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Like other river towns, Madison, Indiana, owes a debt of gratitude to the river that made its existence possible. From the earliest settlers who ventured west to take up residence as unauthorized colonists to the founders of the city to its most distinguished citizens, the Ohio River proved to be their ticket to a new life.
From glacial meltwater…
Formed from glacial meltwater during the end of the last Ice Age, the Ohio overtook parts of the earlier Teays River’s course as it came to occupy its present channel. From this beginning, the Ohio became the dominant American waterway west of the Appalachians and east of the Mississippi. With the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers as its source, the watershed of the Ohio covers nearly 500,000 square kilometers in 14 states.
Fed by more than 20 major tributary rivers, the area through which the Ohio flows once sustained a vast and trackless forest in which numerous Native American tribes flourished. In some places remnants of this once-enormous forest endure, and from these few picturesque areas, the banks of the Ohio can be transported back to their natural glory, if only in the mind’s eye.
Known to early French explorers as “La Belle Riviére” because of its gentle curves and the innate beauty of its wooded banks, the Ohio River enchanted the first Europeans to see it. Other less aesthetically-minded Europeans valued the river for its easily discerned ability to carry vast amounts of travelers and goods.
At 981 miles (1,579 km) in length, the Ohio River runs generally southwestward from its source at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to its mouth at Cairo, Illinois. Its meandering route winds through six states before ultimately merging with the Mississippi River.
As a direct result of its course, many large cities and towns dot the banks of the great river, among them the modern metropolises of Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Louisville. However, in the early days of European colonization and American independence, the major cities along the river were the so-called gateway cities. These settlements were situated along easily accessible shipping routes and served as the gateway to the more remote interior lands. The location of these gateway cities afforded an easy means of transportation for the goods that were brought in from the hinterland. The city of Madison, built on the river’s north bank beneath heavily forested hills, is a perfect example of this type of community.
Next article: Native Craft on the Ohio