Indianapolis, Politics, Sports

The Purdue Football Team’s Halloween Train Disaster. PART II

1903-Purdue Part II

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.”
Z purdue 2A 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.
IU Purdue ticket pair leslieWalter 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.

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Governor Harry G. Leslie.

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.

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Aviator Charles Lindbergh & Governor Harry G. Leslie.

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.

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September 7, 1932 Indianapolis Star photo.

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.

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Purdue Memorial Gymnasium

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.

Baseball, Indianapolis, Pop Culture, Sports

“The Purdue Football Team’s Halloween Train Disaster” PART I

1903-Purdue Part 1

Original publish date:  October 31, 2019

It was Saturday, October 31, 1903. The college football season was half over as the Purdue Boilermakers geared up for their annual in-state rivalry game against Indiana University. (The “Old Oaken Bucket” trophy was still 20 years in the future.) The rivalry had started a dozen years before in 1891 and for awhile it looked like a clean sweep for the Purdue squad with the Boilers taking the first 6 games outscoring the boys from Bloomington 227 to 6. Then I.U. reeled off 3 in a row to shock the West Lafayette faithful before Purdue took the 1902 contest by once again swamping the cream & crimson 39-0.
The competition for gridiron glory between these two in-state titans was so hot and intense that, for the 1903 contest, both schools agreed that games should be held on neutral ground to quell “potential hooliganism” on the part of the students and fans. To this point eight games had been played in West Lafayette and two in Bloomington. In the spirit of fair play, officials from both schools decided to play the 11th contest on a neutral field at Washington Park in Indianapolis. Washington Park was located at 3001 East Washington Street where it meets Gray Street (in the southwest corner of that intersection). The ballpark, built in 1900 just a stone’s throw from Irvington, was home to the 1902 defending American Association champion Indianapolis Indians.

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1902 Indianapolis Indians

To get to the new state capital location, both teams joined what seemed like the entire student body as they piled into separate special service trains to travel to the game from north and south of the city. Two special trains, operated by the “Big Four Railroad” (the Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago and St. Louis Railway), were chartered to carry over 1,500 passengers from Lafayette to Indianapolis for the annual rivalry game. Purdue’s team train was cobbled together like a patchwork quilt and included modern steel streamliner coaches coupled to older wooden coaches. The Boilermakers football team rode in the wooden cars at the front of the train procession.
wash park baseball for web 1The train was traveling on what would have been the 101st birthday of school founder and namesake John Purdue (born October 31, 1802). Purdue, a wealthy landowner, politician, educator and merchant, was the primary benefactor of the University. In 1903, if you wanted to get to Indianapolis from either school, you had three choices: ride a horse and buggy, walk or take the train. Since these were the days before automobile travel was popular, train travel was the most widely accepted form of transportation.
It was Halloween in 1903; late October in the Hoosier Heartland. It is hard for our modern sensibilities to imagine those pre-electricity rural landscapes dotted by farmhouses scattered in a wide swath like checkers on a checkerboard. In this era, Hoosiers generally lived in small communities and held tight to their neighbors. News traveled slowly and so did the traffic. As the Gilded age of Mark Twain collided with the Progressive Era of Teddy Roosevelt, it became apparent that something’s gotta give. Safety was an issue in this gargantuan game of rock, paper, scissors where iron and steel trumped wood every time.

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Namesake John Purdue.

In West Lafayette, it was a festive atmosphere and the town was buzzingly, excited for the match up against the Hoosiers. Like I.U.’s Bloomington, West Lafayette draws so much of its identity from their University and the entire community was looking forward to the weekend. Purdue was 4-2 on the season with a big win over rival Wabash College, but losses to Chicago and Illinois. Purdue enjoyed a 7-3 overall advantage in the series against I.U. and was feeling confident. Running at the rate of thirty miles an hour, the John Purdue Big Four special was carrying 954 students and spectators, including the football team, University President and star fullback and team captain Harry “Skillet” Leslie.
z Dq2VB3-XQAA21c8Unlike the raucous fans traveling in the 13 plush, modern streamliner train coaches behind them, the Boilermakers team traveled in relative silence, focusing on the task at hand, mentally preparing for their upcoming rivalry game in the cozy confines of an older wooden train car. Unfortunately, the athletes had no idea that a minor mistake would lead to a major disaster. Railroad protocol specified that “Special” trains operate independent of the regular schedule. Timing was everything in the railroad game.
In the early 1900s, the rail service depended on many human components: conductors and their assistants, dining car stewards, ticket collectors, train baggage men, brakemen, and train flagmen on the vehicle itself and yardmasters, yard conductors, switch tenders, foremen, flagmen, brakemen, switchmen, car tenders, operators, hump riders, and car operators on the ground. In 1903, railroad track “switches” were manually operated by lantern carrying tenders fluent in the language of railway lantern semaphore, which, strictly defined, means the act of waving a lantern as a warning.

