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All Aboard the Mighty Reuben Wells

In the Lower Level of The Children’s Museum sits an icon—the Reuben Wells. This 35-foot, 55-ton behemoth of a locomotive has been a staple at the museum since the late 1960s. There was a time, however, when the Reuben Wells was the most powerful locomotive in the world. How did it find itself deep within the museum’s core? It’s an extraordinary story.

But first, a little bit of background.

Family visiting the Reuben Wells in the All Aboard! exhibit at The Children's Museum of Indianapolis

The Little Engines That Couldn’t

You’ve heard of The Little Engine That Could. But what if—no matter how hard it tried— that little engine really couldn’t? That’s exactly what happened on a two mile stretch of railroad in Madison, Indiana. At a nearly 6% grade, the incline cut on Madison Hill was the steepest climb for any standard railroad track in all of the United States.

Try as they might, standard trains just could not get up the incline on their own. For many years, they used teams of horses to help pull the trains up Madison Hill. Then they tried a locomotive with a special cog wheel to guide the trains up the hill. This system got the job done, but it took entirely too long.

Portrait of master mechanic Reuben Wells

Reuben Wells, a master mechanic in Jeffersonville, Indiana, had a solution. He decided that a heavy, powerful engine could do the trick. It needed to be heavy enough that it wouldn’t slip down the tracks. It needed to be powerful enough to push trains up steep Madison Hill. The biggest locomotive of its time, the Reuben Wells—named after its creator—went into service in 1868. It successfully escorted countless trains up and down Madison Hill for approximately 30 years.

Historical photo of the Reuben Wells pushing a train up Madison Hill in Madison, IN

One last journey—home

Purdue University took ownership of the hero of Madison Hill in 1905. After making several public appearances, including the 1933–34 Chicago World’s Fair, it ultimately found itself retired in a Pennsylvania railyard.

In 1966, Tom Billings, head of The Children’s Museum advisory board, visited the Reuben Wells in the Pennsylvania rail yard. He decided it was time for this Hoosier hero to return home. Billings contacted a member of the Pennsylvania Railroad board of directors, who told him that the railroad company actually wanted the steam locomotive to go to a museum, but. The Reuben Wells was already promised to a museum in St. Louis.

People associated with The Children’s Museum began to advocate for the Reuben Wells to come to Indianapolis instead.The campaign was successful and they were convinced. In 1967, the Pennsylvania Railroad announced that the Reuben Wells was coming to Indiana!

A hero’s welcome

In 1968, Madison’s heroic locomotive was loaded onto flatcars in Pennsylvania and began the voyage home. The Reuben Wells entered Indianapolis to much fanfare on June 11, 1968. The locomotive was loaded onto a flatbed truck and made its way through Indianapolis.

Historical photo of the Reuben Wells parade to The Children's Museum of Indianapolis

A parade, including the Central Indiana Council Boy Scout Band and a motorcycle motorcade escorted the locomotive on the last leg of its long journey. The Reuben Wells, a Hoosier original, was finally home.

Historical photo of the Reuben Wells being loaded into the train shed.

Museum officials, along with Mayor Richard Lugar, had already broken ground on a brand new building for The Children’s Museum. During construction, the Reuben Wells was placed into the Lower Level of the unfinished building. Once they were safely installed inside, the final wall was bricked up behind it. 

Exterior of The Children's Museum of Indianapolis after construction in 1976

That’s right, The Children’s Museum was literally built around the Reuben Wells. When the modern campus opened in 1976, the mighty engine that had been central to transportation between Madison and Indianapolis had a new, permanent home as an anchor to five floors of fun at the biggest and best children’s museum in the world.

That’s a pretty big role to play. Fortunately, the powerful Reuben Wells is the engine that could.