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Ohio River National Scenic Byway
Discover southern Indiana’s architectural heritage, river towns and rolling farmland

The Ameritech building in Columbus stands out in a city known for architectural excellence./ ©John Boyer photo
By Elizabeth Granger
Published: Jul/Aug 2000

Architectural marvels, covered bridges, outlet malls and wildlife areas – southern Indiana has them all. Visitors can see a slice of this diversity by traveling south on state Route 7 out of Columbus, Ind., then cruising on the Ohio River National Scenic Byway out of Madison and north to Aurora.

The bridge over state Road 46 entering Columbus is designed to entice visitors, as well as improve the safety of the interchange; it’s just the first of many intriguing structures in this city known for its architecture. The American Institute of Architects ranked Columbus sixth in the nation for architectural innovation and design, despite a population of only 37,000. Because of its great interest in architecture, Columbus may be the first U.S. city to have modern buildings win National Historic Landmark status.

The innovations started with the First Christian Church, designed by Eliel Saarinen in 1942, and have gone on to include works by others such as I.M. Pei, Eero Saarinen (son of Eliel) and Richard Meier. Much of the architecture was nurtured by the city’s Cummins Engine Company Foundation, which funded design costs for new public buildings. Other private businesses and institutions followed suit. The outcome has been close to 60 buildings designed by renowned architects: schools, churches, fire stations, and corporate and municipal office buildings. Fifth Street, with several such buildings, has been dubbed “The Avenue of the Architects.”

The city also has rediscovered its older buildings and has promoted their preservation. According to “Time” magazine, Columbus is where “modern architecture meets Main Street and the old and new stand chic to chic.” The former city hall, for example, is an elegant bed-and-breakfast. The Cerealine Mill building, where one of America's first dry breakfast foods was produced, is now part of Cummins’ corporate headquarters.

But Zaharako’s is pretty much the same ice cream parlor that has offered homemade ice cream, fountain drinks and its signature Sloppy Joe cheeseburgers for decades. In October it will celebrate its 100th anniversary.

The Columbus Area Visitors Center, itself in a historic home, offers plenty of information, including self-guided walking or driving tours. Plus there is a daily architecture tour (AAA members receive a discount).

Columbus also is proud of its cultural and recreational heritage. It offers the state’s only satellite gallery of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, two symphony orchestras, seven city parks and eight golf courses. Music and art festivals fill the city’s calendar; among the largest is September's Chautauqua of the Arts.

Heading for the river

To reach the Ohio River National Scenic Byway, leave Columbus heading southeast on state Route 7 for 46 miles to Madison. The road winds its way through small towns such as Scipio, Vernon and North Vernon and passes by Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge (12 miles west of Route 7).

Crosley State Fish and Wildlife Area, once the private hunting grounds of Powell Crosley, a former owner of the Cincinnati Reds, lies right outside Vernon. Nearby is Muscatatuck County Park, home to the 1913 Walnut Grove one-room schoolhouse, which now serves as a living museum.

State Route 7 ends in Madison, a city that lies along the Ohio River. The 63 miles from here to Aurora along state Route 56/156 have been designated as the Ohio River National Scenic Byway. Along the byway are views of the river interspersed with glimpses of farmland and river towns.

Madison, settled in 1809, was a river port and supply town that outfitted pioneers heading west. As the state became home to railroads, it depended less on its rivers and Madison entered a stagnant period.

But a preservation movement in the 1960s awakened interest in its heritage.

Today, downtown Madison has Indiana's largest historic district, with more than 1,500 19th-century structures covering more than 133 blocks – all listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Two sites, the James F.D. Lanier State Historic Site and the Shrewsbury-Windle House, are National Historic Landmarks. Of course, the city’s ties to the past include a variety of antique shops.

Clifty Falls State Park, with more than 1,300 acres, is one mile west of Madison. The falls were created during the ice age when the southward flowing waters of Clifty Creek met the newly formed Ohio River in a waterfall that probably fell more than 200 feet. Today, after cutting its way into bedrock about two miles north of its original position, the falls measure 60 feet.

Because of its small watershed, the park’s four major falls are at their best from December through June. But visiting in autumn offers a bonus – easier hiking along Clifty Creek's stone bed during Mother Nature’s most colorful season.

Up the river

Corn may be king in Indiana, but along the Ohio River, travelers are more likely to find tobacco fields. In the fall, barns and sheds open to expose leaves of tobacco hanging to dry.

Vevay, settled in 1802 by French-speaking Swiss immigrants in order to grow grapes and produce wine, is in Switzerland County. Many historic homes of Greek Revival, Federal, Italianate and Gothic architecture can be found here; the Switzerland County Historical Society Museum itself was built in 1860.

Near Vevay is the Markland Dam. An observation deck on the Kentucky side of the river gives visitors an excellent view of the working locks.

Host of September’s Regatta, Rising Sun calls itself Indiana's rivertown resort. Settled by relatives of steamboat inventor Robert Fulton, it takes its name, as legend goes, from the beauty of the sun rising over the Ohio River. It has the state’s oldest operating courthouse.

The Ohio River National Scenic Byway comes to an end in Aurora. The city at one time had eight church spires – enough that flatboat captains on the river used the city as a landmark. Today six spires are left standing, and Aurora’s nickname, the City of Spires, remains.

Many historical homes decorate the city; perhaps the finest is Hillforest, which overlooks the river. Built in 1852, the Italian Renaissance-style mansion has a front porch reminiscent of a steamboat’s deck, which reflects the owner’s involvement in the shipping industry.

Elizabeth Granger is a freelance writer from Fishers, Ind.


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