history of its own — shorter, grittier, but just as compelling. It has had its share of news media attention over the years, and much of it has left the city’s residents a little leery of outside attention.
Buena Vista — pronounced “Byoona Vista” and often referred to as B.V. by the locals — began as the brainchild of Benjamin C. Moomaw. Moomaw’s dream for a city came in the late 1800s when two railroads were built, one in front of his house and one behind, located where Hardee’s stands today. Moomaw saw the potential for something big.
Local historian Francis Lynn has studied Moomaw’s own records and found that he was excited about B.V.’s potential as soon as he moved to the area.
“Not only did he move in to [his] mansion and start a family in 1875, but he also became active in looking around at what was in his neighborhood,” Lynn said. “Everything he saw just went through his mind and he thought this could be this and this could be that.”
Moomaw partnered with his neighbor, Capt. Morgan Francis Jordan, an iron master in charge of mining operations at the top of the mountains overlooking what would become Buena Vista. Jordan’s family owned almost 11,000 acres.
Jordan was on board with Moomaw and his vision to create a city, but the two knew they needed to form a larger organization in order to do so. So Moomaw wrote a prospectus and sent it to friends as well as capitalists in northern states, where most of the money remained in the years after the Civil War.
Moomaw got positive responses and in 1888 wrote a second prospectus. The second prospectus was, in effect, an advertisement for the area. Rather than focusing on the layout of a town as the first one did, this prospectus focused on the beauty of the land and why people would want to live there.
By then, Moomaw and Jordan had used their own money and land to create a smaller town known as Green Forest. The name came from Moomaw’s mansion, a wedding gift from his father.
The main attraction in Green Forest was a small building that housed the school and the church. The school was recognized by Rockbridge County, and any congregation in the area could use the church on Sundays. That attracted many people to the town. In addition to the school and church there was also a tannery.
With his second prospectus Moomaw reached out to people in Lexington and Rockbridge County and helped them see the benefits of forming a new city. Soon the Buena Vista Company was formed. The company owned three parcels of land: the Moomaw Green Forest mansion, where the entrance of Buena Vista is today, the land owned by Jordan, consisting mostly of mines in the mountains overlooking the city, and Hart’s Bottom, today’s downtown B.V.
The first thing the group did was to hire an engineer to lay out the city. The final plan had about 40 streets going from south to north, all numbered with intersecting avenues. That created even-sized tracts.
The Buena Vista Company then began selling stock, which gave it the money to really get the town up and running. Buyers were told they could trade the stock for lots throughout the city.
A drawing was held in Lexington on May 22, 1889 to determine who would own which lots. Anyone with shares was guaranteed lots that matched the number of shares they owned.
With the stock sold and the city organized, Buena Vista entered into the period known as the boom. Factory owners were included in those who bought shares, and they joined some growing industries in the town.
One of the first was a paper mill, which was located on the North River, which later came to be called the Maury. The old paper mill eventually was replaced by Bontex, an insole manufacturer that at one point employed about 65 people. It shut down in 2009 after being bought by a Taiwanese company.
Another factory that moved in during the boom was the Wilbourn Saddle Co. The company was successful and helped the city to grow economically.
In 1891 the boom ended and the period known as the bust began.
Lynn says the bust was due to a combination of causes that set the city up for problems. For one thing, the nation was entering a recession.
The city also soon discovered that it had miscalculated resources. The iron in the mountains that had been driving so much of the boom turned out to be of lesser quality and was harder to mine than the founders thought.
The factories stopped mining iron ore, and the small industries were forced to close.
But the city’s directors kept the faith, and petitioned the General Assembly to grant them a city charter. They got their charter in February 1891, but the economic problems didn’t go away.
A geologist sent into the mountains to examine the resources there and write a report for the city discovered that although the iron ore might not have been as easy to mine as hoped, there still was an advantage to extracting it and producing pig iron in town.
As a result of that discovery, an additional railroad was built in town that would transport iron from the mountain down to the original railroad track. From there it was taken to a furnace located on 22nd street along the river. Additional resources including chalk and stone were also discovered.
With the success of the iron factories, a steel plant was built down the river. The steel plant caught the attention of people up north.
The tannery remained in town through the mid-1960s. It helped the city weather the Great Depression in the 1930s because of its contract to supply the U.S. Army.
Today the site of the old tannery is home to Advance Drainage Systems Inc., which makes sewers and storm drains. It moved to Buena Vista in 1971.
But Lynn says other industries haven’t kept up.
“We don’t have any kind of computerized factories making upgraded new materials,” he said. “It’s been a struggle to get any kind of new industry.”
Lynn is uncertain about the city’s industrial future. The old Bontex plant seems symbolic.
“There’s one man and his wife who are in charge of it, and they keep it clean,” he said. “They keep it ready for anybody who wants to come in and take a look. They’re ready.”
One obstacle to continued industrial development in the city has been a series of crippling floods in the past half century.
The floods: A lasting effect
By Chelsea Gilman
Buena Vista was the creation of founder Edward Moomaw. But even as Moomaw’s vision grew into a small city toward the end of the 19th century, it faced its first hurdle, an economic downturn that became known as the bust.
Ever since, the city has faced the challenges of economic downturns and natural disasters. City historian Francis Lynn remembers one of the worst.
It was an August night in 1969 when the aftermath of Hurricane Camille roared through Buena Vista. A wall of water pushed by torrential rains rushed out of the mountains to the east. The city’s business district was flooded with six feet of water, and 75 homes were damaged.
“It just came through,” Lynn said. “It didn’t necessarily come down the river. It came down through the mountains, mainly through Nelson County.”
It was not long after, Lynn recalled, that the factories began to disappear. He remembers Camille as “a major disaster” for the community.
Many of Buena Vista’s residents have no memory of the 1969 flood. For them, the trouble started in 1985, when the city flooded again. That, they say, is when their community began to change for good.
Kim Gilbert, owner of Expressions Hair Salon, was a junior in high school when that flood hit.
“There were some factories that left,” Gilbert says. “Like right across the street, we still call that the Peebles building because that was Peebles department store. [The store is] actually in Lexington now, but Peebles was located here.”
Shaam Wheeler, who now owns Buena Vista Hardware, was just a child when the ’85 flood hit. But he remembers the change it wrought in his city. Wheeler recalls seeing buildings flooded up to their rooftops.
“It really hurt our community as far as the blue collar side of our town,” Wheeler said. “We lost one major business, being Reeves Bros., that my dad worked at, and he moved with them to North Carolina to their home plant or headquarters.”
The damage done to homes and factories was so great that many felt they could never rebuild. The city took another blow in the early 1990s. Since 1972 Bluebird Bus Co. had run a factory just south of town. It was one of the highest paying employers around, offering up to $20 an hour. But the plant was shut down in 1992 after being bought by Merrill Lynch Capital Partners. The closing had a devastating effect on the city’s economy. Another flood the same year worsened the situation.
But one factory that helped some people regain employment was Dana Corp.
Dana made car parts and was one of Buena Vista’s biggest employers, with a work force of about 275. Many residents thought the city was getting back on track.
Then, in 1995, another flood hit. A downtown development plan was put on hold and once again the city had to rebuild. Although Dana continued to employ people through 2007, when it left in an effort to cut company costs the community took another hit.
Even Lynn, now in his 80s, isn’t sure about the city’s future.
“Some say we could have recovered from the flood, but almost immediately after something like that you go into a recession or depression, and there have been a series of those,” Lynn said.