The Reuben Wells

Reuben Wells and Madison, Indiana

Picture this: a hill so steep that most 19th-century locomotives couldn’t safely convey freight or passenger cars up or down it. That was the challenge facing railroads and engineers hoping to service Madison, Indiana, which was situated in a valley bordering the Ohio River.

85.4.1, Reuben Wells Steam Engine, Reuben Wells, Jeffersonville Railroad and J, M & I Railroad, Madison, Indiana, Ca. 1868

But in 1868, a stocky wood-fired locomotive named for its designer, Reuben Wells, made its appearance. For the next 30 years it pushed trains into and out of Madison without incident. In the words of one engineer, it was “quick as a cat.” Until it wasn’t.

Retirement and acquisition by the museum

Following its retirement from active service, the Reuben Wells was mothballed, first as a marvel of mechanical engineering on display at Purdue University from 1905 to 1940, then as a relic of the past at the World Transportation Fair in Chicago in 1949 and subsequently at the Indiana State Fair. Finally it disappeared from sight, stored away in a railroad roundhouse in Pennsylvania.

That’s where Tom Billings, chair of The Children’s Museum’s board and longtime train enthusiast, found it in 1966. Though it took a few rounds of negotiations with officials from the Pennsylvania Railroad, which owned the Reuben Wells, Billings and his fellow trustees finally secured the locomotive for the museum.

The Reuben Wells as it appears in the exhibit All Aboard!

Cleaned and refurbished, the Reuben Wells was loaded on a flatbed freight car in May 1968 and transported to Indianapolis via rail line. It was then loaded onto a lowboy truck trailer and driven two miles from the station to the museum, a slow process that drew crowds and attracted press.

Finally, the Reuben Wells was moved from the truck bed onto a special section of tracks inside a newly built train shed. It came with a special addition—a toolcar. Together the pair of gleaming artifacts—officially on permanent loan from the Pennsylvania Railroad—made a dramatic addition to the museum. The train and toolcar became part of the museum’s permanent collection in 1985.

Housing within museum building

While the train shed that first sheltered it is long gone, the Reuben Wells and toolcar remain. The 1976 museum building was built around the Reuben Wells and the toolcar, which were placed on the Lower Level. Today they are part of the exhibition All Aboard!