FALLING ROCK — Jon and Jessica Mitchell spent two years scouring the state in search of the right location to open a bar.
The Kenosha County couple looked in Wausau, Eau Claire, Stanley and Stoughton. They fell in love with Falling Rock, located along the Mississippi River about midway between Prairie du Chien and Lynxville.
To call it a hamlet would be generous.
Falling Rock is actually a part of the town of Eastman in Crawford County and consists of a bar, campground, boat landing and the Falling Rock Walleye Club, which boasts more than 350 members.
“That’s where we found happiness, the Great River Road,” Jon Mitchell told me by phone from his home in Burlington. “I got to admit, we’re pretty scared. We have our whole life running on this thing. If we go under, we’ll be living across the street in that boat landing.”
The fear for the Mitchells, who purchased Falling Rock Bar & Bait in April, is real and for good reason.
Since June 23, following torrential rainfalls, damage and debris from 80 rock- and mudslides have kept a 10-mile stretch of Highway 35 from Highway N north of Prairie du Chien to Lynxville closed.
Local residents and campers can use the highway, but the majority of traffic is being detoured to the east onto Highway 27 in Prairie du Chien to Mount Sterling and then to Highway 171 west where it reconnects with the Great River Road south of Ferryville.
The state Department of Transportation said it could be August before the road, built next to towering bluffs, is reopened.
That means little traffic passing by what is now called Mitchell’s Liquor Box Tavern & Tackle. It’s also another setback for the couple who have two children, ages 6 and 8.
High water has kept the county boat landing across the highway submerged for much of the year, keeping anglers away from the Mitchells’ business. In January, a grease fire in their Burlington home caused an estimated $80,000 damage. They were insured and are living in a hotel until the home is repaired, but would eventually like to move closer to their business. In February, Jessica had back surgery.
“We’re going to try like hell, it’s all we can do,” Jon Mitchell said of his struggling business, which has seen income fall 90 percent since the road closure. “If the water had actually rushed through our doors, we would have been a lot better off.”
A vulnerable stretch of road
Piles of dirt and rock and stumps and limbs that had been removed from the roadway and adjacent railroad tracks over the previous 10 days lined Highway 35 when we toured the area Tuesday with Peter Strachan, a highway maintenance supervisor with the state Department of Transportation.
Strachan, 56, lives in Genoa and has spent the past nine years overseeing maintenance on this part of the highway. He pointed out slides from previous years that forced repairs and showed us what he calls “nuggets.” They are actually boulders, some the size of beach balls, others the size of small cars. Some of the nuggets have tumbled down the side of the steep bluffs. Others are waiting their turn.
What’s keeping the road closed is damage to a 330-foot section a few miles south of Falling Rock. That’s where part of the southbound lane is gone and the integrity of the road was weakened when dirt and rock slid down the hill, over the road and onto the railroad tracks.
Bids on an emergency contract were due Wednesday and officials were hopeful work would begin this week.
The slides and damage aren’t surprising to Strachan.
“I’m pretty much convinced there’s nothing I can build that nature can’t take down in a very short time,” Strachan said. “More rain is not what we want. Every dry day is helping to alleviate slides.”
Damage to other roads and public and private property in Crawford County was estimated last week at more than $2.4 million, a number Roger Martin, the county’s emergency management director, expects to rise. The damage includes a spectacular 200-yard long slide that buried Highway 60-61 near Boscobel with 25 feet of debris. That road was opened for traffic late last week for the holiday weekend but is scheduled to close again Monday so crews can finish repairs.
Martin also said the Highway 35 detour forced cancellation of the Fourth of July parade on Highway 27 in Eastman, and a parade scheduled for this week in Seneca may also be scrubbed. Because the highway is part of a detour, it i s not allowed to be closed, Martin said.
Bad timing for closure
The closing of a section of Wisconsin’s Great River Road is also ill-timed. The highway, part of a 3,000-mile route that winds along the Mississippi River through 10 states, is celebrating its 75th anniversary. It was established in 1938 by Franklin Roosevelt.
Robert Moses, executive director of the Prairie du Chien Chamber of Commerce, said his office is increasing its promotional efforts in light of the closing as some travelers, many of whom come from Iowa, may opt to bypass Prairie du Chien and take Iowa’s Great River Road north. That would eliminate an almost 30-mile detour.
“It’s not an easy detour,” Moses said. “We’re doing everything we can to get business to our businesses.”
For Mitchell, there are few options. He closed his bar and bait shop for most of the week of June 23, reopened to sparse crowds over the weekend and was open last week when photographer John Hart and I stopped for lunch.
We were the only customers in the place for most of our meal: a hamburger for John, a breaded pork tenderloin for myself. Hopefully, Mitchell can weather the storm’s aftermath.
“Luckily we have a good loyal campground behind us that comes down to support us,” Mitchell said. “We knew if there was any place in the state that we could go and open an establishment, being outsiders, this was it. The people are welcoming.”