Madison, Indiana, is a preservationist’s dream town. A whopping 133 blocks of its downtown is a Historic District and a National Historic Landmark.
Founded in 1810, the town competed with Louisville and Cincinnati as Ohio River port cities. It grew rapidly into the railroad age of the mid-1800s, but railroads leading to those other two cities performed better than the one leading to Madison. Indeed, Madison’s railroad failed in 1862. Even though its line ended up becoming a part of the vast Pennsylvania Railroad system, the die was cast. After the Civil War, Madison’s growth stalled.
Madison’s antebellum loss is our modern gain as it largely froze the town in time. You’ll find all the major architectural styles from the nineteenth, and even some of the twentieth, centuries in downtown Madison.
Residences surround the downtown commercial area, and most of the homes are simply stunning.
The river is just a few minutes’ walk from anywhere in Madison’s historic district. Goods are not received at any port here anymore — you’re far more likely to see powerboats racing here. It’s been happening in Madison for at least 100 years. An annual powerboat race, now known as the Madison Regatta, has been held annually since 1929 over the Independence Day weekend.
This fountain might look old, but it dates only to 1981. That’s not an entirely fair or accurate representation of this fountain and its story, however. Its story goes back more than a century before that.
A cast-iron fountain that looked just like this was on display at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876. Considerable wrangling and dogged persistence (story here) saw it moved to Madison, Indiana, in 1884.
But by World War II, the fountain had deteriorated badly and had to be turned off. It sat in that condition until 1950, when a local real-estate agent raised the funds for its restoration.
By the 1970s the fountain had again deteriorated. In 1976, Madison officials sought another restoration. This time, they went even farther: they had the entire fountain remade in bronze, a hardier metal than iron. It took several years for a sculptor to make molds of every part of the fountain and put the new pieces together on the site. Broadway Fountain reopened in 1981.
I wonder if schoolchildren in Madison, Indiana, are taught about the Michigan Road when they study Indiana history. It would be a shame if they weren’t, for this historic road begins in their town.
Every road begins somewhere, after all, and this one begins north of Madison’s historic downtown, at the top of West Street.
If you’ve driven the Michigan Road anywhere else along its 270-mile length you know it is, by and large, flat and straight. But its first 8/10 of a mile winds its way up a steep hill. The stars on the map mark the beginning of the road and the top of the hill. It’s an exhilarating start to this historic road!
The Michigan Road was built in the early 1830s to connect Madison, then the state’s largest city, to the new capital at Indianapolis, and then to Lake Michigan. It passed through Greensburg, Shelbyville, Logansport, Rochester, Plymouth, and South Bend on its way to its end at Lake Michigan in Michigan City.
Most of Indiana is flat, but this state’s southern counties feature rugged terrain. That’s in part because of the valley created by the Ohio River, and in part because Ice Age glaciers and their land-flattening effect extended only so far south in what would become Indiana.
Thus, as you begin driving the Michigan Road, you’ll find your car in low gear for the climb.
This is the first house on the Michigan Road. It looks like it’s getting some work.
It’s challenging to photograph this part of the Michigan Road. There are no shoulders and only a couple pulloffs, and plenty of traffic enters and exits old Madison via this hill. You can’t stand very far back from traffic, and drivers don’t expect to find pedestrians as they round one of the many curves. When I walked this hill in 2008 one motorcycle rider stopped, looked at me incredulously, and asked if I had a death wish! He was right, and I vowed not to do it again. So this time we photographed only the bottom, and then the top, of Michigan Hill. Fortunately, I photographed the hill extensively in 2008. The next three photos are from that walk.
The Ohio River is visible from one of the pulloffs. The hill in the distance is Kentucky.
Modern cars have little trouble climbing Michigan Hill, but most early automobiles would have struggled.
Back to 2018 now and at the top of the hill, where you’ll find the Fairmount House. I photographed it extensively in 2008, and shared those photos and what I know about the house here. It was for sale at the time.
The house hasn’t changed in 10 years, but the landscaping sure has. It blocked every clear angle to bring the whole house into the photo.
But it’s a lovely property, made even lovelier by landscaping.
Here’s a view down Michigan Hill from the Fairmount House.
Just beyond where the road levels out stands this monument to the road, placed by the Daughters of the American Revolution the same year the U.S. highway system was born. This portion of the Michigan Road would eventually become US 421, but in 1926 it was assigned number 29 in Indiana’s State Road system.
If you ever drive the Michigan Road from end to end, you’ll find that from here on out the hills and valleys are slight and the curves are gentle.
I shot some shaky handheld video of the ascent in 2008. It’ll give you a good flavor of what the drive is like.
Canon PowerShot S95 (and Kodak EasyShare Z730 Zoom for the 2008 photos)
I’ve documented Indiana’s historic Michigan Road extensively. To read all about it, click here.
Some of the blogs I follow post photos of interesting doors on Thursday. This apparently started with a blog called Norm 2.0, which has featured interesting door photos for years. I’ve always wanted to play, but I seldom get out around interesting doors.
But recently I visited Madison, Indiana, which is rich in great entryways. Herewith, a series of Madison doors on this Thursday.
The beginning of the Michigan Road Canon PowerShot S95 2018
When I surveyed the Michigan Road end to end in 2008, I failed to photograph this marker at the road’s beginning. The Daughters of the American Revolution placed it in 1916, on the occasion of Indiana’s centennial.
Margaret and I have made our first trip on our re-survey of the road. We did not fail to photograph the marker this time!
Sadly, no Michigan Road Historic Byway wayfinding signs were present. One should stand near this rock with a “Begin” sign under it, and another should stand across the street with an “End” sign under it. They have gone missing.
As you look out across Indiana, the primary feature is the horizon. This is a pretty flat state.
Except in the southernmost counties. The Ice Age’s glaciers stopped short of them and therefore did not flatten them. There are quite some hills down there.
You’ll find a few rock formations in southern Indiana. Like this one, Hanging Rock Hill, on State Road 7 in the Ohio River town of Madison. My little red car in the photo gives a good sense of this outcropping’s scale.
Much of the year water falls down the face of the rock, but on this visit a hot, dry spell had dried up the water.
There are old photographs of Hanging Rock Hill that show the road running under it! Those photographs show a steep dropoff at road’s edge, suggesting that constructing the modern highway meant considerably building out this hill.