Original publish date: November 7, 2019
On Halloween of 1903, nearly 600 Purdue fans and players were traveling to Washington Park on Indy’s eastside for the Boilermaker’s annual in-state football rivalry game against Indiana University. On that frosty morning, the boisterous Boiler fans filled 14 train coaches to overflowing. The trains never arrived and the game was never played.
A misplaced message from a telegraph operator triggered a fatal train wreck. A train dispatcher failed to inform a coal train that two trains were hurtling down the main line towards disaster. Fifty-nine miles away from its Big Four railroad depot departure point, the train rounded a curve at 18th and Gray near the Mill Street Power House and crashed into a line of steel coal cars that were backing down the track. The first four coaches were shattered; the second car, containing the team, was split in half. According to the 2002 book, “A University of Tradition: The Spirit of Purdue”, “The floor was driven beneath the gondola and the roof fell across the top of another. Bodies were everywhere … players hung from wooden beams and slowly slipped into puddles of blood. Clothing, footballs, padded jerseys and pennants tied to canes were all strewn along the track.”
A total of 17 people died immediately, including 13 players, a coach, a trainer, a student manager and a booster. One member of the team miraculously landed on his feet and was unharmed after being thrown out a window. All the casualties were limited to the team’s railcar. Twenty-nine more players were hospitalized, several of whom suffered crippling injuries that would last the rest of their lives. Further tragedy was averted when several people, led by the “John Purdue Special” brakeman, ran up the track to slow down the second special train that was following 10 minutes behind the first. This heroic action undoubtedly saved many lives by preventing another train wreck. One of the survivors of the wreck was Purdue University President Winthrop E. Stone who remained on the scene to comfort the injured and dying.
Walter Bailey, a reserve player from New Richmond, was grievously injured but refused aid so that others could be helped before him. Bailey would die a month later at the hospital from complications from his injuries and massive blood loss. Purdue team Captain Harry “Skeets” Leslie was found with ghastly wounds and covered up for dead. His body was transported to the morgue with the others. Leslie would later be upgraded to “alive” when, while his body lay on a cold slab at the morgue, someone noticed his right arm move slightly and he was found to have a faint pulse. Skeets was clinging to life for several weeks and needed several operations before he was out of the woods. Leslie would later go on to become the state of Indiana’s 33rd governor, the only Purdue graduate to ever hold that office. As a reminder of that Halloween train disaster, Skeets would walk with a limp for the rest of his life.
Harry G. Leslie may be the perfect model of what a Purdue graduate aspires to achieve. Born in West Lafayette, on April 6, 1878, he grew up in the Hoosier countryside, his father serving as chief of police for the town for awhile. He attended public schools and worked delivering groceries as a teenager. In 1898 he was elected town clerk at the age of 20, a year after he graduated high school. He soon enrolled in the recently constructed Purdue University where he was made captain of both the school’s football and baseball teams. His personal story of survival from the Purdue train wreck disaster received statewide acclaim and made him a folk hero.
In 1904, Leslie returned to school and founded the Purdue College Republicans before he graduated. Leslie graduated from the Indiana Law School (now the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law) in 1907 and opened a law office in Lafayette that same year. In 1923 Leslie was elected to the Indiana House of Representatives where he became known for his down-to-earth style of speaking. He was elected Speaker of the House, and remained in that position until he left the body. His term as Speaker was dominated by the Indiana Ku Klux Klan. Their leader, D.C. Stephenson, was arrested and convicted of rape and murder in 1925.
Over the next two years many other Klansman were exposed and forced out of office-including nearly half the members of the General Assembly. The Klan had tacitly supported Leslie in his bid for the speakership primarily because they opposed his rival candidate. However, Skeets fought the KKK on several issues and was pleased with the Grand Dragon’s conviction and the collapse of the Klan. Among the causes Leslie championed during this time in the Legislature was the creation of Riley Children’s Hospital.
Leslie ran for the governor’s nomination in the 1928 Republican primary and won on the fifth ballot. Leslie was elected with 51.3% if the vote, making him the state’s fifth consecutive Republican governor. The beginning of Leslie’s term was a period of economic growth for the city and state and he hosted several high-profile events; the National Governors Association and visits by President Herbert Hoover and aviator Charles Lindbergh. Then, nearly 26 years to the day after the Purdue trainwreck that almost ended his life, the Great Depression began on Halloween of 1929, threatening his Governorship.
