incline tested early railroad engineers
MADISON, Ind. (January 2003) In 1832 the Indiana
state legislature, recognizing the need for transportation to carry
crops from Indianas 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.
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 Indianas first railroad,
the Madison and Indianapolis.
Besides being Indianas first railroad, the M&I held the distinction
of having the nations 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 inclines 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
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 Indianas 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
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 Broughs 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
In the early 1950s, diesel locomotives became standard. The original
Reuben Wells locomotive can now be viewed as a permanent exhibit at
the Indianapolis Childrens 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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