A Storied History
Madison’s Clifty Falls State Park was created with community funds
It became the state’s third state park, opening in 1920
(August 2016) – A scenic gem set in southern Indiana, Clifty Falls State Park is visited by thousands of people each year. This historic park is one of many participating in the celebrations of the Indiana State Park system marking a century of existence.
Located in Madison, Ind., with entrances on State Roads 56 and 62, the park covers a 300-foot deep canyon that was carved out over the course of millions of years by Clifty Creek. Clifty Creek Canyon, which traverses the entire north-south length of the park, is home to four massive waterfalls: Clifty Falls, Little Clifty Falls, Tunnel Falls and Hoffman Falls. The latter two falls are created from Dean’s Branch and Hoffman Branch, canyons that enter from the east.
Clifty Falls State Park Timeline:
– Source: Newspaper clippings from JCHS Archive
• October 1920: Park established with purchase by state of 617.54 acres of land in Madison with half of $20,000 bond raised by community donations.
• 1921: Original Clifty Inn built out of an old farmhouse featuring six rooms, a dining room and lobby.
• 1922: Sixteen additional rooms added with the renovation of an adjacent barn.
• 1923: Local residents raise money to fund the construction of a large, brick hotel on a bluff overlooking the Ohio River and Clifty Creek with money to be paid back with hotel receipts. By January 1924, residents had raised $35,000 to form a company to begin construction. The new Inn, which had 32 rooms, a large dining room, lobby and a large porch overlooking the Ohio Valley, was dedicated Aug. 25, 1924. Three years later the building was later expanded with more floor and hotel rooms.
• 1933-38: Workers from the Civilian Conservation Corps living at a camp on site build roads and structures inside the park property.
• July 7, 1934: First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visits Clifty Inn, where she spend the night while traveling from Lexington, Ky., to Indianapolis with two female friends.
• May 13, 1936: W.A. Guthrie is honored with a plaque at the south entrance, which is names in honor of the former state senator who later served as the first State Conservation Department chairman and oversaw creation of the state’s third park.
• 1966: A 36-room motel unit was added to Clifty Inn and the entire complex became known as Clifty Inn & Motor Lodge.
• April 3, 1974: A tornado destroys Clifty Inn, the saddle barn, horse trails, corrals and riding ring. It takes one year to rebuild and open a new lodge. Horse riding is discontinued and the saddle barn is later converted into a Nature Center, which was dedicated Oct. 29, 1981.
• 1975: Newly built Clifty Inn opens. A new Riverview building also is added to the new Inn.
• 1976: An expanded family campground opens featuring 107 modern campsites and 60 primitive sites, plus two comfort stations. A park office and maintenance building is constructed. An outdoor, Olympic size swimming pool, bath house and concession building open.
• 1977: A new wing featuring conference facilities opens.
• 1999: A $2.4 million renovation of the Inn is completed, including an indoor pool for hotel guests. The outdoor pool is also renovated with two water slides added.
• 2006: An $8.8 million renovation was completed, with the old Riverview wing demolished and a new section built with 37 rooms and three suites. The old conference center was replaced with a new one, a secondary meeting room and other amenities. This is today’s Inn. The park today features 163 hotel rooms, a campground, 14 miles of trails, two man-made tunnels (one open to the public), Clifty and Tunnel Falls, an overlook and many natural features to explore. It encompasses 1,519 acres.
• Information: 1501 Green Rd., Madison, IN. (812) 273-8885. Clifty Inn & Restaurant: (812) 265-4135. Campground reservations: 1-866-622-6746. Admission: $7 per car (Indiana residents); $9 nonresidents. Season pass available. Free admission in winter months.
For the outdoors adventurist, a rugged terrain provides challenging hikes over the course of the park’s 10 hiking trails. There are moderate to rugged trails surrounded by breath-taking year-round scenery.
The main attraction has always been the waterfalls. Visitors may have to trek a few of the park’s interconnecting trails to see all of the waterfalls, but it is well worth the hike.
Clifty Creek’s stony bed is littered with fossil remnants, reminding one of its long ago vanished marine ecosystems that once teemed with life that included ancient corals, squids and brachiopods. In order to keep this hidden history intact, fossil collecting within Clifty Falls State Park is prohibited.
“There are a lot of historic ruins within the park, such as the waterfall and tunnel,” said Brad Kessans, Interpretive Naturalist for Clifty Falls State Park. Kessans is a New Albany, Ind., native who took over the position held for more than 30 years by Dick Davis, who retired last year. “I hope to carry on his legacy.”
The Tunnel to which Kessans referred is an abandoned, man-made railroad tunnel that was never completed. It is closed to the public from Nov. 1 to April 31 to protect hibernating bats from the White-Nosed Bat Syndrome.
Legend has it that John Brough, president of the M&I Railroad, tried to cut through the land around Clifty Falls to complete his railroad from Madison to Indianapolis in 1852. He mistakenly believed it would take only three months to finish the line. What he didn’t count on was running out of money, falling $100,000 short. He had no recourse but to abandon his plan.
Only a portion of the tunnel cutting through Trail 5 now remains – a 1/8th-mile dive into the dark. Had Brough completed this section of railroad, it would have been part of the Madison and Indianapolis Railroad.
