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Purdue Dedicates Ross-Ade Tunnel To Victims, Survivors Of Train Wreck

"The crowning feature of the preparations for the game was the mass meeting held last evening on Stuart Field. All previous affairs of this nature when compared to the one of last night seem insignificant. Over a thousand students gathered on Stuart Field, and for over an hour the place rang with Purdue yells and songs."
- Lafayette Morning Journal
October 31, 1903

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The Lafayette Morning Journal of Oct. 31, 1903, was packed with stories of the hundreds of fans going to Indianapolis for the big game, of the players and coaches and the lofty expectations of all. Pre-game coverage was complete with the yells and songs to be sung on the train and after touchdowns at Washington Park.

In a gleeful voice, the morning paper told of those making the trip to Washington Park: "The Purdue team, coaches, trainers and substitutes will leave this morning at 8 o'clock on the first Big Four special train for Indianapolis. The entire squad will occupy a private coach and will number over fifty men."

By mid-morning Saturday, the same papers that brimmed with stories of fans and players taking the Football Special to Union Station were printing "Extra" editions to tell of the wreck and the mounting death toll. An early Extra told of the efforts of passengers on the doomed train heading north to warn the second chartered train to stop.

Of the 1903 football squad that rolled out of Lafayette early Saturday, Oct. 31, 1903, precious few escaped death or serious injury in the train wreck that awaited. That day, 13 members of the football team died on the tracks. A fourteenth died in November from his injuries.

The splintered top of the first passenger coach rests atop the coal cars the Football Special struck at 18th Street in Indianapolis. That first coach carried most of the 50-plus members of the team, as well as most coaches.

A memorial edition of the Purdue Exponent, published Nov. 11, 1903, told of the despair that gripped the campus community in the days following the train wreck. That pall of gloom gave way to hope and inspiration, and in the following months students, faculty and townspeople set about raising money for a suitable memorial. The Memorial Gymnasium, dedicated in 1909 and now the Computer Science Building, was the result.

Inspired by the tragedy of Oct. 31, 1903, Memorial Gymnasium was built with funds donated by the Big Four Railroad - whose specials carried the team and fans to Indianapolis that day - and private citizens. For 30 years, it was the home of Boilermaker Intercollegiate Athletics. Today, it is the Computer Science Building.

As Purdue football fans were reading this account in the morning paper 100 years ago today, an engineer was throwing his train into reverse on the outskirts of Indianapolis.

On Oct. 31, 1903, the first Football Special chartered to carry the team and fans to Indianapolis was closing in on Union Station. A second Special followed 10 minutes behind, both crammed with pennant-waving, chanting crowds. Purdue fans numbering more than 1,500 set out see their Boilermakers take on Indiana in the annual showdown in the budding rivalry.

Way up front in the 14-car first train, the Boilermakers themselves occupied the place of honor - the first coach in the first train. The Special clipped along at 40 miles an hour.

A clerk up the line had failed to inform a yardmaster of the approaching trains. As the Special closed in on 18th Street, the engineer rounded a bend to see a coal train being pushed up the main line. He slammed the engine in reverse, set the emergency brake and jumped.

In an instant, scattered about the tracks and the splintered remains of the first car were the players, coaches and staff who seconds before had been gathering belongings to alight at Union Station. A parade, to be led by the band - now trapped inside the second coach lying prone on the hillside - was to end at the Denison Hotel downtown.

A scene of carnage not visited upon Purdue University before or since awaited onlookers who scrambled to the wreck to help. Passengers in the back of the train, who felt a series of jolts but little else as the train came to a stop, beheld their friends and heroes broken on the tracks. Several passengers enlisted the help of nearby surreys to head north to warn the second train.

The exultant, giddy chatter of just minutes before gave way to muffled sobs and the shrieks of the injured. President Winthrop Stone worked his way from the back of the train to the wreckage in front. He had presided at the previous evening's bon fire and pep rally. Within days, he would be in Eliza Fowler Hall on campus, offering eulogies for the fallen.

Of the 17 people killed as a result of the train wreck of 1903, 14 were players. Another was a trainer and another an alumnus, former football standout and volunteer coach. The focus of the day's events - the players and coaches - numbered 60 hearty souls leaving Lafayette. Fully two-thirds lay dead or maimed. Some would recover from their injuries, but many more would bear the marks of that terrible day for life.

One survivor was Harry "Skillet" Leslie. Fullback, team captain and student body president, Leslie suffered grievous injuries in the wreck and walked with a lifelong limp. But he went on from the wreck to finish school in 1907, earn a law degree and eventually be elected governor of Indiana. He is the only Purdue alumnus to reach that office.

Skillet - who also would later head the Purdue Alumni Association - and others set about raising money to honor their fallen friends and classmates. With the help of the Big Four Railroad, funds were raised and, in 1909, Memorial Gymnasium was dedicated to the memory of the 17. Memorial Gymnasium was the first real gathering spot for students on campus and was for years the scene of cotillions and proms, in addition to being the home of intercollegiate athletics for three decades.

To mark the centennial of the wreck of 1903, Purdue will dedicate the tunnel at Ross-Ade Stadium to the memory of the 17 and the spirit of Leslie, President Stone and the Boilermakers of 1903.

The tunnel, whose limestone arches the Boilermakers pass through to play each game in Ross-Ade, will bear a plaque recounting the disaster of a century ago and the indomitable spirit that the wreck and recovery embody.

"A century ago, hundreds of happy fans and students and their football team set out for Washington Park from Lafayette, and well before the game was even to be played, the object of their affection - the team - lay about the tracks," said Morgan Burke, director of intercollegiate athletics, of the tragedy to be commemorated in a video on the Jumbotron on Saturday before the Purdue-Northwestern game. "It's so horrific, it's hard to even imagine.

"One-hundred years later, we're humbled by the opportunity to glorify the heroes who died in the wreck of 1903 and the true Boilermaker spirit they and the survivors represent."

The plaque is being designed and will be dedicated at a home game in 2004.