A view of the Madison Railroad Incline.
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Madison, Indiana


Steamboats were a common site on the Ohio River throughout most of the 19th century and the first part of the 20th.

Steamboats were a common site on the Ohio River
throughout most of the 19th century and the first part of the 20th.
Courtesy of the Jefferson County Library

It would be interesting to know if John Paul, Madison’s founder, was ever aware of his own wisdom in placing Madison on the banks of the Ohio River, halfway between Cincinnati and Louisville. He died in June 1830, just a month before the awarding of contracts to construct the Michigan Road and four years prior to the building of Madison’s first shipyard. In 1836, work on the railroad would begin. One would think that Paul had at least some inkling of just how well-suited Madison's location was for the transportation advances that would soon be made. However, it is impossible to know if John Paul could have imagined just how much Madison would transform in the wake of the Michigan Road, the steamboat, and the railroad developments.

Canoes, flatboats, and keelboats navigated the Ohio River John Paul knew. American Indians and the first explorers used canoes. Early settlers required more room for cargo, which led to the development of the flatboat. The boxy contraption could be built to a great size, but it was difficult to steer and impossible to maneuver upstream. Thus, the flatboat was only sufficient for those who intended to travel downstream and remain there. Once travelers reached their destination, the flatboat could be deconstructed to form a crude dwelling. In fact, accounts of Madison’s first building refer to John Henry and Maria Jane Waggoner’s primitive home as “a tent-like affair of linen wrapped around four saplings, the whole crowned with the wooden deck of their flatboat.”1 A keelboat offered a pointed prow and hull more adept at slicing through the water, which made it easier to both steer and move upstream.

Historic view of the Michigan Road climbing the bluffs north of Madison.

Historic view of the Michigan Road
climbing the bluffs north of Madison.
Courtesy of Jim Grey

Changes in river travel occurred quickly following the 1811 voyage of the New Orleans, the first steamboat to travel from Pittsburgh to New Orleans. Cincinnati produced its first steamboat in 1816. Louisville followed suit, building 103 steamboats by the year 1834. Madison constructed its first shipyard near the base of Ferry Street in 1835 and produced its first steamboat, The Irwinton, the next year. Passing steamboats found Madison a convenient stopping point between Cincinnati and Louisville, and this greatly benefitted downtown business.

At about this same time, the Michigan Road was under construction on Madison’s north side, connecting the town to the State capital and eventually to Lake Michigan. More importantly, the road allowed settlers access to Indiana’s sparsely populated interior.

One final development in transportation boosted Madison into its antebellum golden era-- the establishment of the Madison, Indianapolis, and Lafayette Railroad in Madison in 1836. It was Indiana’s first and, for a time, its only railroad. During that brief span of time when Madison was the sole port in the State for both river and rail, it experienced great growth and wealth. This was the period of construction of many of the town’s finest and lasting buildings.

The railroad, which so greatly spurred Madison’s prosperity, became the cause of Madison’s decline as well. As the network of rails crisscrossing Indiana grew, connecting ever more places, Madison became less significant. Competition brought by the railroad also caused river traffic to decline, as goods could be carried just as or more efficiently via rail. Madison’s picturesque bluffs and river, which had once been its gateways, now seemed to isolate it.


1Windle, John T. and Robert M. Taylor. The Early Architecture of Madison, Indiana. Madison and Indianapolis, IN: Historic Madison, Inc., and the Indiana Historical Society, 1986, 6.