Purdue Wreck

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Purdue Wreck
Purdue Wreck.jpg
The first coach of the Big Four special, where the Purdue football team was seated, lies crushed underneath the third coach and a coal tender.
Date October 31, 1903 (1903-10-31)
Location Indianapolis, Indiana
Coordinates 39°47′31″N 86°10′01″W / 39.792°N 86.167°W / 39.792; -86.167Coordinates: 39°47′31″N 86°10′01″W / 39.792°N 86.167°W / 39.792; -86.167
Type Train wreck
Deaths 17

The Purdue Wreck was a railroad train collision in Indianapolis, Indiana, on October 31, 1903, which killed 17 people, including 14 players of the Purdue University football team.[1][2][3] Future Indiana governor Harry G. Leslie was initially thought to have died in the accident, but was later revived.


Two special trains operated by the Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago and St. Louis Railway (the "Big Four Railroad") were chartered to carry over 1,500 passengers from Lafayette to Indianapolis, Indiana for the annual Indiana University / Purdue University rivalry football game. It was to be played for the first time at a "neutral" field at Washington Park in Indianapolis. Seventeen passengers in the first coach were killed when the lead special collided with a coal train after rounding a curve at the Mill Street Power House near 18th Street in Indianapolis. Thirteen of the dead were members of the Purdue football team. A fourteenth player died of his injuries in November 1903. During the collision, one member of the team miraculously landed on his feet and was unharmed after being thrown out a window.

Due to a breakdown in communication, the crew of the coal train was not aware the specials were approaching. They backed their train onto the main line just before the lead special arrived. The engineer of the special was able to throw the engine into reverse, set the brake, and jump clear of his engine, but he was not able to prevent the collision.

After the impact, the uninjured passengers in the coaches further back wasted little time in coming to the aid of the wounded up ahead. According to Joseph Bradfield, then a Purdue student 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…”[4] As the survivors of the wreck, including Purdue University President Winthrop E. Stone, comforted the injured and dying, others ran back up the track to stop the next special 10 minutes behind, thereby preventing an even greater tragedy.

Harry G. Leslie[edit]

One of the passengers was future Governor of Indiana Harry G. Leslie. While at Purdue, Leslie was captain of both the school's football and baseball teams and became one of the school's "immortal" players. As one of the school's star players, his team was on course to win the state championship in 1903. Initially seventeen victims, including Leslie, were pronounced dead at the scene and taken to the morgue.[5] Another victim died of his injuries a day or two later.

A few hours later at the morgue, as the morticians prepared to embalm Leslie's body, they discovered he still had a pulse and immediately rushed him to the hospital. Barely alive, he needed several operations and lingered near death for several weeks. His recovery was slow, but he eventually regained his health, although he walked with the aid of a cane for the remainder of his life. He returned to school at the end of 1904 and after another year he graduated with a degree in law. His survival of the Purdue Wreck received significant attention across the state and he became a famous folk hero.[6]


Memorial Gymnasium (renamed Felix Haas Hall in 2006) was constructed in 1909 on the Purdue University campus to honor the memory of those who perished. The stairway leading to the front door has one step for each of the 17 victims. To mark the centennial of the wreck in 2003, a tunnel in Purdue's Ross–Ade Stadium was dedicated to the victims. The Purdue football team passes through the tunnel at the beginning and end of each home game.

Site today[edit]

Although the section of railroad no longer exists, satellite photographs still show traces of the rail bed leading to the accident site. From the northwest, the rail bed passes through the 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. The rail bed crosses to the east side of the canal at Fall Creek Parkway North Drive and continues southeast onto the property of the Republic Waste Services facility.

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 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. 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. It then begins a right turn to the south 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.[7][8][9]

See also[edit]



  • Gugin, Linda C.; St. Clair, James E., eds. (2006). The Governors of Indiana. Indianapolis, Indiana: Indiana Historical Society Press. ISBN 0-87195-196-7.