Madison and the Ohio River Towns

The route east along US-50 is uneventful, so if you have some time, loop to the south along Hwy-56, which curves along the north bank of the broad Ohio River. The riverside here is rich in history, and the 60-mile drive passes by modest tobacco farms and timeless small towns, the pastoral scene marred only by occasional power plants, most of them across the water on the Kentucky side.

Though the drive is nice enough in itself, it’s most worthwhile because it brings you to Madison (pop. 12,247), one of the best-preserved historic Ohio River towns, thanks in large part to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which used Madison as a case study in how to keep small-town America alive and well in the modern age. Now a popular vacation destination, especially during the Chautauqua Arts Festival in late September and the rowdier Madison Regatta around the 4th of July, when 200-mph hydroplanes race along the river, Madison has managed to stay alive economically without sacrificing its small-town charms. Wandering around a few blocks of the franchise-free Main Street, you can enjoy a meal, listen to the town gossip while getting a haircut at the chrome and red-leather barbershop, or tour the many historic homes. The best of these is the impressive Greek Revival mansion (601 W. 1st St., $10) of Civil War financier James Lanier, near the river. Also worth a look is the perfectly preserved Victorian-era doctor’s office (120 W. 3rd St., $4), which served as the only hospital between Cincinnati and Louisville.

Along with its wealth of Americana, Madison has a number of good places to eat along the three blocks of Main Street, including the 1930s-era Hinkle’s (204 W. Main St., 812/265-3919, Mon.-Tues. 6am-10pm, Wed.-Thurs. 6am-midnight, Fri.-Sat. 24 hours), featuring great greasy-spoon burgers, traditional breakfasts, and fresh fried fish. There’s the romantic Riverboat Inn and Suites (906 E. 1st St., 812/265-2361, $75 and up). Best value are the motel-type rooms at the Clifty Inn (812/265-4135, $115-185) in wooded Clifty Falls State Park, a mile west of town on Hwy-56.

Rising Sun

Farther along Hwy-56, nine miles south of Aurora and US-50, the village of Rising Sun holds a handful of frontier-era structures as well the Rising Star Casino Resort ($79 and up). The historic parts of town have managed to stay quaint despite the influx of gamblers, and the old-fashioned (but newly repaved) downtown area has the good Ohio County Historical Museum (212 S. Walnut St.). Along with the usual array of local history, the museum also recounts the Ohio River’s unique heritage of hydroplane racing.

Aurora and Lawrenceburg

Our Ohio River detour along Hwy-56 rejoins US-50 at Aurora (pop. 3,750), a small riverside town that’s well worth at least a brief stop. The highlight here is the handsome Hillforest Mansion (213 5th St., Tues.-Sun. Apr.-Dec., closed major holidays, $10), an exuberant survivor from the steamboat era whose colonnaded facade is topped by a circular lookout tower from which residents could gaze out at river traffic up and down the Ohio. Built in 1852 and preserved in fine condition, the hillside mansion gives a strong sense of how comfortable and sophisticated life was for the wealthy, even on the so-called frontier.

East from Aurora, approaching the Ohio state line, US-50 forms a busy gauntlet of roadside motels, diners, cut-rate liquor stores, and fireworks stands, all competing via giant billboards for the tristate trade. Lawrenceburg (pop. 5,042), along the I-275 freeway three miles west of the Indiana-Ohio-Kentucky border, seems to revolve around the sale of cheap booze, perhaps because for years the main employer was the massive redbrick Seagram’s distillery at the north end of Main Street—among the largest and oldest in the United States, dating from 1847. Nowadays Lawrenceburg embraces another vice, gambling, as evidenced by the sprawling Hollywood Casino & Hotel that spreads south of US-50 on the east side of town.

Lawrenceburg as seen from US-50 is less than scenic, with railroad tracks and a huge levee cutting off the town from the waterfront. However, the historic town center, south of the highway along Walnut Street, holds a number of interesting old buildings dating from the steamboat era of the early 1800s, when Lawrenceburg was a favorite Ohio River port of call. Among the many church spires competing for preeminence is that of the Presbyterian church, where in 1837 orator Henry Ward Beecher (brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, she of Uncle Tom’s Cabin fame) held his first pastorate.

Places to eat in old-town Lawrenceburg emphasize the 80-proof aspects of local life: Whisky’s (334 Front St., 812/537-4239), for example, serves steaks in an old button factory on Front Street.

While Lawrenceburg embraces its heritage of gambling and booze, a detour across the river into Kentucky will bring you to a very different place: the fundamentalist Creation Museum (888/582-4253, $30), near the Cincinnati airport along I-275 in Petersburg. Its 70,000 square feet of high-tech galleries let you walk through a biblical history of the world.

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