One-hundred-fifty years ago, Madison, Ind., was among the Midwest’s largest cities. Today, it offers an opportunity for a pleasant adventure 100 miles from Indianapolis.
In 1809, John Paul, an American Revolution veteran, acquired land along the Ohio River 75 miles west of Cincinnati. In 1811, five years before Indiana’s statehood, he began selling lots in a village he named “Madison” in honor of then-President James Madison. After Madison became the southern terminus of the Michigan Road, connecting the Ohio River to Lake Michigan, the city grew rapidly. By 1850, with a population of 8012, Madison was the 90th-largest city in the United States, only slightly smaller than Indianapolis. By 1870, with the growth of the railroads, Madison’s population began declining, but many of the buildings from its golden age were preserved. In 2006, 133 contiguous blocks of Madison’s downtown area were designated a National Historic Landmark, the largest such area in the U.S.
Today, Madison, with a population of about 12,000, is among the most popular destinations in Southern Indiana. The Madison Regatta, an unlimited hydroplane race held on the Ohio River every year during the Fourth of July weekend, attracts up to 100,000 visitors who watch the race from the well-maintained riverfront park. The picturesque Main Street, two blocks from the river, includes the gold-domed Jefferson County Court House and 19th-century buildings housing fashionable restaurants, shops, bars and a winery. Antebellum homes, including the historic Lanier Mansion (more next week), are open to the public. Clifty Falls State Park is just west of the city. Overnight visitors can stay in Madison’s many hotels and bed and breakfasts. This summer, a new hotel overlooking the river will open in what was originally the Eagle Cotton Mill, the most modern mill in the U.S. when opened with electric lamps in 1884.