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It is one of the most beautiful valley settings offered by any major inland waterway in the United States. From the banks of the Ohio River wide, expansive bottomlands stretch to the feet of tall, majestic hills that stand guard over the valley. The setting is between U.S. Army Corps of Engineers mile markers 556 and 560 on the beautiful Ohio. Here the Ohio River is a common thread binding two small communities on opposite banks of the waterway.
Technically, the communities are linked by the 80-year-old Milton Madison Bridge, a two-lane ribbon of steel and concrete built by men using steam and gasoline engines on the eve of the Great Depression. On the Kentucky bank is the oldest of the two communities: Milton, a sleepy, bucolic village of about 600 souls. Her northern neighbor -- Madison, Indiana -- is a busy little community of about 13,000.
To a commercial airline passenger at 30,000 feet the valley neighborhood appears tiny and rarely would warrant a second glance if not for the rising smokestacks of the coal-fired Clifty Creek generating station of the Indiana Kentucky Electric Corporation at Madison.
Steamboats navigating the river from Pittsburgh to the Mississippi River and on to New Orleans became a vital lifeline of travel and commerce in the United States during the 19th century. By 1829 Madison had become a thriving commercial trade center with the export of produce via steamboat. A year later the town had its first floating wharf. By 1851 Madison’s riverfront was lined with permanent wharves.
Steamboat traffic was often hampered by the changing conditions of the Ohio River in the first century of commercial navigation on the waterway. Water from the runoff of creeks and other streams swelled the river to pleasant navigable conditions in the winter and spring months. During the drier seasons of late summer and autumn, some sections of the river were too shallow for steamboats to navigate, often for days or weeks at a time.
To improve conditions at Madison the United States Army Corps of Engineers commissioned the construction of a dike which extended from the Milton shore and swept out into the river in a westward, curving arc about two-thirds of the way across the expanse of the waterway. Nearly half a mile in length, the dike’s purpose was to channel the river current toward the Indiana shoreline, thereby improving the depth of the water drafted by the steamers as they traveled up- or downriver, or as they frequently made the landing at the Madison wharfboat.
The Corps awarded the contract to Madison resident William Kirk, whose company built many river structures on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers in the late 19th century. Construction of the 2,250-ft dike began in early 1889 and was completed on August 31, 1892 at a total cost of nearly $36,000.
The dike was a “pile and crib” structure, constructed of a crib of wood timbers resembling railroad ties. The massive 8-inch by 10-inch timbers were erected in a framework which was filled with rock, brush and sand. The structure was 30 feet wide, rose seven feet above low water level and contained more than 25,000 cubic feet of riprap stone, according to Corps records.
The beginning of the dike was at a point almost directly under the present Milton Madison bridge with its terminus being midway in the river channel about halfway between Walnut and Jefferson streets on the Madison side. While the dike assisted in directing the current into a deeper channel, the massive structure was frequently a danger to river navigation when submerged by higher water levels. During these periods, a navigational buoy was anchored at the end of the dike for the purpose of warning steamboat pilots to maintain a safe distance from it toward the Madison shoreline.
Unfortunately for passengers and crew of the majestic steamer City of Madison, the buoy had floated out of place in the pre-dawn hours of June 18, 1894. The steamer, bound upriver for Cincinnati, struck the dike ripping a 70-foot gash in her wooden hull. Within minutes the sinking ship hunkered on the submerged dike like a crippled goose. There was no loss of life, only a few minor injuries, but the beautiful sidewheeler was not repairable. Over the course of several weeks her machinery was removed and between the river current and salvagers, the remaining hull was ripped apart.
During the late summer months and into late fall of the year the dike was frequently visible above the surface of the water. At such times it was a popular spot on which Milton folks would picnic and watch passing steamers. The dike also served as a water break for the Kentucky shoreline on its downriver side, which made the riverbank beach a popular site for camping and swimming.
During the 1920s a series of locks and dams were constructed on the river to improve the passage of commercial and passenger traffic. This engineering feat succeeded in a more efficient means of regulating water levels up and down the river, making the dike obsolete. Shortly after the construction of the Milton Madison bridge the Corps of Engineers blasted about five feet off the top of the dike to enable river traffic to safely negotiate the water above it.
Former unlimited hydroplane driver Todd Yarling, who competed in many Madison Regattas as well as numerous other boat races across the nation, is also a longtime scuba diving enthusiast. Yarling says the surface of the riverbed between Milton and Madison is very flat. He has dived to the site of the old dike on several occasions and says the base of the structure is still there, the engineers of nearly 130 years ago having done their job well.
Yarling also says the base of the dike, although several feet below the surface, creates a series of wakes, or ripples, when a swift current passes over it. The result is apparent to hydro drivers powering over it at better than 180 miles per hour.
“You can definitely feel it there! It’s not enough of a bounce to get your boat out of control, but you know it’s there,” he said.
The ripples can frequently be observed from the bridge above, especially when the water level is elevated above pool stage resulting in the current being more rapid than normal.