By James Natsis
The Southern Indiana riverfront cities of New Albany, Clarksville and Jeffersonville have seen remarkable changes in the past five years or so. From the East End Bridge and the explosive growth in distribution centers led by Amazon, to the Big Four Pedestrian Bridge and the dynamic culinary scene of New Albany, the area has exponentially grown and shows no signs of slowing down.
The Ohio River Greenway offers a splendid route for exploring much of that region along its nearly 8-mile multi-use path that winds along the river’s edge. A groundbreaking ceremony recently was held in Clarksville, where the final 1.3-mile stretch will be completed by the summer of 2018 to allow seamless access by bike or foot between the three riverfront cities via the Greenway.
Located at the midway point of the Greenway is the Falls of Ohio State Park and Interpretive Center. It is best known for its 390 million-year-old fossil beds that are among the largest, naturally exposed, Devonian fossil beds in the world.
It is also the site where Meriwether Lewis and William Clark first met in 1803 and recruited the “Nine Young Men from Kentucky” and Clark’s personal slave, York, who formed the staple of the Corps of Discovery Expedition.
And during the period from 1807-1810, a young artisan and naturalist, John James Audubon, made various trips to the Falls from his Louisville residence where he studied birds and created over 200 detailed sketches.
In 1982, thanks to the efforts of various interest groups to assure the safeguard of the fossils at the site, 1,404 acres were designated a National Wildlife Conservation Area and managed by the Corps of Engineers. In 1987, the Falls of the Ohio Foundation Inc. was created with the goal of building an educational center.
In 1990, the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, through its Division of State Parks, established the Falls of Ohio State Park. Ground was broken for the creation of the Interpretive Center in 1992, and it first opened to the public in January 1994. The Division of State Parks administers the grounds and the center, while the foundation manages events, exhibits and other such activities.
The Interpretative Center was closed all of 2015 for renovations of its exhibit space and auditorium. Since reopening in January 2016, the center has seen a significant increase in visitors. Dani Cummins, executive director of the Falls of Ohio Foundation, informed Insider during a recent visit that paid attendance admissions had doubled in 2016 from prior years of 2013 and 2014.
“We are geographically at the center point of the Greenway,” she said, noting that special events have increased as well as overall foot traffic from the Greenway.
The optimal time of the year to visit the fossil beds is from late July to October. This is the period when the lower water levels allow for maximum exposure. During the warm months of spring and early summer, fossil beds are still visible, and the Interpretive Center is open all year long.
During our visit, several families from Ohio and Wisconsin were exploring the grounds during their spring break holidays. The family from Ohio was in the area visiting Mammoth Cave, the Kentucky Science Center, the Slugger Museum and Factory, and the Louisville Mega Cavern, where they did some ziplining.
“My kids are geology geeks,” said the mother as her youngsters raced ahead to the stairs leading to the fossil-rich river banks. “We were here last night, and the kids wanted to come back again today.”
“The fossil beds is why the park exists,” said Alain Goldstein, an interpreter naturalist and park paleontologist. Goldstein was one of the early hires back in November 1993, just several months before the opening of the Interpretation Center.
He explained that visitors are walking on fossils along the limestone near the river. “They are literally walking on an ancient seafloor,” he said. He jokingly calls it “dry snorkeling,” because the fossils lay in a bedding plane that offers a single timeframe, as opposed to layered fossil strata found along hill sides. “When conditions are right, our fossil beds are the most accessible in the United States,” he added.
The exhibits at the Interpretive Center are state-of-the-art and offer a wide-ranging oceanographic, geological and historical experience. It also informs the visitor about nature and wildlife in the area.
The foundation is raising money for the final phase of upgrades that will include an updated film of the park in 4K resolution and will play continually in the auditorium at the entrance of the exhibit area. They hope to shoot the film through late summer and early fall and have the technical installations completed by the summer of 2018.
The Falls of the Ohio Park is easily accessible by bike from the Big Four Bridge. For those who arrive by car, there is a picnic and playground area nearby for young children, as well as the adjacent Greenway multi-use path that is ideal for walking, running, birdwatching and simply enjoying the beauty of the Ohio River and surrounding woods on a pleasant spring or summer afternoon.
Falls of the Ohio State Park is open seven days a week from 7 a.m.-11 p.m. Admission into the Interpretive Center is $9 for those 12 and older, $7 for children and free for those 5 and under.
About the author: James Natsis, Ph.D, is a professor in the History Department at West Virginia State University in Charleston, W.V. He also lives in Louisville. Natsis is a world traveler and former Peace Corps volunteer.