The Rise and Fall of River and Rail transportation in Madison, Indiana.

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Madison’s Shipyards

In its heyday, it was the shipyards perhaps more than anything else that gave Madison the economic boost necessary for the little town to flourish. According to the 1899 souvenir edition of the Madison Daily Democrat, “Among all the institutions that help to develop the growth and commercial worth of Madison there are none that tend more largely to its prosperity than our ship yard.” The boat-building industry “employs hundreds of mechanics, and at the highest wages paid by any institution in the city.”

Workers at the Madison ShipyardsHowever, due to the poor state of Madison’s early records, identifying exactly when and where any of the town’s numerous shipyards were built is an extremely difficult undertaking. With much persistence and patience, however, one can uncover a reasonably accurate timeline in the dozen or so conflicting accounts.

Madison’s First Shipyards

Madison’s first shipyard was located “just below what is now Ferry Street.” Built around 1835, this small facility turned out Madison’s first steamboat, the Irwinton, on the Fourth of July, 1836. Despite the fact that this yard produced numerous steamers in its short existence, the financial panic of 1837 caused boat contracts to dry up and brought about a momentary pause in Madison boat-building.

Around 1838 the yard was relocated to “below where the old Mammoth Cave pork house was located,”footnote 1 in other words, on the waterfront at the town’s east end in the appropriately named suburb of Fulton. After a few more productive years, the primary owners and managers of the yard, Prime Emerson, David Barmore, and famed Jeffersonville builder James Howard, moved on to different projects and the yard was permanently closed.

The Madison Marine Railway

Madison shipyardsBy the early 1840’s the focus of shipyard activity had shifted to the west end of town. There, near the foot of the present railroad cut, a large drydock was built around 1840. By 1850footnote 2 the Madison Marine Railway was established on that spot and began building not only packet steamers, but also ferries and barges. This yard also functioned as a repair station and ran a thriving business fixing damaged vessels and refurbishing outdated ones until disaster struck on the night of July 3, 1856.

From Disaster to Heyday

According to the July 6th copy of the Daily Evening Courier, “On Thursday night the ship-yard buildings, the new boats on the ways, and a large quantity of lumber was burned…the entire loss is estimated at $60,000. Only ten thousand of this sum is covered by insurance.” The next day’s edition began to take stock of what was lost in the blaze and its possible impact on the town. “The destruction of the Madison Ship-Yard by fire is a severe loss to Madison, thereby throwing out of employment directly a large number of the working men of the city.”

When stockholders were unable in some cases and unwilling in others to pay for the reconstruction of the ruined yard, they surrendered their shares to managers, Alexander Temple and Don Carlos Robinson, who rebuilt and ran the yard until 1865. From that time until the 1930’s and 1940’s, the yards were managed by a succession of owners, but by the late 19th century the popularity and employment of steamers was beginning to wane. A short revival was seen from the turn of the century to perhaps the 1930’s, when a thriving industry grew up around the use of steamers as pleasure vessels, but despite this, the fate of the Madison Marine Railway was sealed and by 1941 it was abandoned. The 50’s saw the site converted into a Kocolene oil terminal, but at present it lies vacant.


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