The Reuben Wells

There is was! I never thought I’d be excited to see a train locomotive. Sure, on occasion I had ridden trains, from commuter lines in the US to coal-burning versions from decades past in China, but this one was different.

It was the Reuben Wells.

I had seen it before at the Children’s Museum in Indianapolis, read the placards, and went on my way. But recently I had seen it briefly in a documentary celebrating Indiana’s bicentennial. When the locomotive graced the scene, I sat up. “Hey! I’ve seen that.”

I found myself back at the Children’s Museum recently…and I was on a mission to see it. The locomotive, the placards, and the model of the Madison grade were more meaningful. Here was a locomotive, built in the mid 1800s specifically to be able to climb the steepest grade in the US (5.9%).

Previously, the only way that a train could get up that grade was for 8 horses to pull each train car individually up the tracks. Not a very efficient mode of transport. (And I couldn’t help but feel for the horses!).

And along comes the Reuben Wells, named for its creator, that can climb the hill in 13 minutes. Interestingly, the Reuben Wells pushed the train cars ahead of it rather than pulled them; the couplers were not strong enough to pull cars up that steep a grade.

Why could the Reuben Wells climb the grade? The weight—all 55 tons (!)—of the locomotive kept the locomotive on the tracks and prevented it from slipping backwards. The Reuben Wells operated from 1868 to 1898.

I am not sure why it was no longer needed in 1898. In its retirement, it toured around quite a bit, visiting different exhibitions. After a long stint hanging out in the Pennsylvania railroad yards, in 1968 the Reuben Wells came back to Indiana, ultimately becoming a part of the Children’s Museum. In 1976, it was lifted into what would become the new building of the Children’s Museum as the building was constructed around it.

The Reuben Wells, along with the model of Madison, Indiana and the grade that the locomotive was built for, are interesting to see. Model trains surround the area with some operating in a glass-covered exhibit and another whizzing overhead.

Now I wonder…how have they dealt with the Madison incline since the Reuben Wells retired in 1898? Or do trains no longer traverse those tracks?


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