Given its central location in the United States and relatively flat topography, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Indiana’s railroad legacy is extensive. Starting in the 1830s, Indiana became a corridor to the industry and factories of Chicago and St. Louis and all points west. However, more rails and more trains meant more accidents, long before any kind of regulatory safety standards.
In the fall of 1903, the family, fans, and friends of the Purdue University football team chartered two coach trains to carry the 17 players of the Purdue team and over 1500 fans to Washington Park in Indianapolis, where the Boilermakers would battle the Indiana University’s Hoosiers, a classic rivalry that continues to today. A lapse in communication failed to inform the coach trains that a heavily-laden coal train was being pushed in an opposite direction on the same track.
“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.”
The celebration ended at around 10:00 AM when the first train, seeing the approaching the coal train emerge from a nearby bend just ahead, only had time to tap its brakes before slamming into the coal train’s engine. The force shot the coal train over the lead coach engine, and the trains came to rest in a horrifying jumble of twisted metal, spilled coal, and steam.
Although most passengers were more startled than injured, the coach car just behind the engine suffered the worst fate. The impact sheared it almost in half. Its passengers included the entire Purdue football team any their families. 17 victims—13 of them Purdue football players—perished in the accident.
Immediately after the accident, residents and workers from nearby waded into the catastrophe to assist the injured or dying. A few clear-thinking witnesses hurried north along the track to flag down the other chartered train, which had no idea of the destruction ahead. Removed from the wreckage, the wounded and dead were placed in buggies which hurried to the nearest hospitals.
Who’s to Blame?
The subsequent investigation became a national affair, involving nearly 100 eyewitnesses and several rail companies. Oddly enough, blame ultimately fell on the shoulders of a dispatcher named Bert Byers, located over a hundred miles away in Kankakee, Illinois. The inquest determined that neither train had a chance to stop, nor could have prevented the accident through action of their own.
However, the chief dispatcher at the Illinois office, who had been notified of the two chartered specials heading south to Indy that day, notified only the station master at Indianapolis’ Union Station, not the line managers between Lafayette and Indianapolis. Byers’ lapse in judgement was not considered criminal, so only his position as chief dispatcher suffered.
The site today…
Above photo: This sketch (left) from the November 3rd, 1903, Greenfield Globe diagrams the accident in some detail, including the final and fateful turn just before the collision. Most local historians believe the intersection of Senate Boulevard and the West entrance of Methodist Hospital marks the location of the crash.
Memorializing the Loss
To honor those lost in the wreck, Purdue University built and dedicated its Memorial Gymnasium in 1909. 17 steps, one for each life lost in the tragic wreck, leads to the gymnasium’s east entrance. To mark the 100th anniversary of the disaster, Purdue dedicated a tunnel at Ross-Ade Stadium in 2003, then renamed the Memorial Gymnasium Felix Haas Hall, after the former dean of the School of Science.
Want to Know More?
For anyone interested in uncovering Indiana’s railroading history firsthand, check out this pdf “Travels in Time: Railroading in Indiana” from the Indiana Division of Historical Preservation and Archaeology. This list of historic railroading sites across the state is an excellent way to start your own exploration.
Author’s Note: As a Purdue alumnus, I must add that, had this tragedy not occurred, the 1903 Boilermakers would have certainly trounced IU in that Indianapolis game.
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