Folly and Place: Madison, Indiana

We recently returned from a semi-annual camping trip in southern Indiana. After the fourth stay at Clifty Falls State Park, the Madison, Indiana area has begun to shape itself in my memory, but vaguely. New vocabulary words need frequent repeating (more than 10 times) before the student owns and uses them with confidence. New languages appear, at one level of mastery, in the speaker’s dreams. Places, in my experience, require either longer or deeper practice. I have dreamed, in my current recollection, of only four loosely defined places: two from my childhood in Kentucky, one in northern Indiana (the first decade of my adult life), and a single street in Montreal. With the exception of Montreal, which can claim only a few weeks, these places mark seasons and years of eating, sleeping, and traveling across a local landscape. (These five years in Indianapolis will wake up someday, perhaps.) Long before they appear in dreams, places need associations. If these are not forged by the force of events, they are built on repeated exposures.

Madison, Indiana, however, might be an exception. Some places (or rather, the communities that occupy them) cultivate shared and public identities–a kind of personality, narrative, or brand, at once explaining and claiming a cause for existence. Madison has spent a hundred years or more preserving its downtown as an antique. In doing so, it displays a proud, but also sad, and even a bit desperate, character. Of course, I do not know anyone that lives there, and I reflect here upon only the most shallow encounters, but nonetheless, Madison has chosen to preserve a memory of its days as booming city on the Ohio. During the first half of the 19th century, it was the largest city in Indiana–“1,752 souls” in 1830. I’m not sure why it did not become a Louisville or a Cincinnati, but when the railroads and the highways crisscrossed through the city of Indianapolis, the distant Madison was marginalized. Through Indianapolis, central Indiana agriculture and industry had quick and convenient means to trade with larger markets. Indianapolis won much that Madison lost.

Now Madison has adorned itself with historical markers. A century and a half after its golden days, the city prides itself in having avoided becoming a metropolis. As writers of the excellent, digital library project, “River to Rails“, note:

[Madison] 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. … In the long run, who can say if Madison might not have followed the best path after all.

Pride preserved or not, signs of Madison’s (old and relatively recent) desperation are not hard to find. The massive towers of the Indiana Kentucky Electric Corporation (IKEC) power plant loom over the city and are visible or audible from every point in the state park. IKEC is the county’s largest tax payer and employs hundreds, but (built in 1952) it is a visible departure from Madison’s efforts to preserve its heritage. The bridge (first built in 1929) over the Ohio to the tiny town of Milton, Kentucky must have been a similar effort to improve Madison’s economic competitiveness. The impact of the bridge was probably minimal (it merely replaced the ferry business to a very rural county), but the bridge will be rebuilt in the next couple of years. An even older and less successful effort can be found in Clifty Falls State Park. There many of the hiking trails were built on the remnant of Brough’s Folly, a failed attempt to improve Madison’s early access to railroads. In the 1850s John Brough, president of the Madison & Indianapolis Railroad and future governor of Ohio, began constructing a winding and less steep track out of the river valley. The track would have made rail traffic to and from Madison easier. The existing route, the Madison Incline (also known as “the cut”), was far too steep. The project ran out of funds and was never completed. Had it been completed, it would have slowed Madison’s economic losses.

Madison Incline

Madison Incline

I’m happy to hike where the railroad construction did not succeed, but I’m sure many families suffered when Madison lost future jobs. Undoubtedly, people moved away from the land that they knew in their dreams, away from the people and neighbors with whom they shared deep, domestic responsibilities. The empty tunnel, the abandoned trestles, and the ceaseless hum of the power plant at Clifty Falls have reignited my interest in questionable moral value of loyalty to place. In recent years I have moved away from my places, physically and intellectually. I have declared my home (broadly speaking) in the world without declaring allegiances to specific locations–cities, states, and even countries. Visiting Madison, Indiana (a place bearing the scars of its self-preservation) and living in the city it could not become (Indianapolis) is a reminder that such decisions are not so clean.

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2 responses to “Folly and Place: Madison, Indiana

  1. Thanks for this post. I enjoy reading about history and how it shapes our experiences today. You do a nice job of painting a picture of Madison, Indiana–what it was and what it could have been. I’ve often considered the “value of loyalty to a place,” especially since I have a lot of loyalty of my own to Indiana (Richmond and Wayne County, to be specific). One of my own blogposts considered a very similar feeling. Keep up the good work!

  2. Thanks for reading. I didn’t know you have Indiana roots–my mother’s people are from the Bedford area, but our DNA is packed with anti-genealogical tendencies. Maybe Julia told me (or wrote about) your Midwest heritage, but I’m not likely to remember those sort of things.

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