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In the early part of the Twentieth Century people began to become more aware of the natural beauty around them. More outdoor activities began to emerge as people found they had leisure time. Conservationists like Richard Lieber were extolling the virtues of preserving parts of the state for the enjoyment of its citizens. At first it was picnics in the countryside and hikes along the rugged bluffs of Jefferson County, but soon a more organized attitude began to prevail.
It was in this context that in 1916 a group of local businessmen from Madison began to explore the possibility of a state park within the confines of the county. In October of that year, state representatives inspected three sites near Madison as possible candidates for a state park, Cedar Cliff, Clifty Falls and Cragmont. By 1920 the site at Clifty Falls had been chosen and businessmen, citizens and organizations were asked to contribute to the funding of the new park.
While state parks were nominally under the jurisdiction of the state government, very little money came from that source. Instead, the state parks were financed by private groups, business people, organizations and citizens. Madison had soon collected $15,000 “seed” money for purchase of the land for the new park, the third in Indiana. In 1921 the land was condemned, appraised and appropriated and construction began.
It was not an easy task. The terrain was rocky, hilly and even forbidding in some areas. The idea was not to subdue the landscape but to preserve its natural beauty so rather than tear out and reshape the land, the roads, buildings and recreational sites were allowed to conform to the topography.
In 1853 John Brough had sought to build a railroad through the area and had accomplished the construction of some parts of needed tunnels and bridges but when the project was abandoned for lack of financing, the structures had been abandoned. These man-made formations were allowed to remain and were incorporated into the park and many still stand there, silent sentinels of what many referred to as “Brough’s Folly”.
The inn opened in August of 1924 and the park and its accouterments drew almost 32,000 people its first year. The revenues from tourism became an important feature of the park and Madison benefited greatly from this.
In 1964 there was great activity in the park as a new motel and pool were installed and at this time more acreage was acquired from the state hospital. New access roads and camp grounds were built. The park became an even greater asset to the community.
In 1974 a terrible tornado slashed through the park demolishing many of the buildings and thousands of its beautiful trees. The inn was devastated and had to be replaced and the lovely scenery would take years to recover but nature does heal and the park regained its former grandeur.
In 1981 a new nature center was dedicated. It replaced a makeshift one that was in one of the old barns on the property. Much more modern, it became the hub for naturalists and birdwatchers.
In 2003 over three million dollars was appropriated by the state for major up-dates in the park and in 2006 a new inn was dedicated, the old 36 room Riverview section was demolished and a new 37 room plus three suites living space was created. The old conference center was replaced and a secondary meeting room created. Public restrooms, kitchen and storage areas were modernized. The project finally cost almost nine million dollars with three and one half million coming from appropriations, an additional one million six hundred thousand was realized from refinancing the old bond and a new bond was issued for the remainder. The complex is now a modern one, able to compete with any in the state.
The park has seen many changes, good and bad, over its nearly one hundred year history but it has been enduring and, no doubt, it will continue for hundreds of years to come.
MJCPL: Historical Files
MJCPL: Clifty Falls State Park by George S. Cottman
MJCPL: Newspapers on microfilm
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