Growing Attraction

Madison, Ind., was rising in popularity during the 1930s

Clifty Falls State Park Inn was popular with visitors

(December 2020) – Even though the entire world was still feeling the effects of the Great Depression, by 1934 Madison, Ind., was well on its way to becoming a much sought after recreational destination. No doubt First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s brief stop there did much to bring Madison to the forefront of a nation looking for better, prosperous times.
A decade before, Madison had embarked on making a name for itself as a place with many recreational possibilities. The area that would develop into Clifty Falls State Park was well-known for its fishing, hiking and picnicking opportunities. The bluffs leading down to the Ohio River offered spectacular views and an ideal setting for a variety of leisure activities.
With two state parks already established in 1916 – McCormack’s Creek State Park and Turkey Run State Park – representatives of the state legislature visited the Madison area and decided Clifty Falls was the perfect site for Indiana’s third state park.

Photo provided

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.

It took the combined effort of several local businesses and organizations to raise the necessary $15,000 to purchase the property located just west of Madison. Located between State Roads 56 and 62, Clifty Falls State Park opened in 1920.
Four years later, the Clifty Falls Inn opened and served almost 32,000 visitors in its first year alone. The inn opened in May 1924, and a third floor was added in 1927-28. The inn offered park guests a clean, convenient place to stay and 32 rooms with spectacular river views.
Depression-era programs aided Madison’s rapid growth in the 20th-century. The Federal Housing Administration was an agency created under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration. It was established by the National Housing Act on June 27, 1934, to regulate interest and mortgage terms.
During the mid-1930s, the FHA constructed model homes across the country. Madison was one of only two Indiana cities outside Indianapolis chosen by the FHA as a site for one of the agency’s model homes, a colonial-style residence built in 1936 at 311 W. Third St.
Clifty Falls State Park became the base camp for Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Progress Administration crews during the late 1930s. The CCC created trails and roads within the park, while the WPA in 1938 constructed the Guthrie Memorial Entrance on the south edge of the park.
It was during this decade when the nation was emerging from an era of despair and slowly turning into one of hope – thanks to the president and his plans for the future – that First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited Madison in July 1934, less than a month after the FHA was created.

Photo by Don Ward
Clifty Inn as it looks today on the hill overlooking Madison, Ind., and the Ohio River valley. It is a popular tourist destination.

She and two female companions stayed at the Clifty Inn while in Madison, which was the only hotel with available accommodations, because it was during the July Fourth holiday. Two rooms were secured for their use in what was known for more than 50 years as the best place in the Midwest for “fine food and “Hoosier Hospitality,” according to a 1978 newspaper account of her visit written by local Madison writer Frank L. Bird.
Born into aristocracy and no doubt used to the finer things in life, Mrs. Roosevelt did not complain that the rooms at the Clifty Inn “had only a lavatory, and guests had to go down the hall – men facilities on one end and women the opposite end,” wrote Bird. Rates were $3 a day, a fee that included meals.
Benjamin Clark, Cultural Resources Manager for the Indiana Division of State Parks, provided information from “People, Parks, and Perceptions: A History and Appreciation of Indiana” by Glory-June Greiff that stated, “The first inn at Clifty Falls was an old stone farmhouse that was renovated and adapted to be used as a hotel.”
The book went on to reveal that “over the next decade (after the park was founded), the department acquired additional adjacent land and renovated an abandoned stone farmhouse high on a bluff overlooking the Ohio into a park inn, then built a new one and used the house as an annex.”
Renovations to the Clifty Inn kept it appealing to tourists. “Clifty Falls offered the first motel accommodations in a state park, in a motor lodge of modern design completed in 1967. Storms in 1974 destroyed the old park inn and badly damaged the new building; the motel was rehabilitated and augmented by considerable new construction. Three decades later, major remodeling, demolition of the motel portion and considerable new construction resulted in the current Clifty Inn and Conference Center,” wrote Greiff.
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.
Published in 1925 before Mrs. Roosevelt’s visit, “Clifty Falls State Park and Environs: A History and Description,” depicts the allure of the site and reveals what she saw while there. “The hotel, unique for its location among Indiana hostelries, is the official one erected for the accommodation of visitors to the state park, and stands on the park tract. Placed on the very brow of the bluff that rises 400 feet above the waters of the Ohio River, it commands a prospect that for charms vies with those to be had of the Hudson from the summits of the Highlands or Catskills.” 
The 1921 annual report for the Clifty Falls State Park Inn noted that “through co-operation with the Southeast Hospital for the Insane, there may be obtained the site adjacent to the park known as Thomas Hill on which is now situated a fine old farmhouse. From the top of Thomas Hill, one may look miles up and down the Ohio Valley, and the view is probably the most spectacular in the state. Consequently, it is idea for a hotel site...”
The site was obtained and the park was created by the transfer of 110 acres (known as Thomas Hill) from the large wooded tract owned by the Southeast Hospital for the Insane in Madison. The citizens of Jefferson County added 570 more acres.
The Inn has always been known for its location and commanding view of the Ohio River. The 1922 annual report stated, “The stone farmhouse standing on a bluff 400 feet above the Ohio was remodeled into a small hotel.” It had six sleeping rooms, a large dining room and lobby. “It became immediately popular.”
By the time the 1923 annual report was written, “Additional hotel rooms were obtained by partitioning off the main floor of a large barn adjacent to the stone farmhouse, which is the hotel proper.” Sixteen rooms were obtained in this manner at a total cost of $1,200. The hotel facilities were much in demand throughout the season.” The report went on to say that “should the money be raised,” construction of a new hotel and trails would take place.
The 1926 annual report stated, “There is a great increase in visitors to both the park and Clifty Inn from the citizens of Cincinnati and Louisville” due to roads leading from those cities to Madison being under construction. Hope was expressed for a third story to be added to the inn.
On April 3, 1974, the original inn was destroyed by a tornado. The present hotel was constructed in 2006 as part of a multi-million dollar park upgrade.


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