The tunnel has been repurposed as a bat habitat. The tunnel walls protect the bats from the harsh Indiana winters, giving them a place to hibernate. At one point, The tunnel became a popular destination for hikers. It eventually had to be closed for a time to protect bats, many of which were being killed at an alarming rate by the White-Nosed Bat Syndrome.
Photo courtesy of the Jefferson County Historical Society Archive
The original Clifty Inn is shown perched on a bluff 400 feet above the Ohio River and offering visitors a magnificent view of the valley below. It was destroyed by a tornado on April 3, 1974.
In addition to rehabilitating the bat population, Kessans sees it as his job to keep the wildlife and ecosystems in check. He is concerned with natural resource management, since there has been a problem lately with exotic invasive species overtaking the native plants. This is due in part to the April 3, 1974, tornado “that spread a lot of seeds.”
Kessans “grew up in the park system enjoying it,” he said. He graduated with a degree in environmental managements from Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs.
He said he “felt a need to help with the goals of the park system,” which includes preservation and education. In his job as a naturalist, Kessans “does a lot of work with people, programs and events.”
Before coming to Clifty Falls, he worked at two neighboring parks: the Falls of the Ohio State Park in Clarksville and Charlestown State Park.
Kessans said that what most people in Madison don’t know about Clifty Falls State Park is that in the early 1900s, “the people in the community raised the money to purchase the canyon and gave it to the state. That made it special right off of the bat.”
Photo courtesy of the
JCHS Archive & Library
The saddle barn that housed horses was destroyed in the 1974 tornado. It was later turned into the Nature Center, which opened in October 1981.
Kessans said he is interested in increasing public outreach for the park. “I want to bring a new and diverse crowd into the park and let people enjoy the park. It’s been around since 1920. I’m planning for the next generation.”
Kessans said his goal is to “adapt to new possible park users,” since the park needs to “evolve with the times.” He plans to reach out to surrounding communities in an effort to communicate with groups that have varying interests such as exercise, art and history.
Too many people are plugged in,” he said, to outlets like social media. He wants people to get out and “see the geological wonders. When you get out in nature, everything shuts off. The human soul needs this. We’re moving away from the woods and becoming less educated on what we do to the environment.”
On July 23, Clifty Falls State Park joined the centennial celebrations by playing host to two historic hikes and a Centennial Campfire. “It was a big day,” said Kessans.
Since its founding in 1920, the park has grown in size to encompass 1,519 acres. It features more than 12 miles of trails, a campground, an Olympic size swimming pool, and Clifty Inn, which features a restaurant, conference facilities and meeting rooms.
The park was created by the transfer of 110 acres, known as The Thomas Hill, from a large wooded tract owned by the State Mental Hospital in Madison. The citizens of Jefferson County added 570 more acres.
Photo courtesy of "Arianne"
The Overlook Trail at Clifty Falls State Park provides a unique perspective of nature for hikers.
Col. Richard Lieber, founder of the Indiana State Parks system, converted an old stone farmhouse on Thomas Hill into six sleeping rooms, a dining hall and a lobby. Every weekend saw an overflow crowd.
In 1923, an adjoining barn was remodeled to provide 16 additional sleeping rooms. A year later, Clifty Inn opened after the citizens of Madison contributed $35,000 for its construction.
The inn offered park guests a clean, convenient place to stay and 32 rooms with spectacular river views. It hosted at least one famous guest when First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt stayed at the inn on July 7, 1934, while visiting Madison to see the local Civilian Conservation Corps in action during the Depression.
By 1966, a new, modern motel and dining facility had replaced the original inn at a cost of $700,000. The dedication ceremony was attended by the governors of Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia, all of whom arrived on a 50-foot cabin cruiser. Also in attendance was a representative for the governor of Illinois.
After a devastating tornado ripped through the park 10 years later in 1974, Clifty Inn had to be replaced again. Constructed in 2006 as part of a multi-million dollar park upgrade, the present hotel contains a restaurant and conference center, while offering a magnificent view of the Ohio River.
According to Davis, Clifty Inn was the first major development within the park. When it opened, it was “wildly popular,” he said.
Davis was the park’s Interpretive Naturalist for 34 years. It was his job to “tell the park’s story.” He always related the cultural and natural history of the park.
“There’s a deeper history. One before it became a park.”
Davis, 69, has no doubt walked over every inch of the park. “Clifty Falls was the third Indiana State Park to be dedicated.”
It was created after World War I during a developmental or promotional period, he said.
“It was dedicated as a memorial park to the veterans of all wars of Jefferson County.” The park “is a donation; it was given to the citizens of the community.”
He continued, “The parks were created with the idea of getting closer to nature, not camping,” The Inns were the prime feature of the early parks because of the luxury they presented in a pristine setting.
Col. Lieber, a German immigrant, “loved the fact that there were wild, unused areas in the U.S.,” said Davis. Such areas “were often geologically rugged and less suitable for development. This lent a scenic value that a lot of people appreciated.”
He also credits two local citizens, Michael Garber (former publisher of the Madison Courier) and Jack Miller, with aiding in the creation of Clifty Falls. Local involvement was important because the area was owned by dozens of individual landowners.
Davis came to work at Clifty Falls in September 1979. He has witnessed many changes but said, “The parks are here to stay.”
Back to August 2016 Articles.