Built from 1836 to 1841, this large incline plane crosses over Crooked Creek and cuts through solid limestone. The incline provided rail service to Madison, allowing trains to deliver goods to the Ohio River. As the Ohio River lessened in importance, so did the incline. The incline is no longer used today, but visitors can see the railroad tracks and hike the trails that run parallel to the incline.
The Madison Incline Plane
is the steepest non-cog standard gauge railroad in the United States and dates
back to the founding of the Madison and Indianapolis Railroad in 1836. Madison Indiana is surrounded by a large set of hills. To move freight
from the interior of the state to the port at Madison, a large inclined plane
was needed to overcome the hills. The plane was built in three sections,
starting in 1836 and finishing in 1841. It is 7,012 ft. long with an
elevation of 413 feet, giving it an approximate grade of 5.89%.1
The Madison and Indianapolis
Railroad was conceived during the period of internal improvements and chartered
Railroad promoters advertised the new line as the cheapest way to deliver
products to the Ohio River. Proponents
saw the railroad as absolutely necessary for the development and growth of
During the early days of railroading in the United States, railroads were
used as feeder lines, allowing more goods to reach rivers, which were the major
highways of their time. They were not
seen as independent transportation networks. This view made Madison a natural
choice for a railroad terminus, as it provided excellent access for the
transfer of goods to the Ohio River.4
The promoters were correct, and in the mid 19th century the
railroad grew the Madison economy. Specifically the railroad’s
transportation of pork from the interior farmlands to the Ohio River helped
Madison become a “porkopolis”.5
Construction began on
September 16th 18366 under the direction of
Thomas Morris.7 The construction took in
two sections. The biggest cut
required one hundred and seventeen feet of excavation through solid rock and
has a length of 1,150 feet.8
The railroad awarded contractors William Stough and A. W. Flint the construction
contract for the first section of the incline.9
During the excavation process, gunpowder would be used to loosen rock,
which would then be carried away in handcarts.10
Labor on the incline consisted mostly of Irish immigrants.
Though the number of laborers varied depending on the report, documentation
suggests between 1000 and 1400 men were used to construct the first fifteen
miles of track. The majority of these laborers
were employed on the incline.11
Between seventy and one hundred laborers built the “big cut”.12
These laborers would be paid fifteen dollars a month and would receive
between “1 and 8 jiggers of whiskey a day” (roughly one to four ounces). The
more whiskey a foreman gave out, the better workers he would get.13 The Irish lived near the site of the incline, and the area today is known as "Irish Hollow".
Motive power on the incline has had three key forms of power. After its completion, teams of horses pulled individual train cars up the incline. Train cars were allowed to travel down the incline by gravity.14 In 1847, the railroad installed a cog system on the incline, and a special geared steam locomotive pushed trains up the hill. This system was not satisfactory, and the railroad moved to replace it.15 The result was the creation of the Reuben Wells, a locomotive heavy enough to not slip when pushing trains up the hill. The locomotive was the basis for all future incline trains until they were replaced by diesel locomotives in 1953.16 Today, the Reuben Wells can be seen in the Indianapolis Children's Museum.
Currently the incline is not in use, but visitors are able to walk along trails installed by the Heritage Trail Conservancy and get a good view of the incline and the stone arch culvert that carries the incline over Crooked Creek.
 Excerpts from the Report of the Principal Engineer to the State Board of Internal Improvement for the Year 1837, Railroad Collection (MC-0012) Carton 1, Jefferson County Historical Society Research Library, 3.
 The Village at the End of the Road, a chapter in early Indiana Railroad History, 17. Madison Jefferson County Public Library, Indiana Collection.
 The Village at the End of the Road, a chapter in early Indiana Railroad History, 20-21.
 Zimmer, Donald Madison, Indiana 1811-1860: A Study in the Process of City Building. (Jefferson County Historical Society, Madison IN, 2007). 60.
 Current Events Club, “History and reminiscences of the Madison and Indianapolis Railroad Company” in Early History of Madison and Jefferson County. Unpublished MSS in Madison-Jefferson County Public Library, Madison, Indiana. 50.
 Sulzer, Elmer. “America’s Steepest Railroad: Pennsy’s Madison Hill Takes Honors at 5.89%”. Railroad Collection (MC-0012) Carton 1, Jefferson County Historical Society Research Library.
 Becker, M.J. The incline plane railroad at Madison, Indiana; its history and operation, 1878. Railroad Collection (MC-00012) Carton 1, Jefferson County Historical Society Research Library, 69.
 Zimmer, Madison, Indiana 1811-1860, 2007. 62.
 Current Events Club, “History and reminiscences of the Madison and Indianapolis Railroad Company” in Early History of Madison and Jefferson County. 42-43.
 Zimmer, Madison, Indiana 1811-1860, 2007. 62.
 Zimmer, Madison, Indiana 1811-1860, 2007. 61.
 Excerpts from the Report of the Principal Engineer to the State Board of Internal Improvement For the Year 1840, Railroad Collection (MC-00012) Carton 2, Jefferson County Historical Society Research Library, 3.
 Elvin, Robert. “Semi Centennial: Railroading Fifty Years Ago, From Madison to Indianapolis, The Pioneer Road of the West”, 1888. Robert J. Elvin Collection (MC-0007), Jefferson County Historical Society Research Library.
 Steinberger, Samuel. Recollections of My First Days as An Apprentice in Machine Shop on the Madison and Indianapolis Railroad, Railroad Collection (MC-0012) Carton 1, Jefferson County Historical Society Research Library, 5.
 Anderson, Phil, Pioneer Railroad of the Northwest: A History of the Jeffersonville, Madison, and Indianapolis Railroad (Jefferson County Historical Society, Madison Indiana, 2013) 23.
 Anderson, Pioneer Railroad of the Northwest, 2013, 24-25.