"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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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.