On the Waterfront

Madison is a river town to remember

By CJ Woodring

People have been attracted to water since the dawn of time. From sea to shining sea, cities fortunate enough to claim a waterfront setting continue to cherish those liquid assets that enhance communities and attract visitors.

Perhaps no town in the Hoosier state presents its waterfront better than Madison, touted as the Midwest’s perfect historic getaway.

Founded in 1809 on the Ohio River, Madison snuggles up to the shoulders of southeastern Indiana’s rolling hills, fewer than 100 miles from the bustling state capital. It is a haven of serenity, boasting natural beauty and distinguished architecture in a friendly, close-knit community.

The town’s proximity to three large metro areas affords residents access to big-city amenities even as they enjoy small-town ambience.

“It’s the best of both worlds because we’re uniquely set up and have a lot of things going on,” says Damon Welch, a Madison native and mayor since 2012. “We’re very diverse, and I think people come here to experience that.

“I often say we’re a tale of two cities, because we have the old historic downtown on the riverfront, and then we have north Madison — or what we call The Hilltop — which is a lot different because there’s a lot of manufacturing and commercial businesses there. But it’s a great thing because they really complement each other.”

Magical Madison

Summertime in Madison translates to festivals, fun and whatever floats your jet boat. Ongoing events lure 400,000 global visitors throughout the year, most arriving from June through October to experience tradition as deep as the nearby river: Several annual celebrations have been held for decades, among them the Madison regatta and Madison RibberFest. A majority are held on the waterfront.

“Madison is an award-winning community on the move,” says Sarah Prasil, marketing and advertising director for Visit Madison Inc.

“As both a top eight finalist in America’s Best Communities competition and a Division 1 winning community in Indiana’s Stellar program in 2017, we’ve proven to have a strong foundation of people in our community who have dedicated themselves to finding ways to preserve our beautiful river town,” she says.

The city also boasts a strong arts scene and in 2015 was designated by the Indiana Arts Commission as Indiana’s sixth official Arts & Cultural District.

“We are proud to share all of the arts in this city, from big musical events to theater products, folk art and photography,” Prasil says. “We believe our visitors see and appreciate that, and it’s what keeps them coming back because it’s well worth the trip.”

The structurally and historically significant 133-block downtown area, known as the Madison Historic Landmark District, is the largest contiguous National Historic Landmark in the United States. Serving as the town’s centerpiece, the district showcases more than 2,000 19th-century historic buildings, including grand mansions. Some are open to the public as museums.

More than 20 restaurants serve the area, among them the Broadway Hotel & Tavern, established in 1834 and Indiana’s oldest tavern, and Key West Shrimp House, where diners enjoy seafood, steaks and chicken in an al fresco setting. Rembrandt’s Gallery & Wine Bar serves seasonal offerings and fine wines in a historic setting, while also displaying an artisan gallery.

Madison is a shopper’s and eater’s dream as it’s filled with eclectic specialty shops and restaurants, most locally owned and operated. Add to those nearly a dozen antique shops and malls, confectioners and cafés, art galleries and three award-winning artisan wineries, among seven located along the Southeastern Indiana Wine Trail.

Points of interest include the 1895 Madison Railroad Station Museum, which features an octagonal waiting room, stained glass windows and railroad memorabilia exhibits.

Walk this way

Historic Madison’s walking tour season runs from mid-April through October. View the Jeremiah Sullivan House, Costigan House and Schroeder Saddletree Factory, the only restored saddletree factory in the United States.

In addition, Madison presents an Urban Barn Tour Hunt, the self-guided Madison Stained Glass Walking Tour, which includes 11 houses of worship, and the Behind the Scenes tour, which encourages visitors to poke into the city’s nooks and crannies.

Stroll the river bank and tour the Lanier State Historic Site, former mansion of banker James F.D. Lanier; travel the Ohio River Scenic Route, designated a National Scenic Byway; or set out on a two-hour, self-guided walking tour of downtown. Or drive along the Underground Railroad tour, following routes traversed by runaway slaves.

Nearby scenic destinations include the Chief White Eye Trail in Canaan; the 185-mile John Hunt Morgan Heritage Trail, which runs through seven Indiana counties and played a major role in the Civil War’s Great Raid of 1863; and the lovely campus of Hanover College, a few miles from downtown Madison.

Prefer to just sit back and leave the driving to someone else? Broomtail Carriage Co. and Madison Trolley Inc. are at your service.

Explore the outdoors

Clifty Falls State Park, a mile west of downtown, is a year-round scenic panorama where fossil remains tell of ages past and sparkling waterfalls mark the seasons.

The centerpiece of Jefferson County, the 1,360-acre park was founded in 1920, offering myriad adventures. Pack a picnic. Watch the wildlife. Camp, hike and travel one of 10 trails. Open year-round, the park is handicapped accessible.

Nearby destinations include Big Oaks National Wildlife Refuge. Located five miles north of Madison, the 50,000-acre nature preserve has been designated a Globally Important Bird Area.

Ride the Rockin’ Thunder for the only jet boat tours of the Ohio River and its tributary, the Kentucky River. Choose from among five adventures, from mild to wild, and ranging from a 15-mile ride to a two-day, 155-mile tour.

In addition to camping in Clifty Park or booking a room at the 1924 Clifty Inn, overnight accommodations include bed-and-breakfasts, historic guest houses, log cabins and national hotel and motel chains. Several are located just minutes from downtown.

A visit to Madison is a journey to a cultural and artistic environment that embraces everyone and invites them to stay.

“There is definitely always something to do here,” Prasil says, “and when you get here, you’ll find a feeling of community, preservation, character and charm. I believe if you visit Madison, it will change your life.”

Photo by Gregory Moiser Photography