Historical Climb

Building, traversing Madison
incline tested early railroad engineers

By Ruth Wright
Staff Writer

MADISON, Ind. (January 2003) – In 1832 the Indiana state legislature, recognizing the need for transportation to carry crops from Indiana’s fertile central farmlands to market, chartered eight possible routes for rail lines in the state. “Without economic transportation to move crops to market, the rich lands of the Indiana interior were valueless,” according to the book, “Railroads of Indiana,” by Richard S. Simons and Francis H. Parker.


The Madison incline
during earlier operation.

While many towns competed for a line, Madison, Ind., leaders successfully lobbied for government funding of a route from Madison to Indianapolis. In his book, “The Pennsylvania Railroad in Indiana,” William J. Watt wrote that supporters of a line from Madison to Indianapolis contended that the route would be the shortest distance from Indianapolis, the potential state capital, to the Ohio River. The General Assembly agreed, and in 1836 construction began on Indiana’s first railroad, the Madison and Indianapolis.
Besides being Indiana’s first railroad, the M&I held the distinction of having the nation’s steepest grade on a line-haul railroad: the Madison incline. Climbing for a little more than a mile from the Ohio River up the Madison hill, the incline’s precipitous 5.89 percent average grade became known as one of the steepest in the country. Although Indiana was recognized for its level farm fields, the steep cliffs abutting the Ohio River in Madison posed a quandary to railroad engineers. Steam locomotives of the time were unable to ascend extremely steep grades or make sharp curves, narrowing options for traversing the hill.
After researching various alternatives, an inclined plane model was adopted for construction. A costly and difficult task, work began on the Madison incline in 1837. Cuts, some as deep as 100 feet, were blasted through the stone hillsides.
Ron Grimes, archivist for the Jefferson County Historical Society and a railroad aficionado, recently walked the incline with his son. “When you actually get into the cut, you get a perspective of what a difficult project it was — to do all that with black powder and horses and wagons,” said Grimes.
The incline construction project took more than four years to complete and cost much more than anticipated. When it was finally finished in 1841, the Madison incline was opened to rail traffic with the use of horse teams to pull cars up the hill and simple gravity for taking them down. Wooden hand brakes were used to slow cars upon descent and had to be frequently doused with water to prevent combustion from friction.
According to records of the American Society of Civil Engineers, for a short time in 1845 a steam locomotive called the Dewitt Clinton, built by M.W. Baldwin of Philadelphia, was used. But because the engine could barely pull up one car at a time, and slowly at that, it proved unsatisfactory, and horses were once again employed. Seeking a more efficient mode of transport up the incline, Andrew Cathcart, Master Mechanic for the M&I, designed a cog wheel system that was put into use in 1847.
According to Grimes, Cathcart took a basic locomotive and added a mechanism for a cog wheel, which engaged a rack rail running down the center of the track. Grimes said that far from being a perfect solution, the cog wheel would sometimes disengage, sending the engine hurtling down the hill at breakneck speed. The distinctive sound of the disengaged cog wheel banging down the rail was well recognized by nearby residents, who quickly gathered at the bottom of the hill to witness the spectacle and provide assistance if needed, said Grimes. Despite shortcomings and for lack of a better option, the cog wheel system remained in use for many years.
In the same year that the cog wheel was introduced, the last rail was laid to complete the line from Madison to Indianapolis.
At the time Indianapolis was a small settlement when compared to Madison, which at the time was Indiana’s second largest city. The arrival of the railroad in Indianapolis is credited with an explosion of business, population and industry in the city, which is now the largest in the state.
Despite the use of cog wheel locomotives, which somewhat eased the burden of traveling the hill, the idea of an alternative route to the Madison incline was proposed in the early 1850s. Between 1853 and 1856, an attempt was made to construct a new route through what is now Clifty Falls State Park. The project, under the direction of M&I President John Brough, was overtaken with financial difficulties and eventually abandoned. It became known as “Brough’s Folly.” Some progress was made on the route, however, and two tunnels, one of which can still be seen, were started.
In 1868, the incline was converted to adhesion working with the use of the powerful locomotive, the “Reuben Wells.” Named after its designer and the master mechanic of the expanded Jeffersonville, Madison and Indianapolis Railroad, the steam-powered Reuben Wells was the heaviest locomotive of its day. The adhesion-type steam locomotive remained in use until it was replaced by coal-burning engines in the late 1800s.
In the early 1950s, diesel locomotives became standard. The original Reuben Wells locomotive can now be viewed as a permanent exhibit at the Indianapolis Children’s Museum.
Although the incline made transportation up the Madison hill possible, it was far from being an ideal solution. Costly to maintain and dangerous, the incline would prove a vexation to railroad operators until more powerful locomotives were invented. In recent decades, lack of industry on the river front and the existence of alternative transportation methods has minimized the need for a rail line leading to the river, thus leaving the incline, which is owned by the Madison Railroad, in a state of disrepair.
The most recent use of the incline was in 1992 when the railroad, with financial assistance from Indiana-Kentucky Electric Corp, refurbished the track and used it to transport equipment from the hilltop to the power plant, located near its base on the Ohio River.
Today, the incline is once again overgrown with weeds and blocked by large boulders and rocks. Cathy Hale, chief executive officer of Madison Railroad, said that although the railroad does not currently use the incline for freight service, it will continue to preserve it in case the need arises. Hale said railroad officials have investigated sources of funding to create a walking right-of-way beside the track that could be used in conjunction with the Heritage Trail, a portion of which runs adjacent to the incline.
Currently, the railroad has “No Trespassing” signs posted and discourages individuals from walking the incline because of danger from falling rocks. Some have suggested that the incline be refurbished and used as a tourist attraction, with railroad cars taking visitors up and down the hill. But the idea has been thwarted because of the projected high cost of maintenance and insurance.
For now, the incline exists mainly as a sentimental reminder of what was once a major transportation corridor from the Madison riverfront to the hilltop.

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