The Madison, Indianapolis & Lafayette Railroad (MI&L is the state’s first railroad, dating to 1836, when state legislators included it as part of the Internal Improvement Act.1

The first segment of the railroad to open was a 20 mile segment from Madison north to North Vernon.1 It included “the incline” that began north of the intersection of West Main and McIntire Streets in Madison and ended near Terrace Drive. The incline included a distance of 7,012 feet that rose 412 feet in elevation, giving it a grade of 5.89%, the steepest incline of any standard gauge railroad, line-haul railroad in the nation. Work began on the valley-to-hill route in 1837, and mostly Irish laborers built the steep section over the course of five years. Nearly 500,000 tons of earth and rock were removed, an incredible feat for that time.6 The first train to operate over the track occurred on November 3, 1841 and its manifest included former governor Noah Noble, who was present at the signing of the Internal Improvement Act.

Not surprising, horses were required to pull train cars up the incline as no locomotive was powerful enough for the grade.2 A cog wheel system was implemented in 1848 but abandoned 20 years later when the Reuben Wells engine debuted. The new 56-ton engine was heavy enough to stay on the tracks without the assistance of cogs. At the top, the Reuben Wells would be swapped for a standard locomotive.

In 1853, a project developed by MI&L President John Brough called for a lower grade line, at 4.75 miles long, via a grade west of the city and the Clifty Creek valley.6 The route was to include two tunnels but all work stopped after $309,479 was expended due to financial difficulties.

By 1866, the MI&L became part of the Jeffersonville, Madison & Indianapolis Railroad, which was merged with other railroads in 1890 to form the Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Chicago & St. Louis Railway, which was controlled by the Pennsylvania Railroad. The Pennsylvania Railroad eventually became a part of Penn Central which went bankrupt in 1970.

Downsizing and Abandonment

The Pennsylvania Railroad once declared that short haul passenger traffic was gone and that the only thing that carriers could do was weigh the costs of operating those trains and abandon operations where there was no profit.4 The last run for passengers via a dedicated passenger train to Madison was on August 15, 1935. Afterwards, a coach was attached to the daily local freight operations, although this too ended on October 10, 1938.

In the 1975 Final System Plan for Conrail, which was to take over Penn Central and other bankrupt railroads in 1976, the section of the MI&L between Madison and North Vernon was not included. Aided by the state legislators, who passed a law that authorized cities to operate short line railroads that were less than 50 miles in length,5 the city of Madison acquired the line from North Vernon in 1981 south to save the railroad from abandonment.1 It had originally offered Conrail $500,000, but that offer was declined.5 The city went to court and filed a condemnation suit under the Right of Eminent Domain and the court ruled in favor of the city and the line was sold for just $307,000. Since the purchase, over $6 million has been reinvested on track and bridge improvements.

The incline segment, maintained to service the Clifty Creek Power Plant, was last used in 1992.7 It was refurbished in that year with financial assistance from the Indiana-Kentucky Electric Corporation and was used to haul equipment down to the power plant, but was put out of service shortly after. Elsewhere, a 16.8-mile segment from a power substation south of Columbus to North Vernon was dropped from the Final System Plan and abandoned in 1975.3

The remainder of the line from Columbus north to Indianapolis is now operated by the Louisville & Indiana Railroad, which acquired it from Conrail in March 1994.

Heritage Trail

In 1995, the idea for a trail to connect the hilltop to downtown was conceived as a result of a Total Quality of Life initiative.3 Out of that, plans were announced for a trail a year later. The Indiana General Assembly allocated $435,000 for the Heritage Trail in 1999, and the Build Indiana fund contributed an additional $45,000. Engineering for the 12- to 14-foot wide trail began shortly after.

A contract to grade the first section of trail, from Crooked Creek to the quarry, was awarded to Wingham Construction in 2001.3 That section was paved and opened to the public on September 21, 2002. Not long after, the state awarded the project $1 million in federal Transportation Enhancement grants. Cleanup work of the disused Madison Railroad tracks west of Vernon Street began in 2007 for potential reuse as a rail-to-trail to the top of the hill.3

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Indianapolis to Columbus

Columbus to North Vernon

North Vernon to Madison

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