Reclaiming nature: A look at Southern Indiana’s Origin Park
River Heritage Conservancy is making progress with the buildout of a planned 430-acre park dedicated to returning land to nature and celebrating the power of the Ohio River.
Origin Park’s name hearkens to the life it has long supported, like the early Native American tribes and wildlife of the area. But the area it occupies has also been a pivotal piece in the creation of communities along the Ohio River.
“The name came out of the fact that the only reason Clarksville, New Albany and [Jeffersonville] exist and we're sitting here having these conversations is because of this river,” RHC spokesperson Vern Eswine said. “This river is what created and started the exploration and expansion of the West.”
Talks for the park began almost a decade ago, when Kent Lanum and others started looking at how to refresh the master plan for the Ohio River Greenway.
“And so we started talking more and more about the park and the potential, and we did a lot of community outreach,” said Lanum, RHC’s board chair. “And we ended up having one person just say, ‘Hey, you see that dark spot up there? Wouldn’t that be a great place for a park?’”
Now, they’re seeing those ideas come to fruition. Lanum said RHC has secured around 70%-75% of the land needed for the park plans. That includes a recently finalized agreement with the Clarksville Town Council on use of around 100 acres of town-owned land.
Though completion is several years out and depends on funding, there are already attractions to enjoy in the park, like Croghan Launch — a paddling area on Silver Creek that opened in spring. There’s also walking access in Buttonbush Woods, with additional trails planned.
Remediation is needed in some areas — like cleaning up former commercial sites and addressing shore erosion.
Eswine recently took LPM News on a tour of some parts of the park, including Buttonbush Woods. It’s an area that’s home to wildlife like beavers, flying squirrels and foxes. It’s also a crucial stop for birds on their migratory path each year.
Eswine said it’s important to preserve and respect the land.
“We’re part of nature,” Eswine said. “I don't think we understand how much we need nature around us [and] what it does for us. And when I get in places like this, for instance, there is such beauty here. And I realize, it does remind me that I'm not alone.”
RHC is planning to break ground next year on an event center, which will help bring in revenue to sustain the park.
Plans for the second phase include a 35-acre adventure park, which will hold Olympic-standard whitewater, ziplining and climbing.
Officials say the park will be accessible to more than 1 million people within a 20-minute drive, and around half the U.S. population within a day.
Jim Epperson with SoIN Tourism said it’s a great draw for the area.
“We have thought all along that this is transformative and a game-changer,” he said. “There's going to be some portions of the market for whom this is a primary motivation — they've got to come see this park, they've got to come see the outdoor adventure center and go rafting or rock climbing — as well as just people who love parks.”
The park joins other area attractions along the river — including Jeffersonville’s Big Four Bridge, Clarksville’s Falls of the Ohio State Park, and New Albany’s Loop Island Wetlands and ongoing work to extend the Ohio River Greenway via the New Albany Shoreline.
Epperson said this access sets the area apart from other parts of the country.
“Having a continuous experience for people to be able to access the riverfront, that's not something that a lot of communities have,” Epperson said. “So that really provides visitors and residents something that's different than anywhere else.”
Origin Park’s footprint is within Clark County, though initial plans from RHC included portions of New Albany. The city is already working on recreational plans there, including recently opening its own paddling launch along Silver Creek.
Part of Origin Park’s plans include removing a low head dam at that launch to make the waterway safer for paddlers. The city has contested the permit to remove it, arguing they want to preserve the dam for environmental, historical and recreational reasons, and are willing to make changes to make it safer.
The state is reviewing that case.
New Albany Mayor Jeff Gahan said RHC’s plans for the park will add to other amenities in the area, including what New Albany has been doing to improve the riverfront.
“It will certainly complement everything that we've been working on for the last 25 years, as well as what also Falls of the Ohio State Park has been working on for many years [and] the City of Jeffersonville has been working on for many years,” he said. “So I think overall, it's going to be a very wonderful thing for everybody.”
Clarksville Town Manager Kevin Baity told LPM News last month he sees the park as a “quality-of-life improvement as well as an economic development project” because of the green space it will add to the region.
Eswine, the RHC spokesperson, said it’s time to reclaim the land for nature and celebrate the river that has long supported life in the area.
“This whole place we're standing here has been flooded. It's been abused,” Eswine said. “People have been in there hunting. There's a lot of things that have happened in this place. And yet it continues to grow and flourish. That's what nature does. … It does really replenish itself, it revives itself, and it just continues moving.”
Coverage of Southern Indiana is funded, in part, by Samtec Inc. and the Hazel & Walter T. Bales Foundation.