Jefferson County Historical Society History Center

Madison, Indiana was doubly blessed with the Ohio River and the nascent railroad. Traffic still flows on the Ohio River (though probably not to the extent of Madison’s heydays.) The railroad that ran through Madison is long gone—its tracks either turned into a walking trail or left to decay—but the heritage remains.

As the county seat, Madison is home to a county museum that showcases its history and all the industries that rose and fell here. A modern building housing the main collection sits behind an octagonal historic building, which was the old train depot.

The museum’s collection starts with the beginning of Native American settlement in the area and meanders chronologically through industry, notable events, and important people.

The area that became Indiana was first part of the Northwest Territory, which was formed by an act of Congress in 1787. In 1800, part of the Northwest Territory became the Indiana Territory. In 1805, the indigenous people of the area, mostly Shawnee, ceded their right to the land. And in 1816, the state of Indiana was born.

As I wandered around the center, I learned about the important technologies, stores, and industries in 19th and 20th century Madison and environs: horse and buggies, drug stores, grocery stores, mills, and iron foundries. A small corner of the museum is dedicated to William McKendree Snyder (1849-1930), the local artist that a docent at the Dr. William Hutchings’ Office and Museum was shocked to learn that I didn’t know. Other exhibits cover schools, including Hanover College, farms, shipyards, bridges, and streetcars (which ended in Madison in 1929). A common theme through most of the exhibits is transportation or transportation infrastructure.

A rather large exhibit is devoted to the Jefferson Proving Grounds, an inhabited area that the government commandeered. The area was cleared of people and from 1941 to 1995 was dedicated solely to the testing of weapons. How sad, I thought, that this area could never be returned to human habitation. The danger of chemicals and unexploded munitions is too great, though flora and fauna has reclaimed the area.

Other exhibits walk visitors through various early technologies. One shows the progression of materials used for roads, from corduroy (tree trunks) to plank to gravel and macadam (crushed stones and tar). (I cannot begin to imagine traveling on a road made of tree trunks.)

Another extensive exhibit illustrates different 19th century antecedents to modern photography: carte de visite (calling cards with a photo), daguerro-type photographs (1839-late 1850s), ambro-type photographs (1850s-1860), and tin-type photographs (1860s-1900). (I don’t believe I have ever seen the different types together in a single collection before.)

To top it off are stereoscopes (1840s-1930s), devices that show 3D presentation of images. (I seemed to encounter them in one historical home after another that I visited this year.) The stereoscope, I learned, debuted in 1851 at the Great Exhibition (aka the Crystal Palace Exhibition) in London, where Queen Victoria first encountered it.

Another non-transportation related exhibit features a local boy/national hero: Sam Woodfill. He fought in three wars (Philippine-American War, WWI, WWII), and received the Medal of Honor for his bravery in WWI. Ultimately, he just wanted to be left alone by the publicity circus.

After perusing the History Center, I meandered across the lawn to the small octagonal structure—the 1895 train depot. The train in Madison originally ran parallel to the Ohio River but jogged up a block to the depot before heading back down to run parallel to the river and then quickly taking a 90 degree turn north up the steep Madison incline.

Railroads in Madison actually began in the 1830s (but apparently a depot for passengers was not needed until 1895?). James Lanier (of the Lanier Mansion State Historic Site) made some of his fortune investing in the Madison-Indianapolis line. After regular passenger service ended in 1931, the depot endured various metamorphoses.

In 1934, the depot was used as a Community Center. During the 1937 flood, the building was almost entirely underwater. I glanced down the street at the Lanier Mansion, which is at about the same latitude as the depot. The docent at the Lanier Mansion State Historic Site mentioned that during the 1937 flood, only the basement flooded. Hmmm. Seems strange that the depot would completely flood but the Lanier Mansion wouldn’t.

In 1961, the Wilson brothers bought the depot and used it as an electrical supplies warehouse (!). In 1986, the Historical Society gained possession of it and set about restoring it back to its inaugural year of 1895. In 1995, after nine years of work, restoration was complete.

The depot is neat just for its octagonal shape, but it is also a mini-museum. Exhibit cases show artifacts from the time period such as serving plates used on the train (back when trains had dining cars). One room is staged as a train station/telegraph office. And there are lots of pictures and explanations about train-related and Madison train-related details.

An exhibit about time explains the role of the railroads in creating a standard time in the US. How can you schedule train arrivals and departures if the areas that the train travels through do not agree on a common time? In 1883, the railroad tried to rectify that by implementing time zones. On November 18, 1883—The Day of Two Noons—railroad stations reset their clocks to a standard time based on five time zones: Intercolonial, Eastern, Central, Mountain, and Pacific. In 1918, the US government caught up with the railroads with the Standard Time Act that, as the name implies, standardized time across the country.

Another key exhibit covers the Madison incline. The railroad tracks head north up a 5.89 percent grade incline, the steepest in the country. Originally horses (!) pulled trains up the incline. Around 1848, cogwheel trains with special engines relieved the horses of this task. In 1868, cogwheel trains were replaced with the Reuben Wells, a heavy locomotive that was powerful enough to haul trains up the incline.

The Reuben Wells, named for its maker, was only used on the incline. It was specially designed with a boiler that tilted forward so that the water level in the boiler remained flat on the incline. The Reuben Wells ran from 1868 to 1905 (or 1898 by other accounts), was retired, stored in Pennsylvania rail yards, and taken out for special events. In 1976, the Reuben Wells received a permanent home in the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. (Unfortunately, you cannot tour the inside of the locomotive to see the tilted boiler.)

The last train on the incline ran in 1992. For the most part, the train tracks running parallel to the river are gone. In 2014, some of the tracks were converted into walking trails. The railroad, like many throughout Indiana, is just a memory now. The Jefferson County Historical Society History Center offers as unique glimpse into its past.

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