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The Reuben Wells

Updated on December 13, 2015
The Reuben Wells at the Indianapolis Childrens' Museum
The Reuben Wells at the Indianapolis Childrens' Museum | Source

The Reuben Wells is a steam locomotive that was built in 1868 and eventually retired in 1898. At the time of its construction it was the world's most powerful engine. Named for its designer, the locomotive weighed 50 tons and burned wood. It was used to push trains up the 5.89% grade coming out of Madison, Indiana. Today it is on display at the Indianapolis Children's Museum.

The Madison & Indianapolis Railroad

The Indiana Mammoth Internal Improvements Act was passed by the state legislature in 1836.This piece of legislation eventually bankrupted Indiana. The act is best known for creating canals, but it also called for the construction of the Madison & Indianapolis Railroad. Today, Madison is a small town with about 12,000 residents, but at the time, it was a major center of commerce, partially due to its location on the Ohio River.

Construction on the rail line began in 1837. Although much of Indiana is fairly flat, the portion from the Ohio River to the north side of Madison required a climb of 413 feet over a length of only 7,012 feet. This results in a grade of 5.89%. Most rail lines keep their max grade to about 2%. To create this incline, which became know as "The cut", excavation of up to 125 feet was required. Making things even worse, most of this was limestone. Construction at this time relied on black powder for blasting rock, manual labor for picking up the pieces, and mules to haul it away. Like other jobs in America at that time that required hard manual labor, much of it was performed by Irish immigrants. Despite the fact this section of track was only about 1 & 1/3 miles long, it was not finished until 1845.

Local citizens inspecting "The cut"
Local citizens inspecting "The cut" | Source

Getting Up the Incline

Once the incline was completed, there was no locomotive that could pull cars up the steep grade. Initially, horses were used to for this task, and a cogwheel system was later implemented, which was slow and far from ideal.

John Brough, President of the Madison & Indianapolis Railroad, initiated a plan to create a longer route out of the valley with a shallower grade. His plan called for trestles and two tunnels, which he pointed out in an 1852 report, where less expensive to construct than through cuts. Brough also stated that his route was steeper than he liked, at 100 feet per mile (1.89%). That was still a huge improvement over the 5.89% grade in use. Unfortunately, the project ran out of money and was abandoned. Although his plan seemed sound except for the financing, the effort became known as Brough's Folly. Some of the work, including a 600 foot long tunnel that was partially constructed, is still visible today in Clifty Falls State Park.

Reuben Wells to the Rescue

The locomotive Reuben Wells is named after the master mechanic at the railroad's shop in Jeffersonville, Indiana. He believed it was possible to build a locomotive that could climb the incline without the cogwheel system. Doing this required two things in abundance: Power & weight. His creation weighed fifty tons and was the most powerful locomotive in the world when it was built. It burned wood and could carry 1,800 gallons of water to produce steam.

The Reuben Wells made its first climb up the incline in 1868. The local Madison newspaper reported that it made the climb in "the remarkably short time of nine minutes." Locomotives using the cogwheel system typically took 25 to 30 minutes. For the next thirty years the Reuben Wells never ventured far from the incline in Madison, where it pushed trains up the hill.

The Reuben Wells
The Reuben Wells | Source

A Circuitous Route to the Indianapolis Children's Museum

After retirement in 1898, the Reuben Wells was kept in reserve by the railroad for seven more years. Then it was sent to Purdue University. It was on display at the 1933 Chicago World's Fair, and eventually wound up in the Pennsylvania Railroad yards. The head of the Children's Museum advisory board heard about it, and stopped in to see it in 1966. Afterwards, he lobbied to get the Reuben Wells back to Indiana. At the time, the Pennsylvania Railroad was donating their steam locomotives to museums, and had promised to send it to a museum in St. Louis, Missouri. It was pointed out that the engine had a historical connection to Indiana, and should be returned to the state. The Pennsylvania Railroad people agreed, and it came to the Indianapolis Children's Museum in 1968, where it remains to this day.


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