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Switchman

Switch tenders communicated with brakemen who most often stood atop boxcars waving happily at his railyard cohorts and locals as the train glided past. As the train traveled down the rails, some of these daredevils ran along the top of the cars, adjusting the brake wheels sticking up from each car as they went. The complexities of switching, congestion, and rearranging cars made freight yards a far more perilous workplace and working on a moving train could be downright treacherous. One railyard superintendent, when talking about his workers, once famously said, “Men are cheaper than shingles. . . There’s a dozen waiting when one drops out.”
The trouble was, this apparent dispensability of railway workers could cause havoc in areas where tracks needed to be switched to avoid collisions. As the Purdue Special steamed towards the Circle City at over 30 miles per hour, a clerk up the line from Lafayette failed to inform the yardmaster near 18th Street in Indianapolis that the trains were coming. The first train, carrying the team, rounded a curve at the Mill Street Power House and saw a coal train being pushed back on the tracks. The engineer immediately slammed the engine in reverse, locked the emergency brake, and leapt off the moving train.
Z purdue 2The Boilermakers never knew what hit ’em. The engine slammed into the coal car, splintering apart the first few cars while folding like an accordion. When the two trains collided, the lead car hit the debris, causing it to shoot into the air. This gave the full impact to the second train car, causing all the deaths. The wooden train cars splintered like kindling and were destroyed, and the adjacent cars careened violently off the elevated tracks, tumbling to the ground below like jack straws.
Z purdue 1The Indianapolis star reported, “The trains came together with a great crash, which wrecked three of the passenger coaches, in addition to the engine and tender of the special train and two or three of the coal cars. The first coach on the special train was reduced to splinters. The second coach was thrown down a fifteen-foot embankment into the gravel pit and the third coach was thrown from the track to the west-side and badly wrecked. The coal cars plowed their way into the engine and demolished it completely. The coal tender was tossed to the side and turned over. A wild effort on the part of the imprisoned passengers to escape from the wrecked car followed the crash. Immediately following the wreck the students and the others turned their attention to the work of rescuing the injured, and by the time the first ambulances arrived many of the dead and suffering young men had been carried out and placed on the grass on both sides of the track.”
z LARGE (1)The fans at the rear of the train were unaware of what happened and only felt a slight jolt as the train came to a sudden stop. These rearmost passengers wasted no time in coming to the assistance of the victims up ahead. The erstwhile revelers skidded to a stop at the scene of carnage and were horrified at the devastation before them. Acts of unselfish action made heroes out of athletes and ordinary people alike.
According to Purdue student Joseph Bradfield who was riding in the procession, “We began carrying the people out, the injured ones. There was a line of horse-and-buggies along the whole stretch there for half a mile. We didn’t stop for ceremony; we simply loaded the injured people into the buggies and sent the buggies into town, got them to a hospital…There was no ambulance, no cars…”
z purdue_football_wreck_8Seventeen passengers in the first coach were killed. Thirteen of the dead were members of the Purdue football team. Walter Bailey, a reserve player from New Richmond, although grievously injured, refused aid so that others could be helped. Team Captain Skeets Leslie was covered up for dead, his body transported to the morgue with the others. It was the first catastrophe to hit a major college sports team in the history of this country. The affects would be felt for decades to come and one of those players would rise from the dead, shake off accusations of association with Irvington KKK leader D.C. Stephenson, and lead his state and country through the Great Depression.

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Harry “Skeets” Leslie.