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

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City of Madison: A Matter of Pride

In the spring of 1882 the Cincinnati and Louisville Mail Line contracted with the Madison Marine Ways for a new boat to replace the United States and by July the newspaper announced that the boat was nearing completion and that the Mail Line would name her the City of Madison. It further stated that the company “had many boats built here; established free wharfage and in numerous ways contributed to the interests of our merchants and citizens, and some action as an acknowledgment would be entirely appropriate.”

She was a beautiful vessel, well built and elegantly furnished under the command of Captain Dan Morton, who also superintended the work on her. On the 19th she made a trial trip up to Carrollton, Kentucky, and back to Madison and she performed well. She only awaited a final inspection by those in authority and a flourish or two and she would be on her way.

The City of Madison was made 270-feet long, 42-foot beam and six-foot hold, with two engines with 24½-inch cylinders and seven-foot stroke. They drove a 27-foot wheel, the length of the buckets being fourteen feet. She had four boilers 42-inches in diameter and 28-feet long with a doctor and donkey pump, the latter being designed for use in case of fire and to wash off the decks. There were 56 beautiful state rooms in the cabin and 12 berths. The texas boasted 40 berths.

The City of Madison had several new features, the result of long experience in building for a special trade. She had a single stage and booms with the jackstand on top of the derrick. Her guards were wide and roomy and her machinery was in as compact position as possible, as all freight was carried on deck. She was of light draft with a large carrying capacity.

Even the painting in the cabin was somewhat new and different, everything being done in the softest tints, with a pleasing effect. The skylights were made of leaded Cathedral glass, the bulkheads were a light canary color and the ceiling a variety of shades. The hall of the main cabin was laid in walnut and oak.

On the 26th of July she made her maiden voyage to Cincinnati. As she stopped at the various towns along the way, she was greeted with crowds of happy well-wishers and many boarded her for the trip to Cincinnati. When she arrived in Cincinnati, she was met by the sound of dozens of whistles and the cheers of a large crowd waiting to get a good look at her. There were many Madison citizens on board and after much merriment and backslapping, they boarded the Sherley and the United States for a leisurely trip back home. The City of Madison remained to pick up her permanent crew and cargo.

On July 27th the Evening Courier announced that the appreciative citizens of Madison contributed to the purchase of a beautiful stand of colors for the new steamer. They had the famous Madison artist, William McKendree Snyder, paint an artistic design on a canvas, after which, the equally famous photographer, Joseph Gorgas, photographed it and had it framed. The legend was as follows, “The colors of this boat were presented by the undersigned citizens in acknowledgment of the compliment paid the city of Madison by the Cincinnati and Louisville Mail Line Company in naming the boat after said city.” It was signed by dozens of the city’s inhabitants.

The flag and mementos were presented on the evening of August 1st, 1882. The levee was thronged with well-wishers. The Philharmonic Society serenaded the crowd and young ladies, dressed in white, sported ribbons matching those of the color standard. A canon boomed out the approach of the boat and pyrotechnics lit up the night sky. After the steamer glided into port, a series of speeches took place by prominent citizens, all lauding the new boat and her new name. Finally, it was proclaimed, “I present you, City of Madison with this stand of colours. Unfurl them to the breeze. May their starry folds remind all that the citizens of Madison retain a place in their affections for the officers of the Mail Line Company. As pure as the constellations represented upon the colors, may the misfortunes of storm and tempest never overtake this steamer; may her every voyage be crowned with success.”

After the ceremonies, Captain Charles David, invited any who wished, to take the boat up-river to meet the downward bound mail boat. With this the boat moved over the moonlit surface of the river with her colors flying gracefully in the balmy breezes, now just another working boat upon the Ohio River.

For many years the good wishes of the citizens of Madison were met, but on the night of June 18, 1894 the City of Madison was returning from a trip to Memphis, with a stop-over in Owensboro, Kentucky, where she picked up a group of bikers for delivery to Cincinnati. At about 4:10 a.m. citizens of Madison were awakened by her distress whistle. Many hurried to the river’s edge and as daylight dawned over the river, they could see the partially sunken “City of Madison” lying on the government dike. Within minutes of striking the dike the hull filled with water and she was stranded.

No lives were lost and a broken toe seems to have been the only injury. A misplaced buoy was blamed for the accident. On June 20, 1894, the Madison Courier headlines read, “All Hope of Saving the City of Madison Abandoned.” The order was given to wreck her, and she was torn to pieces. An interesting relic was taken from the boat before her destruction. It was a picture with the signatures of those who had donated a silk banner which had floated from her flagstaff. Many of the city’s prominent people of the day were featured on the keepsake.

Perhaps no more beloved boat sat upon the water and perhaps no boat was so deeply mourned. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, came to gaze sadly across the river at the poor, broken boat as she clung to the unyielding dike. The City of Madison had come home for the last time.

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