The stock market crash caused widespread economic failure resulting in factory shutdowns all around Indiana. Unemployment and poverty began in the urban regions and quickly spread to the rural communities. The decreased purchasing power and resulting decreased consumption struck the agriculture industry hard. This was complicated by a statewide drought. For the most part, Governor Leslie did nothing significant believing that the Depression would soon end. In 1932 he vetoed relief legislation passed by the General Assembly which would have been Indiana’s first old-age pension act. As the Depression continued, Leslie began hiring unemployed workers to work on state road projects. He also advocated that his program be duplicated by the federal government, and his plan was soon implemented as the WPA. Among Leslie’s other projects was continuing to grow the state park system. Leslie died unexpectedly from heart disease on December 10, 1937.
The shock of the Purdue Halloween train disaster not only rocked Purdue, but I.U. as well. The intense rivalry was pushed entirely aside as the Indiana University team arrived on scene a few minutes after the wreck to assist in the work of rescue and caring for the injured. I.U. faculty members paid tribute to the fallen Purdue footballers in an open letter as “honorable and friendly rivals, not our enemies,” and likened their shock at Purdue’s loss as “to brothers who have lost the comrades of their day’s work.”
Naturally, the game was cancelled, as was the remainder of Purdue’s season. Many of those killed and injured were among the best men on the Purdue squad and the accident effectively wiped out the entire team. Although Boilermakers all, kids from all over Indiana died that day. From Butler, Veedersburg, Lafayette, Lawrenceburg, Huntington, Noblesville, Indiana Harbor, Spencer, New Richmond, Indianapolis and a few from out of state. Distraught fans speculated that Purdue may never have a football team again. Most fans thought it might take almost two seasons before a team could be put together again.
The Boilermakers would not take the field again until September 17, 1904 in an exhibition game. The first official game was against Indiana and played in Indianapolis on November 12, 1904. Purdue won 27-0. Purdue stunned everyone by going 9-3 in 1904, including a win over traditional powerhouse Notre Dame 36-0, capping a very successful comeback season for the Boilers. Since then, Purdue & I.U. have alternated every game on their respective campuses and have not played a neutral site game since.
Although the section of railroad that witnessed the tragedy no longer exists, traces of the rail bed at the accident site can still be seen in satellite photos. Google Earth shows that, from the northwest, the rail bed passes through Riverside Golf Course and crosses the White River near North White River Parkway East Drive and Rivershore Place. The rail bed continues southeast between Burton Street and the Central Canal Trail, then crosses to the east side of the canal at Fall Creek Parkway North Drive, continuing southeast onto the property of the Republic Waste Services facility.
In today’s Indianapolis, the crash site would be at the intersection of W. 21st and Senate Blvd not far from where the Crispus Attucks museum now stands (between Attucks and I-65). The actual site of the wreck on the original Big 4 route is now mostly buried underneath the sprawling Indiana University Health Methodist Hospital complex. The present-day accident site is bounded on the north by West 21st Street, on the south by West 16th Street, on the east by Senate Boulevard, and on the west by West Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street, West 18th Street, and Mill Street. Prominent landmarks include I.U. Methodist Hospital to the east, the Peerless Pump factory to the north, and an electrical substation on the site of the former Mill Street Power House.
For you present day urban explorers, after crossing West Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street just south of the entrance to the Peerless Pump factory, the rail bed passes between the factory grounds and the electrical substation. There you will find the deadly right turn to the south that continues until reaching Interstate 65. Beyond this point, the rail bed is no longer visible, being covered by the interstate and the west lawn of Methodist Hospital along Senate Boulevard. A map of Indianapolis from 1916 shows the tracks continued south across West 16th Street at Lafayette Street, then along Lafayette Street into the downtown area to Union Station.
If you are looking for traces of the team on the Purdue campus, the school’s Memorial Gymnasium is the best place to start. The gym was built to pay tribute to those who died as a result of the collision. A combination of $5 donations from every senior of the 1903 class and many donations from supportive alumni and partners raised the $88,000 it took to build the gymnasium which was completed in 1909.The plaque outside the memorial states “the appalling event is still considered the worst tragedy in the University’s history.” There are 17 steps-one for each person who died-leading up to the entrance of the building. Although, the building is now home to the computer sciences department, the original entrance still remains, as does the memory of those who died.