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What to see and do in Madison, one of the country’s most historic river towns

MADISON, Ind. — WGN's Julian Crews glided down the Ohio to one of the Midwest's most historic destinations, the perfectly-preserved river town of Madison, Indiana.

On the backroads of southeast Indiana, you’ll cruise into another century when you first set eyes on this American treasure. According to the National Park service, Madison’s historic district is the largest contiguous historic national landmark district in the United States.

“Madison was a very early river town founded in 1809. And prior to the Civil War was Indiana’s leading community in many ways, in terms of population, wealth, industry,” said John Staicer of Historic Madison, Inc.

Along its 133 historic blocks lie several national landmarks, and some of the buildings are more than 200 years old. Many are clustered along Madison’s astonishing Main Street. Part of the Ohio River Scenic Byway, the street runs along the Hoosier shore.

“I like the bridge crossing. When you cross the bridge, where you can walk out and cross the bridge and watch the barges go by,” Madison resident Jill Davenport said.

Signs of the settlement’s early prosperity are particularly evident at the Lanier Mansion. Completed in 1844, the Greek Revival home was built on the river for banker James Lanier. The splendor of the 174-year-old building, with its spiral staircase — funneling hot air out the cupula— is all the more impressive given Madison’s frontier location.

At the start of the Civil War, Lanier rescued the state with a $1 million dollar loan, a huge amount in those days.

“Half the money was used to equip the Civil War troops for the state. The other half of the money, a couple of years later, paying interest on a debt,” expert William Lackner said.

With rebel territory across the Ohio, Madison also served as beacon of hope for runaway slaves hoping to reach safety on the Indiana side. At the History Center, there's a great starting point for your explorations. Pick up a free guide which shows you the stops on the underground railroad many places, still standing today.

Madison’s good fortune was also tied to the river. But with the boom town losing business to the railroads, about a hundred years ago the community hit hard times. For half a century, its downtown was laying dormant. But John Stacier and others work to preserve its history. With the nonprofit "Historic Madison, Incorporated," the group restored the Shrewsbury-Windle Home, one of countless architectural heirlooms newly open for public tours (by appointment).

“There wasn’t pressure to tear down and redevelop the historic district like you had in many other cities like Cincinnati, Pittsburg, Louisville, St. Louis,” Stacier said.

You’ll see original chandeliers and furniture the $2.5 million restoration effort, producing one of the most authentically-restored pre- civil war homes in the country.

“For anybody that loves history and architecture, Madison is one of the best places in the United States to come and see that and experience it,” Stacier said.

Step into the 19th century Schroeder Saddletree factory, the only one of its kind still standing (a Saddletree is the wooden frame inside a leather horse saddle).The dusty 1878 factory museum is open for tours  April through October.

Hear the story of the hard-working Prussian immigrant who built a thriving business, despite weakening demand with the dawn of the automobile. Today its tourism revving up the local economy. Visitors are drawn to its colorful shops, the rare buildings, the fascinating history and great places to stay.

Like the cozy Blue River Cottage Built in the 1850s, with its shady backyard patio and soothing garden found just steps away from the historic sites. And lots of places to dine.

At the historic Broadway Hotel and Tavern it’s good eatin’ with home-made meatloaf & mashed potatoes. With a dazzling variety of outdoor café’s, rustic shrimp houses and classic old-fashioned diners like Hinkle Hamburgers, you’ll savor the hearty food and colorful conversation.

Finding warm and welcoming locals, a vibrant arts and entertainment scene, festivals and fun for the kids in the most historic of destinations is why many call Madison the most beautiful river town in America.

Here are phone numbers and links to all the great places to see and visit in Madison, IN.

Visit Madison visitor center
800-559-2956
info@visitmadison.org

Madison History Center – Jefferson County Historical Society
615 W First Street
info@jchshc.org 812-265-2335

Visit Indiana
800-677-9800

Historic Madison
812-265-2967

Schroeder Saddletree Factory Museum
106 Milton Street
Madison, IN
(812)265-2967

Historic Broadway Hotel & Tavern
313 Broadway Street
Madison, IN
812-265-2346

Blue River Cottage
421 W. Second St.
812-701-3799

Lanier Mansion
601 W. 1st Street
Madison, IN
812-265-3526

Francine’s Log Cabin
2945 N. Greenbrier Road
Madison, IN