River To Rail: Introduction

From early riverboats to Indiana’s first railroad, Madison was uniquely caught up in the age of steam. She rode the waves and rails of prosperity that steam had brought, then experienced loss at steam’s demise. Join us for the amazing story of Madison in the age of steam.

In the Beginning

Madison was for many years after its founding an unexceptional little town on the Ohio River. It had, in the twenty years since its inception, added some 1,700 people to its population, mostly in “fits and starts,” and it had progressed to the point of being a respectable place of commerce and business.

However, it was due to the advancement in the steamboat’s design and its expanded capacity to carry goods in a timely fashion that gave Madison its real motivation for development. When the steamboat became a faster and more reliable conductor of goods, the merchants of Madison began competing with other cities along the Ohio River. There is no evidence of a wharf in Madison in 1830 but by 1836 four had been built and the town seemed to be blessed with businessmen who knew how to turn a profit. Indeed, they were not content with a piece of the pie, they intended to own the bakery.

Prosperity Begets Prosperity

Pork production, always a part of Madison’s economy, now became a major factor in its expansion. Hogs were driven to Madison markets from the interior of the state and surrounding areas. It is said some hogs were driven from Illinois and had to be halted and fattened up on mast in the surrounding woods before going to market. The auxiliary industries from pork production alone were staggering. Lard, oil, candles, soap, bristle brushes, cooperages and tanning concerns sprang up all due to the lowly hog.

As prosperity begets prosperity, other businesses came into being. Foundries cast iron fencing and ornamentation for local use and for shipment to the South. By the mid-1830s boat building became an important factor in Madison’s growth. The shipyards necessitated more complimentary manufacturing.

Rail over Canals

When the State of Indiana got into the business of canal and railroad building, Madison was poised as no other town along the Ohio to take advantage of such an opportunity.

While commercial sentiment favored canals in the early 1830s, Madison, through strong lobbying and financial pressure, obtained the first railroad contract in the state. While a good and well established port on the river had contributed to a prosperous city, transportation to the interior meant there would be no limit to what could be achieved.

Railroad Fuels Another Boom

When the railroad finally became a reality, its benefits were probably even more momentous than its backers had ever dreamed. The railroad daily poured goods into Madison where it was processed and either shipped back into the interior or put on steamboats destined for ports along the Ohio and Mississippi River and their tributaries.

At approximately the same time California was experiencing its historic gold rush, Madison could be said to be experiencing the same heady climate. Breweries, flourmills, carriage and coach manufacturers appeared. Now, in addition to building boats, railroad cars were being constructed and fine hotels and elegant homes lined the streets.

The city expanded to the east and west and pushed against the hills to the north as a great influx of new immigrants arrived. Germans came to work in the pork houses, meat markets, breweries and farms. The Irish worked on the railroads and construction jobs and any place else where they could obtain work. The population exploded and Madison was now the largest city in the state.

Losing the Monopoly

For some ten to fifteen years Madison rode the wave of prosperity and expansion but in the 1850’s she began to lose her monopoly as other railroad lines began to snake across the landscape. The hamlets spawned by the railroad along its line grew into towns and then cities and they cast about for more direct and advantageous routes for their products. Perhaps Madison was preordained to be a catalyst for expansion but, like a shooting star it had reached its zenith and now was on a downward track.

Madison’s location, once an advantage now proved to be a limitation. More centrally located cities could take advantage of the several railroads that now crisscrossed the state. The poor and almost impassable road system in the state had steadily improved over the years and the once all important river trade began to falter.


Donald Zimmer wrote in his 1974 thesis,”Madison, Indiana, 1811-1860, A Study in the Process of City Building”

“After 1850, the promise of Madison declined and with it the hope of community builders of combining personal and public growth, personal and public prosperity. During the decade of the 1850s Madison began to atrophy and its opportunity shifted from building to maintenance.”

And there you have it, maintenance. Perhaps no other word could describe the activity of Madison for next one hundred years.

The population initially dropped off then maintained a steady number. Instead of pulling down older buildings to make way for modern ones, Madison maintained her old homes and business buildings. She maintained her southern influence of good manners and hospitality and she maintained her pride in just maintaining.

As a result, perhaps no other city in the country can boast of so many homes and businesses on the National Historical Register. Tourists marvel at the small town, nineteenth century charm captured among the lush green of the surroundings hills. People vie for the opportunity to restore and live in the old homes along shady streets. In the long run, who can say if Madison might not have followed the best path after all.