Though there is evidence of habitation in the Madison area that dates all the way back to roughly the 13th century, Madison did not officially become an established city until 1857.
The story of how community leaders began putting Madison on the map is a fascinating one that involves decisions that are directly correlated to the city’s reputation today. Though I am no official historian, I’d love to re-tell the story to you as I recently learned from Madison’s very own John Rankin.
The Triana area was considered “Boomtown” in the early 1800s due to its proximity to the Tennessee River. That water source was key to just about everything during that time period.
Water was necessary for shipping and receiving all kinds of goods as well as doing general business commerce (especially shipping cotton). Rankin says that as soon as the steam whistle blew, everyone from all walks of life would flock to the docks to receive their expected items.
Around the same time, the area that we now know as Madison was being officially surveyed and was divided into sections that were each a square mile. Each section was then eligible to be privately sold, except for Section 16.
The government wanted Section 16 to be the property of the state and used for public education; They chose Section 16 for school locations due to its central location on a grid of sections. (Think of it as a 6×6 grid; This puts Section 16 fairly central but still quite far from many sections considering each was a square mile and there were no automobiles yet.)
Section 16 was just south of what is currently present-day downtown Madison, and the first public school building was located about halfway between downtown Madison and Madison Boulevard (of course these areas of town did not exist yet). It was not located where the current Madison Elementary School is today. That building was not established until the 1900s.
Around 1853, a Huntsville merchant named James Clemens received word that the Memphis and Charleston Railroad wanted to continue their rails from Decatur into Huntsville. Triana didn’t want the rail system through their town because of pollution and noise (they feared that it would be unsettling to their horses). So present-day Madison became the next best choice for adding a train depot.
Clemens learned that the depot would be located within very close proximity to the Section 16 school, so he hopped on what he viewed as an incredible opportunity (and quite a bargain!) He requested to buy Section 16 from the state and begin developing an area that he had a hunch would be incredibly prosperous.
He worked with his son, U.S. senator Jeremiah Clemens, to purchase Section 16 and then immediately divided it into lots to sell. The first lot he sold is where present-day Madison Station Antiques currently stands on Main Street.
Madison was officially founded in 1857, though Clemens sadly died just three years later. His son Jeremiah died in 1865. It is worth noting that both were very anti-slavery.
Between 1857 and the Civil War, Madison grew like wildfire. People saw an opportunity to do commerce with the railroad and preferred it over the river because it wasn’t weather-dependent. It was fast and could operate all year long.
Wealthy residents in Triana quickly began seeing what was happening around the railroad, which led many of them to buy a lot (or multiple lots), tear down their Triana homes, and then use the lumber and other resources to rebuild their home in Madison (many of them right there in downtown Madison).
Though the Civil War halted the growth of the city, it picked right back up after the war due to an increased focus on building the school’s strong reputation. Educated people were drawn to the railroad and subsequently wanted academic opportunities for their children too. City leaders recruited all over to find the best teachers they could find. They knew that the strong commerce opportunity via the railroad plus a positive public school reputation would help the city prosper for the long haul and grow in the right direction.
Between 1857 and 1940, Madison grew to 500 residents, which is substantial considering the city started as nothing by crop fields and grew during a time when automobiles wouldn’t come on the scene for a few decades.
Today Madison is home to 55,000 residents and counting. Madison City Schools was established in 1998 and is nationally recognized as one of the best school districts in the country. It is still the lead magnet that attracts new residents to put down roots in Madison.